Given the recent spate of athlete-created "art" in the news, I was relieved it was Shaquille O'Neal and not Greg Oden or Grady Sizemore who was asked to curate an exhibition for the Flag Art Foundation in New York, especially one called "Size DOES Matter." Thankfully, Shaq's venture into the world of contemporary art does not contain any "self-portraits" of the cell-phone-and-mirror variety. Oh, there are plenty of nekkid bodies, but they are of the classy, artsy type, and we'll get to those in a moment.
Though admitting to being unfamiliar with the artists, Shaq selected works by more than 40 contemporary artists, including heavy-hitters like Chuck Close, Anselm Kiefer, Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, Yinka Shonibare and recent art-scene darling Kehinde Wiley. By basing the show on size, Shaq did not have any limits on subject matter or medium — he's curated a thought-provoking collection that looks at unexpected and jarring size and scale in art.
Shaq's individual taste and personality is present in a lot of the works he selected. Peter Max's portrait of Shaq is big, loud and joyful, like the Big Witness himself. And Shaq selected many works that illustrate his sense of humor. Ivan Witenstein's "The Kiss" portrays two school-age children sneaking a kiss, while the boy gives the middle finger to the viewer. A work by Brian Jungen consists of a mutilated pair of Air Jordans (one wonders if it would have been included if Shaq were a Nike man). "Scout" by Tim Hawkinson, with its long arms and huge hands, would be a great perimeter defender; it just needs to add several inches and a few pounds. And to show he is in on the joke, Shaq included Juan Muñoz's "Two Laughing at Each Other," a sort of Waldorf and Statler for the exhibition.
One area where his own taste and personality is clear is women. It's evident that in this case, size does matter. At least that's the impression one gets from the multiple works — nine by my count — featuring pendulous, heaving, bare bosoms.
Not all of the works evoke cheap laughs or feature things simply blown up or scaled down in proportion. Ron Mueck's "Untitled (Big Man)" is one of the works that Shaq was especially excited to have in the show. It shows an enormous nude man sitting with his head in one of his hands. The defeated pose and unavoidable nudity reveals vulnerability and weakness unexpected in a man of that size. One can hardly avoid wondering if Shaq feels some sense of empathy with the exhibition's other Big Man. "Untitled (Terminal Stage)" by Richard Dupont consists of three more-than-life-sized nude men walking in a small circle. The technique in which the figures are cast makes them appear fuzzy and unfocused to the eye. This effect creates a sense of dissolution — that the figures are only passing through our space for a short while more.
Wiley has made a national name for himself with his portraits of contemporary African-Americans in poses from previous historical eras. His Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five shows the hip-hop crew in costumes, settings and poses from Renaissance Italy. The sense of size does not come directly from the dimensions of his painting but from the confidence and power given off by the subjects.
Because of his schedule, Shaq chose the works from photographs, which is problematic because sense of bigness or smallness is lost. It's one thing to see a large portrait of a head in a photograph; it's completely different to see it framed on a wall, in context. Many of the small works are so small they can only be viewed close-up, which removes them from any comparison with other works. Similarly, most of small-scale sculptures are placed in the corners of rooms to avoid trampling, but this too removes them from any frame of reference.
The gallery space itself resulted in some unsatisfying placements within the installation. The works are spread over several rooms on two floors, and while this does allow an uncluttered look at individual works, their overall placement within the show tends to be lost. The purpose of the show is to investigate size and scale, and while almost every work achieves that on its own, the overall sense of the show is confused by the sheer number of works over so many rooms. Independently, the works of art are provocative and surprising, but even a 10-foot table loses some of its shock value when it is preceded by a giant box of Excedrin.
"Size DOES Matter" proves exactly that, but perhaps not in the way it intended. At the very least, Shaq has proven there are no limits to the side jobs he's willing to add to his résumé. Sometimes big is too big, and for those who are not 7-foot-1 and 320 pounds, that can be a reassuring thought.
John McQuaid is a native Clevelander received his B.A. in Art History from Case Western Reserve University and did his PhD work at the Ohio State University.