Lazy Susan Gallery
191 Henry St.
New York, NY
By JONATHAN GOODMAN, MAY 2017
“Ugly” is composed of the work of 13 artists who belong to Ceres, a women’s collective space in Chelsea. Curated by Stefany Benson, the show elucidates its title in a number of ways—as a means of determining how women are viewed, as a means of looking at unattractive images in a light that might salvage them from contempt, and as a metaphor for the current political situation in America. Installed in the small space of the Lazy Susan Gallery, we find that the works tend to overlap each other and compete for the audience’s attention. But it may well be that the crowded environment is part of the exhibition’s plan. “Ugly” attempts to surpass its very humble origins, as well as claim a greater space for the appreciation of things usually disdained. In fact, it does not quite set out to achieve what it set out to do—not because of any lack of intelligence in the curation, nor because of any simplified understanding of an esthetic devoted to the repulsive, but because the subject matter itself cannot be surpassed, even in the judgment of someone who agrees with the premise of the exhibition. The unattractive remains unattractive, despite the best efforts of anyone determined to make such imagery linger. In the case of this show, it is clear that the women artists deliberately manufactured imageries that at the very least would distance the viewer and, more likely, drive him away.
One inevitably associates the show with the gender wars, which have been continued for several generations now. Implicit in the art is a critique of what is attractive, as adumbrated by the male gaze. Although studies have shown that the perception of female beauty is more or less a constant across cultures and geographies, the women here are intent on showing that a debased esthetic possesses its own intrinsic interest, and can even be seen as something willfully attractive—this despite the conventions of the mainstream. We are living in a time when conventional attitudes toward gender are being forced to change, and a show like “Ugly” proves that this change is moving toward permanence. By extension, visual art has lately rejected deliberate beauty—the term “deskilling” is old hat by now. This is all fine on a political level, and indeed carries weight. But a formal reading, even one sympathetic to the social concerns of the artists, won’t work in light of such an aggressively expressed point of view. If we are sympathetic, we remain in the service of the political position of the show; if we are not, the art eludes the formalist position, which makes it impossible to justify such art in a traditional manner. Thus, the audience is placed in a double bind.
Pauline Chemichaw’s NBC (2017) archival print is about as rough an image as one can find in a photograph. Consisting of a wheeled canvas cart, it is covered with graffiti; the face of the cart is covered with the underlined letters “NBC”; behind the cart is the body of someone resting on the pavement, and behind the person there are steel doors, flanked on the side by bricks; the doors are covered with graffiti of the most unattractive kind: a pair of badly sketched eyes and scrawled tags. It is likely that the cart holds the possessions of the homeless person behind it, so the pathos of the image is irredeemable—as is the blemished imagery communicating the social distress. Pam Roule Shields’ charcoal drawing S_02 (2017) looks like the crotch of an old woman; the pubic hair is stiff and spiky, while the muscles of the inner thighs look weak and tenuous. Rendered with real skill and technical facility, the drawing focuses on the labia of someone older—surely an image of limited attraction! But the point is made that even such a picture carries with it a host of meanings and content. It serves as an emblem of the female body when it is no longer attractive, celebrating its roughness at the same time.
Michelle Stone’s Hybrid 103 (2017) is a small mixed-media sculpture that looks, in its rutted manner, like a variegated Tyrannosaurus Rex. It has claws, and a fierce head with a red comb. The image is truly monstrous, and menaces us despite its diminutive size. Its aggression makes it emotionally ugly as well as being physically so. Judy Werlin’s 2017 sculpture, Crowding—Fertility Study, presents a group of extremely unattractive lizards, bound vertically by a net. The strength of this work is that there really is nothing to recommend its horrific cohort of reptiles. Like many of the pieces in the show, the imagery moves into a place where neither praise nor censure can capture its grievous repulsiveness. Elizabeth Cohen’s Doll 2 (2017) looks like a moribund voodoo sculpture. It is a cat with orange ears, eyes outlined in white, and a body covered with a grid, inside of which are white dots circled in red. There is nothing huggable about it. Finally—not all artists can be mentioned in so large a show—Irina Sheynfeld’s Behind the Veil (2017) offers a mask or veil made up of small circles, whose perimeter is punctuated with white buttons. Behind the mask is a gently curving blue aura, and behind that, a halo of gray hair, again made up of small circles.
The overall impression of “Ugly” is that it refuses to acquiesce to standard notions of beauty. This is a show that exists in pure opposition to established standards of taste. As such, it is hard to fully like. But being liked has nothing to do with the import of the works at hand. Something else is happening—as so often takes place in American art now, a political point is made at the expense of esthetics. The audience for “Ugly,” located in a small gallery on Henry Street, may well feel comfortable with the social implications of its message. But once the content of that message is internalized and understood, there is still the problem of the visuals as they are. How do we grow accustomed to artworks that challenge all conventional attitudes toward splendor? The appreciation of this show’s art must be taken with the awareness that the paintings and sculptures will survive mostly as examples of an esthetic ideology that rejects usual standards. There is nothing wrong with this, but the show’s inescapably raw impression forces it toward the isolation of political doctrine alone. Political art of earlier times was less pointedly scarred in its sensibility—think of the work of German artist Kathe Kollwitz. Although Kollwitz’s imagery remains notable for its beauty, she was able to create truly memorable examples of pain—a subject not usually associated with attractiveness! “Ugly,” by insisting on an ideology of visual alienation, loses the opportunity to fully win over even sympathetic viewers. WM
Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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