The expectation that great art should be larger than life goes back to the origins of modernism itself: Beaux-Art frames and salon style (edge-to-edge) hangings gave way to Impressionism, Abstract Expressionism, and other movements that privileged grand gestures and evoked the majesty of nature.
Today, a bigger-is-better ethos stubbornly pervades, particularly in the atavistic field of painting, where working small often means sacrificing not only visual prominence but also higher profits. Yet trading on smallness can be a way to stand out, and some contemporary painters are scaling down.
The following group of painters—who work on modestly sized canvases to emphasize detail, foster emotional intimacy, and challenge conventions of art spectatorship and ownership—comprise a small but mighty minority.
In the heyday of monumental Expressionism, Peter Dreher opted for small scales and mundane, inexpressive subject matter: Beginning in 1974, he painted a water glass in a realistic mode every day, which resulted in his landmark series “Tag Um Tag Ist Guter Tag” (“Day by Day, Good Day”). By the time of his death in 2020, Dreher had produced an estimated 5,000 iterations, each subject perfectly centered on an 8-by-10-inch canvas.
On one hand, in devoting much of his practice to this seemingly rote act of repetition, Dreher negated the artistic mandate to enhance reality. But as installation photography from a 1996 survey of the project reveals, the individual paintings’ modest physicality enabled their awesome cumulative potential.
Suffused with grayscale detail, Julia Maiuri’s 8-by-10-inch paintings of translucent eyes and faces transport and dislocate the viewer. Informed by writer Rosemary Jackson’s theory of enclosure as a necessary device in modern fantasy tales, Maiuri’s technique of her both embraces and challenges her canvases’ constraints. “Rather than depicting the architectural enclosures of Poe or Stoker, the canvas itself becomes a space of enclosure,” Maiuri said, adding that “layering imagery adds an enormous amount of depth.…As a result, I find that the work commands so much more attention and visual space in a room.”
While the layered compositions channel the nonlinear action of a Luis Buñuel film, achieving that piercing clarity on a 2D surface is no small feat: “I apply paint in circular motions—blending, very repetitively, so I can get those really subtle details,” the artist said. “Every month I have to re-up on small brushes.”
Maxing out at 10 square inches, Brazilian painter Adriel Visoto’s most recent paintings take direct inspiration from the big screen. Lifting scenes from films set in New York City—including Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), Larry Clark’s kids (1995), and, yes, Penny Marshall’s big (1988)—the pocket-sized homages cast Visoto in the role of both audience member and outsider. “I’m interested in the object-like quality that paintings of this dimension acquire,” he said. “It’s also a way of creating a more intimate relationship with the viewer since my work deals with issues around intimacy as well.”
Though the artist actually depicts the quintessential “big city” with help from the mass media it has inspired, he has a vantage point: The São Paulo–based painter has never visited New York, and his work favors interstitial shots and anonymizing angles. These strategies layer a dreamlike subjectivity onto the famous source material. In one of the 10 untitled works from Visoto’s 2022 show “Solitude Souvenirs,” the painter depicts the adolescent protagonist of kids from behind. The figure passively leans against a graffitied door buzzer, as if waiting for the next scene to begin.
While some small paintings seem to resist their physical limitations, others embrace them with matter-of-fact immediacy. Such is the case with the work of Mia Middleton, a sculptor turned painter whose single-object still-lifes offer a litany of strange, one-off encounters. Her compositions’ spareness intensifies the one-to-one dynamic of art viewership, and the subjects straightforwardly correspond to the paintings’ titles (for example, slug, shelland bloodall 2022).
Yet Middleton’s work is far from realistic. Her paintings’ monochromatic backgrounds locate her subjects in the cloistered-off realm of the artist’s imagination, if anywhere at all. “Most of my paintings are a composite of photographs, life, and imagined elements,” Middleton said. “Other times, the composition emerges fully formed in my mind, like a vision.”
For the artist Izzy Barber, who was born and raised in New York City, painting from life requires a second pair of hands: “I often paint at night, so I have my boyfriend come along with me,” she explained. “He’s like my bodyguard.” The small sizes of the canvases Barber carts around—about 10 at a time, she said—echo the narrowness of the enclosures (bars, subway cars) she documents, and her rapid brushstrokes channel the harried monotony of the city.
These elements are especially striking when Barber hangs multiple pieces together, as in M&B Trains I (2021–22) and II (2022). Though the paintings often depict busy, detached strangers, their smalls foster a sense of intimacy: “I don’t necessarily scale want to make paintings that demand attention,” she said. “I like the idea that people can actually live with my work.”
Tao Siqi’s small, suggestive paintings conjure grand sensations. Rendered in electric hues and fleshy close-ups, the artist’s human and nonhuman subjects seem perpetually aroused: Tongues and fingertips probe the rounded edges of fruit, while the fusion of a tentacle and belly button provocatively tests the very limits of reality. “I imagine that I am looking at a treasure, portraying it super close, giving it sensitivity and warmth, and making people feel intimate, introspective, and full between those inches,” Tao said of her image-making process.
Just as provocative are her portrayals of cats, which are a frequent, eerie presence throughout the Shanghai-based painter’s work: Challenging a societal fixation on “cuteness,” Tao’s feline figures are as shapeshifting as human desire itself. They may be creepily mutated, as in My Cat (2021), or they might sink their teeth into what could be upholstered furniture or human flesh—in bite (2021), the close crop makes both options quite possible.
Somaya Critchlow, Granddaddy Clock (Power Structures), 2019. © Somaya Critchlow. Courtesy of the artist and Maximillian William, London.
Awash in umber and ocher flesh tones, the figures in British painter Somaya Critchlow’s small canvases exude monumental physical confidence. Her paintings dela seldom exceed a foot in height, yet they radiate with low light and offer moving portraits of Black power. Critchlow depicts her figures with firm, tranquil expressions that both acknowledge and disarm the viewer. Like Mickalene Thomas and Kehinde Wiley, Critchlow borrows visual tropes from the canon of European portraiture—namely headlong gazes and still-life accouterments.
Yet Critchlow’s figures are diminutive, even precious in their mannerisms (for example, holding a “little teacup”), as if designed to both expose and defy the objectifying impulses of the viewer—and of society at large. Critchlow upends any equivalence between size and power in Granddaddy Clock (Power Structures) (2019): The painting depicts a nymph standing next to a much taller, stodgy old grandfather clock (which suggests patriarchal obsolescence), and the nymph steals the scene. As in Lisa Yuskavage’s small-scale portraits of idealized femininity, Critchlow’s casual pinups appear as though through seductive keyholes: We want what they have, while they retain their own secrets and power.
Will Gabaldón’s simple, striking, and naturalistic landscapes embrace picture-planar flatness with playful sincerity. “My landscapes are based on real places, but they are made up.…I don’t paint from life,” said the New Mexico–born painter. “They are more a memory of a place than an actual depiction.” If not for portability’s sake, why stick to 12-by-12-inch canvases, as Gabaldón did for his most recent solo show at Various Small Fires?
Despite having produced works as small as five square inches, Gabaldón seems to resist “size matters” thinking: “If I can get the type of stroke and paint-handling I want on a larger canvas,” he said, “it’s not that different from a small work.” He developed this scale-agnostic outlook in grad school, where distinguishing oneself through size was to miss the bigger picture (so to speak): “Looking back,” Gabaldón said, “grad school was a bit of a size arm’s race.…Our thesis show had everyone making giant paintings.”