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A disquieting day at the art museum

Jaume Plensa, "In the Midst of Dreams," 2009. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Lelong, New York

Size matters. When a traveler in an antique land stumbles upon, let’s say, a sphinx towering from the sands of a desert, a part of the astonishment is the sheer scale of the thing. What impact would Richard Serra‘s Tilted Arc have had if it had been three feet long and sitting serenely on a display table at the Museum of Modern Art?

We’ve gotten used to monumental works, and some of the — what’s the best word: terror? — of the things has leeched out of our reactions. A giant typewriter eraser by Claes Oldenburg inspires other admirations (and, for a rising generation, a bit of head-scratching: what the heck’s a typewriter?), and as the Burj Khalifa pricks the sky 160 stories above Dubai, we think of our own iconic steel giants, the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building, with warm, compact, nostalgic pleasure. Not the biggest of the big, we tell ourselves, but still the best of the big.

Daniel Richter, "royit on sunsetstrip," 2008, oil on canvas, 88 x 67 x 1 inches. The Eugene Sadavoy Collection.Bigness and pleasure struck me the other day as I entered the rotunda of the Portland Art Museum and came face to face with Jaume Plensa‘s massive 2009 sculpture In the Midst of Dreams. Make that face to face to face: Plensa’s lighted polyester piece, 35 feet long and 24 feet wide and more than 7 feet tall, consists of the large heads of three women “buried” on a bed of stones. It’s the first thing you see when you enter the museum’s new exhibit Disquieted, and I thought immediately, “This is the most fun this space has been in a long time.”

Fun? At an exhibition that is built around what its curator, Bruce Guenther, calls “the things that wake us up at nights. … the things that make us mutter in the streets”?
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