As art critic Lucy Lippard has observed: “The ‘ugly’ turning ‘beautiful’ in the public eye through a process of familiarity is a cliché of modern art appreciation which boils down to the unexpected (and therefore the temporarily unacceptable) becoming acceptable.”
Architect Frank Gehry, whose 20-year retrospective opened in October at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, is notorious for clothing his buildings with corrugated metal sliding and chain link fencing. Pundits have extolled his work as “powerful, brutal, ugly-beautiful.”
Back in the 60s, Pop artist Jasper Johns used to make large lithographs of Ballantine ale cans. Though a venerable symbol in some circles, they’re nothing much as compositional harmony nor esthetic coloration. Johns emphatically reaffirms his enmity toward “retinal” art—art that appeals mainly to the eye. “In any medium, I’ve never wanted a seductive quality,” he has flatly stated.
Sculptor Eva Hesse’s organic and tendril-like work was even characterized as Pathetic Objects—“The more you look at them” one critic equivocated, “the uglier and more interesting they become . . .”
Why would a heralded architect choose to incite the horror and reprobation of the neighbors? Why would a painter disavow the seductive properties of his medium? Why would a sculptor working in graceful materials want to render them ugly?
The word ugly comes from the Old Norse word for fear. It is a sense of trepidation, of risk, of the critical edge that intrigues artistic sensibilities.
The “sense of beauty” has always been a prerequisite for crafts. Potters fitfully seek the perfect glaze recipe, jewelers the correct faceting of precious stones and glassblowers the glimmer of refracted light trapped in their limpid material. But dealing only with esthetic stereotypes is like speaking in clichés; they often need to be reinvestigated.
Gehry explored the dichotomy of raw materials in “finished” construction. In his own house he stripped the interior of an old building down to its draming and left it that way, then built a new structure around it. Johns in his two-dimensional subjects, such as flags, targets and numbers, contested the illusion of paint. If he wanted to incorporate a three-dimensional form such as a broom, he would simply get a real broom and attach it to the canvas. Hesse used taboo materials such as latex, fiberglass and plastic for the ambiguity of their “near-ugly delicacy.”
Which brings me to J. Fred Woell. While we were setting up the cover photo for this issue, someone in the photographer’s studio remarked at the amazing transformation of corrugated cardboard when used as a backdrop to Fred’s piece. Intrinsically, Fred’s work, comprised of common, everyday junk, cannot be construed as “beautiful.” It is disarming, disconcerting, to a degree even disgusting—the two-dimensional rendering of a bag lady’s collection. It incurs dismissal from fear of refuse, fear of ridicule, a revolt of the esthetic sense. But one is compelled to look again, to see the work in different lights and different contexts on a variety of levels—a path that leads from disgust to recognition to insight.