A new exhibition, “BIG Deal: Sizeable Paintings from the Permanent Collection,” highlights monumental canvases from the Palmer Museum of Art’s permanent collection — many of which have not been on view in recent years.
The canvases on view in “BIG Deal” — all of which measure at least 5 feet in a single dimension — range from abstract to figurative. Drawing on the ambitious scale of academic history painting, several of the paintings explore the narrative potential of the nude figure, while other politically charged works warn against violence brought on by war, the displacement of peoples and cultural conflict.
While the exhibition highlights numerous works created, and acquired, in the 1970s, concerns with size continue to loom large in contemporary art.
Keri Mongelluzzo, doctoral candidate in art history and graduate research assistant at the Palmer, started working with Robinson on an exhibition of paintings from the permanent collection in January. She had to narrow down a list of more than 60 works of varying sizes and acquisition dates.
“Several of the paintings on that original list happened to be quite large, so we opted to curate a show about issues of size,” she said. “Working in the wake of Abstract Expressionism in the 1960s and ’70s, artists tested the limits of the expressive capacity of painted gesture and modulated fields of color at a scale once reserved for academic history painting and mythological scenes.”
Mongelluzzo’s first task as curator of “BIG Deal” was to determine what size constituted a large work of art. Based on the average size of paintings in the Palmer’s collection, she settled on 5 feet in single dimension as the parameter and was able to rule out over half of the works on the original list.
“From there, the four separate sections in the exhibition — abstraction, art and politics, the figure and monumentalizing the every day — came about organically,” she said. “Considering the influence of Abstract Expressionism on so many postwar artists, I began with abstraction and defined the other sections as responses, in a way, to non-representational painting.”
While many of the works on view engage with abstraction, others challenge it as a mode of representation by turning to the human figure or appropriating remnants of popular visual culture to make a political statement.
All 18 paintings in the exhibition are from the Palmer’s permanent collection and were acquired between 1972 and 2010. A number of works were gifted to the Palmer by donors and others were purchased for the collection by the museum.
One of the things Mongelluzzo finds exciting about “BIG Deal” is how even frequent museum visitors will come across a number of paintings in the exhibition for the first time.
“One of my favorite works in the exhibition, Robert Goodnough’s “Adventure” (Comic) from 1963-64, is the largest painting in the Palmer’s collection, at nearly 20 feet across,” she said. “It has not been on view since I arrived at Penn State in 2014.”
One of the key goals for the exhibition was to get visitors to look more closely and come to their own informed conclusions about how size functions in each work.
“In order to encourage that kind of viewing experience, (Palmer Museum curator) Joyce (Robinson) and I made the decision to spaciously install the gallery and limit the amount of didactic label text to a general overview of each section,” Mongelluzzo said.
While some artists employ size to shout a socio-political message, others work at a large scale to explore the limits of painting’s formal properties or highlight commonplace objects and lived experiences.
“It is my hope that visitors to the Palmer will consider the many ways in which artists have engaged with size and scale, both in a postwar context and throughout the history of art more broadly.”
Robinson, curator, will also lead a Gallery Talk on the exhibt at 12:10 p.m. Friday, Oct. 20 at the museum.
“BIG Deal” will be on display through December.
IF YOU GO
- What: “BIG Deal: Sizeable Paintings from the Permanent Collection”
- When: through Dec. 17
- Where: Palmer Museum of Art, University Park
- Info: www.palmermuseum.psu. edu