Jesus Christ. This shit is fucking ugly.
That’s the immediate thought I had upon clicking on the installation views of the current exhibition Painting in New York: 1971-83 at the two Karma spaces on 2nd Street. My eyes watered staring at squiggles of bold yellow paint resembling squirts of yellow mustard on a hot dog while unseeing button eyes globbed over with burnt orange paint stared back. Bile yellows. Whiskey-soaked muddy browns. Coughed-up blood reds. The color palette looked like something heaved into a toilet bowl, upchucking the sins of last night’s excess. And worst of all, many of these eyesores were enormous—grand gargantuan twisted sculptural canvases turning into huge heroic monuments to hideousness.
No, this isn’t an essay about how I eventually visited the show and reconsidered my small-minded, pretty-clinging hang-ups and learned to love the beautiful formal qualities in abstractions with the hue of slicks of garbage left in the wake of the morning trash collectors on Avenue C. No. I, instead, found myself completely and utterly moved by the works in Painting in New York: 1971-83 because of how aggressively, unabashedly, and even, misanthropically ugly they were.
As a disclaimer, it’s important here to distinguish the difference between ugly art and bad art, an easy kind of conflation that even the celebrated Marcia Tucker didn’t seem to distinguish in the catalog for the New Museum’s 1978 “Bad” Painting exhibition when she wrote: “Thus, ‘bad’ painting or ‘ugly’ painting is defined according to and in opposition to the canons of classical or ‘good’ taste, an extremely limited category…” While both bad and ugly painting revolts against the tyranny of good taste, in my view, all bad painting might be ugly, but not all ugly painting is bad. Most of the works in Painting in New York: 1971-83 fall under the latter category: skillfully ugly.
Granted, ugly doesn’t seem to have been the intention of the exhibition, at least according to the show’s press release. As indicated by its title, the exhibition, curated by Ivy Shapiro, is a collection of women artists who painted in New York during the second-wave feminist 1970s and early 1980s. What will most critics latch onto as a theme of the show, I wonder? You guessed it: underrepresented artists, mainstream publications’ favorite art clickbait. Not that many of these names are all that unknown—Joan Semmel, Ida Applebroog, Faith Ringgold, Louise Fishman, Howardena Pindell, Pat Steir. Many have had major retrospectives and/or are currently represented by renowned galleries. Regardless, I’ll give you that they still mainly exist at least in proximity to the margins, unlike many of the men of that era. And most of them only garnered the art world’s respect, as most women do, well beyond menopause.
The press release speaks of the show in terms of the activism of the period, mentioning “consciousness-raising groups,” artists collectives and artist-run spaces like “Where We At” Black Women Artists, Inc. and A.I.R. Gallery, and protests about the dearth of women artists at the Whitney Museum and MoMA. Yet, unlike recent exhibitions of these same artists such as Faith Ringgold: American People, Painting in New York: 1971-83 doesn’t bother shoving any archival material into vitrines—no open letters, no meeting notes, no detritus from activist meetings to squint at. Despite calling the show “a portrait of painting during a time of political and aesthetic revolt,” the works on the walls leave almost no indication of this revolt, other than their firm rejection of the demand to be aesthetically pleasing.
It’s hard not to read the press release and wonder what kind of show Shapiro thought she was curating. Did she mean for it to be a testament to the power of uggos? Nevertheless, archival material would serve a purpose not particularly needed. The radicality of which the press release speaks is imbued in the work—in the menstrual blood reds, the puke greens, and the dumpster seepage browns. Most of the paintings consist of abstractions, though the paintings that aren’t are almost equally confrontational in their horrid embrace of Midwestern thrift store art or Cabela’s aesthetics like Ree Morton’s Regional Piece or the unwaveringly mundane such as Sylvia Plimack Mangold’s Untitled that depicts the hardwood floor of an empty room. Mangold doesn’t even permit viewers a scenic gaze out the window.
I won’t claim that all of the works in Painting in New York: 1971-83 are crimes against good taste. Two of Faith Ringgold’s painted Windows of the Wedding quilts gorgeously combine geometric abstraction with the legacy of Black quiltmaking, made even more resonant and personal knowing these works were created in collaboration with Ringgold’s own mother, fashion designer and dressmaker Willi Posey Jones. She also helped construct the costumes on Ringgold’s soft sculpture, Juanita, Eddie and Caron, a small family holding hands that reminds me of a less surreal version of Marisol’s own painted wooden families.
