Sunday, December 17, 2023

The Case For Ugly Art

I did a search of my Missives and in the past 14 years, I have used the word “ugly” in less than 2% of them. One of my schoolmates, way back when said, “The Evil is in the mind of the beholder”. That goes for the word “ugly” as well. How often have you seen a couple and you think one of them is so good looking how can that individual be with that ugly person? Obviously, that is not how they see each other.

We have been taught to think of art as beautiful in one sense or another even though that term is now often disparaged. When we see unpleasant subject matter such as Judith Slaying Holofernes (ca. 1616-1618) by Artemisia Gentileschi (1593- ca. 1656) we can still react to it as a beautiful painting.


This past July Ayanna Dozier published an article, “Why ‘Ugly’ Paintings are so Popular” in the on-line “artsy.net”. It delves into an exhibition at Nahmad Contemporary in New York called “Ugly Painting” curated by Eleanor Cayre and Dean Kissick. Their definition of ugly painting is artists who make “deliberate use of grotesque, garish, or abject styles of brushwork, representation, composition, or coloring to form a singular vision. Painting that is bold, confrontational, and confident, rather than pretty, decorative, polite, conservative, or overly realistic.” Of course, they are just speaking of contemporary art. One of the paintings in the show by Connor Marie, called “Pork, 2023” is an unpleasant commentary but beautifully painted.


They go on to say, “Ugliness can be powerful, moving, and even sublime. Many great historical works were considered unpleasant in their time because they broke with convention or simply because they were extremely grotesque.” A prime example is a painting I have reproduced before titled “The Ugly Duchess” (circa 1513) by Quentin Massys (1466-1530) in the National Gallery in London.


Do we have to rethink what is ugly and what is beautiful or are they just part of a single spectrum?

Willem de Kooning’s “Woman 1” (1950-1952) is an example of what could be deemed ugly. I had a professor who said Willem de Kooning (1904-1997). painted women as if they had fallen out of a third-story window. In this painting, we can hit all the points that Cayre and Kissick make, and by that measure, I would tend towards ugly!


I could go on and on with subjective thoughts on what is ugly in art. Next time you visit a museum or a gallery and have an initial visceral reaction to a work of art consider where you would put it on the beautiful/ugly scale and see it through different eyes.