Polemically Small on Paper

23 June - 22 September 2012

To complement the Polemically Small exhibition at Orleans House Gallery, the Riverside Gallery is showcasing a range of works on paper by the same artists.

Gavin Nolan 'Tesseract' Graphite and ink on paper 2011

About the exhibition

Polemically Small, curated by Zavier Ellis and Edward Lucie-Smith, is based on the idea that small works of art are often more powerful in their effect than big ones. Certainly they require a different, more focused attention from the spectator. The exhibition consists of work by 50 younger British artists, paintings and works on paper, and offers a panorama of the current London art scene, currently the liveliest in the world.

If we look at the art of the past, art earlier than Modernism, we find a mixture of big art and small art. The big art was almost invariably produced for absolutely specific purposes – never on spec. It adorned churches and palaces. It offered a focal point to a public square. Small scale art was sometimes produced without a patron in mind, simply for the market, as most art is produced today. Many of the great masterpieces of the past are disconcertingly small. Portraits by Van Eyck and Memling. Religious paintings by Antonello da Messina. Some, though not all, of Rembrandt’s self-portraits. Samuel Palmer’s landscapes of the Shoreham period. Even the Mona Lisa. They need to be looked at in a different way from wraparound art – slower, more contemplative – dare one say it? – more loving.

This exhibition is meant to do two rather ambitious things within a physically small space. First, to suggest that contemporary art is changing, and changing rather faster than usual. An important part of this change is the rebellion against huge size. Artists are making small work not because they are forced to (though in some cases that is increasingly true), but because they actually want to – because small art, in current conditions, is actually cutting edge, and delivers a new and dissident message. “Look at me in a different way,” it says. Secondly, linked to this, the show invites visitors to explore, on their own terms, how this different way of looking functions, and what it may possibly deliver.

Updated: 26 April 2017