It’s not all family values, though. There are also the overwrought suburban tragedies set on the stage of a curtain-flanked living room in Ida Applebroog’s uncomfortably fleshy vellum works. The unease I’ve always felt about Applebroog’s material that looks as if it was stretched skin from Buffalo Bill’s basement is only heightened by the unnerving scene represented in I Feel Sorry For You. A pregnant woman is tied to a chair; her arms held behind her back. It’s hard not to see poor doomed pregnant Sharon Tate in the early morning hours of August 9, 1969 at 1050 Cielo Drive. The undercurrent of violence is disturbing, certainly. But not ugly per se.
Applebroog’s taut skin canvases juxtapose nicely with Joan Semmel’s bodies as seen in Erotic Yellow. Unlike Francis Bacon’s distorted lumps of flesh, Semmel’s bodies do have some bare semblance of bone structure yet they celebrate the curves, dimples, and ridges of the body. In Erotic Yellow, Semmel portrays, what seems to be, an interracial couple laying back in a nebulous piss yellow background—the woman’s long-nailed hands hovering over the man’s balls and taint. Amusingly, Shapiro displays Erotic Yellow in the gallery’s window space. Nothing like a quick glimpse of a flaccid cock on a stroll down the street! At least one that’s not being exposed by a flasher! And while we’re on the subject of urban blight, Martha Diamond’s nearly abstract Flame depicts a pink burst of fire splitting apart two rounded white buildings that look as if Philip Guston traded hooded figures for architecture. With its random jets of flame, Diamond’s painting is pure Lynchian. Ominous and dreamy.
Yet these works are certainly in the minority; most of the show is aesthetically nauseating. Take Cynthia Carlson’s delightfully titled Bitchy Virgin boasting the aforementioned mustard squeeze that frames old chewing gum-like globs of colorful paint strewn against a wet cement blueish-grey background. Yuck. Or Harriet Korman’s Untitled, an uneven grid of colors that look as if a crayon box was left in the rain and found by a small child who tried to render eye floaters. Or Helen Marden’s Untitled. I mean, what am I even looking at? An Illuminati ant?
On some level, this has to be a conscious curatorial decision on behalf of Shapiro. Or, if not, it speaks to some inner antagonistic urges that I’d encourage her to fully embrace. What makes me suspect the former is the surprising yet refreshing choices of garish art by artists that are startlingly different from their more well-known styles. For instance, I associate Jane Kaplowitz with cheeky and often quite gay pastel-colored recreations of invitations and menus, a frothy gesture towards hosting at the center of NYC’s art society scene with her husband, art historian Robert Rosenblum as seen in the Fortnite Institute’s exhibition RSVP Jane Rosenblum (1977-2018). There are no silly lesbian seagulls here. Instead, Shapiro exhibits Kaplowitz’s series of works on paper rendered in motor oil. While one of the pieces is more structured, resembling stalactites, the other—and the one I couldn’t tear myself away from—looked as if someone guzzled the liquid and spit out gob-fulls onto the paper. Of course, one could analyze Kaplowitz’s use of motor oil as a kind of feminist reclamation of traditionally masculine car culture. Yet, I had just watched an episode of Ryan Murphy’s Dahmer–Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story in which the serial killer as a child pours motor oil into a jar of tadpoles. So my analysis took a, uh, darker turn.
The aesthetics of cruelty are also present in Dindga McCannon’s Dead for Naught or Killed in Action in Vain. I relate Dindga McCannon, who, like her fellow “Where We At” Black Women Artists, Inc. cofounder Faith Ringgold, has experienced a surge of interest and praise in the past several years, with not only fantastically patterned quilts but bold, brightly colored and deftly rendered often joyful lanky angular Black figures. Instead, Dead for Naught or Killed in Action in Vain features a woman with possibly three children, though one figure resembles a blue and yellow Slenderman. With the mother figure’s eerie sewn-on button eyes, this mixed-media painting is probably the most overtly political in the show, responding, I assume given the date, to the wreckage left after human lives are thrown away to the Vietnam War’s endless quagmire. The figures are even more haunting in their childlike renderings as if drawn from the memory of a child who lost a father. War is ugly. And so is this painting.
