New York

“The Curse of Bigness”

Based on its title, “The Curse of Bigness”—an intriguing if inconclusive group show currently at the Queens Museum of Art—would seem to want to align itself with both politics and pedagogy: The phrase was coined in 1914 by Louis Brandeis, the social crusader and later supreme court justice, to instruct about the perils of the era’s overweening concentration of financial and industrial power in the hands of the few. Coming as it does out of a fairly particular historical context—glossed in an introductory note written by the show’s curator, Larissa Harris, and fleshed out at (great) length in a kind of accompanying “textbook” by the artist team Dexter Sinister—the title might well lead one to expect a consideration of contemporary practice routed through Progressive-style critiques pertaining to corruption and equality. But in the end, such large-scale didactic aspirations turn out to be rather beside the point. What viewers get instead is a looser and more granular, if still engaging, consideration of various manifestations of big and small, of simple and complex, of the concentrated and the decentralized.

Part of the challenge is that questions around the ethics of scale don’t actually map as neatly onto artistic praxis as one might initially think—both the cast of characters and the operative structures of production and dissemination are different enough to frustrate attempts at bright-line analogies. As if to acknowledge the complications inherent in following such a pointed thesis to its conclusion, the show also welds onto its framework more neutral ideas of physical size, referencing QMA’s role as guardian of such little/big historical treasures as the Unisphere and the Panorama of the City of New York, as well as its in-process fifty-thousand-square-foot expansion.

The difficulty in pinning down just exactly what constitutes “bigness” in this context also produces a concomitantly variable definition of its dialectical companion. Resourcefulness, creative nimbleness, and emphatic handmadeness are certainly cornerstones, and any show with a sufficiently catholic conceptual framework to embrace the flame-belching nihilism of Survival Research Laboratories (represented here by two predictably grainy and chaotic films documenting their harrowing performances and one film depicting jerry-rigged machines), craft-table bricoleurs such as puppet troupe Great Small Works (who contribute a series of earnestly homespun miniature stage sets for their agitprop productions), and nostalgic cottage industrialists like J. Morgan Puett (whose cluttered mini–garment factory is on select days staffed by live performers engaged in cryptic artisanal activities) deserves, at the very least, credit for expansiveness. The few discrete artifacts included occasionally seem uneasily bent to the aims of the show’s conceit: Among these are Karin Campbell’s Saint Thecla, 2010, an accomplished but thematically inexplicable suite of four almost identical photorealist paintings of a metallic bust; and Jessica Rylan’s NanoQMA, 2010, a scale model of the museum nestled within the little QMA building on the Panorama whose microscopic tininess (four hundredths of a millimeter wide) was achievable only in collaboration with the Laser Zentrum Hannover, a research institute set up by the distinctly un-nimble-sounding German State Ministry of Trade, Industry, Technology, and Transportation. But Hiroshi Sunairi’s Elephant, 2010—a slumped pachyderm fashioned from tree branches pruned in nearby parks—does make a sweetly low-key argument for the pleasures available in materials close at hand.

Working with what’s literally available is also at the core of the show’s two most affecting projects. Dennis Oppenheim’s 1971 film 2-Stage Transfer Drawing (Advancing to a Future State)/2-Stage Transfer Drawing (Returning to a Past State) depicts the artist and his son engaged in a performance in which one draws a design on the other’s back while the person being drawn on attempts to recapitulate the image on the wall. It’s a strangely touching conceptual experiment leavened with a dose of slapstick, something explicitly nodded toward in Guy Ben-Ner’s characteristically amiable Wild Boy, 2004. The video, which stars the artist’s young son, Amir, as a feral foundling, plays off both Truffaut and Buster Keaton in its (literally) kitchen-sink realism: The mise-en-scène of the entire project is the Ben-Ner home, where the bathroom, the living room, and the kitchen all become terrain for a project that, like the show itself, is finally less about the evils of the big than about the virtues of the small.

Jeffrey Kastner