On Saturday I went to the talk at Royal Nonesuch Gallery in Oakland, curious about what the artists would have to say about their work. Not Much to Look At: New Ugly Paintings (through March 1st). I was especially interested in the question RNG posed: “What is an ugly painting and how does it feel to set out to make one?”
Since Ugly is primarily a judgment word, not an actual descriptor, the range of interpretation is actually pretty wide; in this show, it clearly varied by artist. Jennie Ottinger worked from subject matter. She unapologetically hates pandas. Really viscerally hates them. And Scarlet Johansson, too. So you know what she painted. (Apologies: now whenever I think about Jennie Ottinger, I’ll think of pandas.)
Hung in a loose failed salon style, the paintings in Not Much to Look At ranged from naive (channeling unconscientious childhood…some call that bad, others call it freeing); to wrong (the sum of opposite-of-good-art-practice decisions); to what turns an artist’s stomach; to sincere, inadequate paintings of (artist’s discretion here) ugly things. From what the artists had to say, there was a definite push/pull to stay true to the ugliness of the show. I figure, since we’re artists, if we have our eyes open and we have a history of making decisions in our practice that lead us to satisfaction in our work (I’m assuming), then how can we completely deny the urge to make what we like? if we are trying for Ugly, and we discover we like it, is it still Ugly? I can’t see a way to make something I don’t like unless I close my eyes. Otherwise, no matter how I go about my decision making, I really don’t think I’d be capable of disassociating myself and making something 100% uninformed by my preference for what I want to see from my own hand. My choice for the truly most ugly piece? One that had a red puff paint heart surrounded by hearts. It also had hair in it. So- an overused symbol arranged in a haphazard symmetrical way, made out of cheap plasticky paint that I can picture peeling off, with actual hair pasted in… yes, ugly. Utterly unsatisfying to look at that. Thinking about it even now makes me feel disappointment (albeit, in a funny way). So I guess it was spot on. I have no idea what that artist’s “real” work looks like. But… is that ugly painting not real?
The works in the show ranged in size, material, and substrate; someone pointed out this obvious bit at the talk, and it was worth calling attention to. It was jarring to see it all hanging out side by side on those gallery walls. It forced a gut response. I knew that was kind of the point. It was like I’d walked into a bad student show even though I knew what I was looking at. Or wait. Maybe a good students’ bad show? Or the best work of student artists who don’t know any better… but they might be good someday with a little help? The show was, admittedly, an experiment, and I think it was thought provoking enough to make it a show worth seeing for the idea of artists executing bad paintings. (Bang bang!) It kind of felt more like an art school class assignment than a curated exhibition, but that’s OK with me. It’s an important small Oakland art space, and it curated an experience.
I also liked the points someone raised about the difference between the in-the-know experience (walking into the art opening or talk, knowing the premise) vs the off-the-street experience (walking in, finding something in a painting they liked… then finding out the show was of Ugly Paintings). Between this & the definition of Ugly, there was definitely a “this makes me feel so judge-y” vibe being tossed around. Well, as artists we do make a lot of judgments. We think about art, read about art, make art. Some of us paid (or are paying off) an expensive education hyper-focusing on this art thing. So yes, artists are judge-y. How can I make work I love and not have strong judgements about what I don’t want my work to be?
My takeaway: I liked the questions it made me ask myself: what’s ugly to me? how much does beauty/harmony/satisfaction play a role in my work? how do I know when I’m done? I need to go to more artist talks around here. Correction: I need to start by just getting out more.