While McCannon’s painting made me do a double-take, it had nothing on Joan Snyder’s Vanishing Theater/The Cut. A Jackson Pollock-sized monstrosity, Snyder’s canvas is separated into three sections or if we go with its theatrical title, acts. These three acts are laid out for us by the artist in the top left-hand corner: “Part I Lament w Words,” “Part II Vanishing Theatre/The Cut,” and “Part III Take your clothes off lady and let’s see who you really are.” Distressing. Though it’s hard not to get stuck trying to decipher the ecstatic speaking—or really, writing—in tongues on the left side of the canvas, the central image—the vortex, which sucked me in—is an enormous slash down the center of the clotted blood-colored canvas. A great tear. A rupture. A giant slit, if you will. And yes, vaginal comparisons are unavoidable, especially after noticing the paint-slicked mat of pube-like black fake fur stuck unceremoniously to the canvas like a merkin. Finally, on the right side, Snyder fractures the painting into a grid that looks as if it’s been splashed and splattered with bodily fluids like a stained mattress.
Standing in front of Snyder’s painting, located at the very back of Karma, I found myself unexpectedly deeply and utterly affected by its sheer unsightliness. According to an interview with Snyder for The Brooklyn Rail, this painting “was as much about the conflicts of my sexuality as it was about the vulnerability and coming to terms with loss and letting go.” Alongside this vulnerability, though, is a palpable rage. This painting is furious—a kind of explosive and expansive feminine rage that I am drawn to in horror films like Ari Aster’s Midsommar and more recently, Ti West’s Mia Goth-driven Technicolor tour-de-force, Pearl. And one I wholly relate to. Vanishing Theater/The Cut presents an aggressive refusal—a refusal to be beautiful, a refusal to be enjoyed and savored, and a refusal to exist politely in a gallery or a collector’s home.
Now, I’m certainly not the first critic to praise “ugly” paintings. Every couple of years, a critic writes an article in celebration of the repulsive. Yet many of the works named in these articles never seem to me to actually be ugly. For instance, in Katy Kelleher’s “Ugliness is Underrated: In Defense of Ugly Paintings” in The Paris Review, she names Hieronymus Bosch, whose hellish paintings are certainly alarming, but not necessarily ugly. Similarly, Charlie Fox in his 2017 New York Times Magazine article “The Beauty of Ugly Painting” pinpoints the cartoonish Laura Owens and high fan art of Sam McKinniss, which to me seems more kitsch than ugly. Yet some of the analysis remains relevant. As Fox describes, “Ugly art is sloppy, wild and, yes, transgressive, exciting confusion and joy because it abandons commonplace ideas of what is — and looks — pretty. This is not a question of being merely grotesque, but daring. It’s a philosophy that harks back to Tristan Tzara, Dada’s chief theorist, who in 1918 trashed beauty as ‘a boring sort of perfection, a stagnant idea of a golden swamp.’” A golden swamp, indeed, a vivid image that, to me, is a perfect description of, for a lack of a better phrase, the art world.
Speaking of, much of my awe with Snyder’s painting, as well as Painting in New York: 1971-83 as a whole, has to do with the circumstances of my viewing. When I visited Karma on a late weekday afternoon, I was the only woman in the gallery, surrounded by three or four suit-wearing men, presumably collectors, orating to each other about the art’s formal qualities as if their loud interpretations somehow solidified not only its meaning but its worth. A lot has changed in the decades after these paintings were made, but a whole lot more hasn’t. Hovering in front of Vanishing Theater/The Cut, in a leather jacket over a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds T-shirt (it WAS Nick’s 65th birthday after all), I was hyper-aware of how much I stood out like a sore thumb. I did not belong, despite hovering around the art world’s periphery for over a decade now. Quite purposefully. I don’t ever want to be one of those people.
And if we understand the ugly paintings on the walls of Karma as staunch negation and repudiation, neither did these women.