It may be an amusing diversion for artists to focus on ugliness rather than beauty for a change. A pursuit of ugliness could be the ideal cover for bad art, which contemporary Indian artists tend to produce in abundance anyway. And a professed aesthetics of ugliness would also give viewers little reason to complain about being loaded with horrendous clichés or set pieces of interior decoration. But for the genuinely gifted, such a project could be an opportunity to push the limits of the imagination, their own as well as that of the viewers.
Curated by Romain Maitra, Pretty Ugly at Bose Pacia gallery (January 11-February 7), included works by a handful of well-known contemporary artists exploring the visual appeal of ugliness. This seemed like a tricky proposition, as the question may well arise whether it is at all possible to conceive of art in terms of such absolute opposition. Beauty and ugliness are almost always two sides of the same coin. Be it in the marmoreal elegance of the statue of Laocöon or in the grotesquerie of Breughel and Bosch, art is replete with instances of beauty and ugliness harmoniously fused into a new whole. Closer home, as also in time, Sukumar Ray’s menagerie of topsy-turvy creatures or Gaganendranath Tagore’s outlandish caricatures appear delightful and disgusting all at once. From Marcel Duchamp’s notorious urinal to Jackson Pollock’s action-painting, there is a long tradition of art aspiring to the condition of artlessness, working against the grain of popular taste.
Stimulating as the idea may be, a quest for ugliness could be susceptible to certain unthinking presumptions. Cluttering up the canvas with dirty colours and sundry add-ons is an obvious trap. Of course, the strategy unfailingly conveys the sense of an unholy mess, but few can probe deeper into the inner mysteries of squalor. Although Samir Roy uses this principle in his mixed-media series, he manages to come up with work that is truly gut-wrenching. A shattered guitar, tiny pouches, an unmoving eye staring out of a background of papery turmoil — Roy’s vision hints at relentless disintegration. He gestures towards symmetry and tries to set up an elusive order, only to destroy ruthlessly, to let his anger dissolve into a vortex of primal anarchy. Roy infuses a brutal energy into a familiar technique, as if to mock the facetious title of the show with a caustic vehemence.
Nidhi Agarwal’s work is also inspired by distortion, and may appear almost tame if seen outside an art-historical context. The Scream (picture) is a clever revisiting of Edvard Munch’s classic. In it, the original angst of Munch’s screamer is revived in the form of a bleakly real anxiety. In Agarwal’s oil, the skeletal face with bulging eyes looks terminally ill, and the dozen or so cigarettes stuffed into its mouth makes it look like a ghastly anti-tobacco poster. Agarwal’s colourful squiggles resembling pots and pans and choppers are less impressive and rather too closely influenced by Matisse, Mondrian or even by Cy Twombly.
Sutanu Chatterjee’s sculpture of an indeterminate creature is eminently forgettable: it looks like anything between a wooden toy and a tribal totem. Shridhar Iyer tries too hard to stay faithful to the theme in his longwinded video installation, The Toilet — House of Dream. Iyer tediously reinvents the toilet as “a palace of dreams”, a place where inhibitions are shed, where perfectly sane people indulge in insane fantasies. Iyer himself is the protagonist of his video. He allows himself to get entangled in a chaos of toilet rolls, splashes about with buckets of paint, totters up a wooden stairwell, and struggles with a long piece of red silk. He creates a mammoth contraption inside the gallery itself, as the video becomes the record of its strange provenance. At every point, Iyer seems coyly self-conscious of his exhibitionism, his each act of madness is perfectly measured in teaspoons and looks contrived to the last bit. It is like an amateur actor trying to portray the mad Lear.
Like Iyer, Samit Das is interested in the surface of things. His photo series of clay idols in various stages of ruin looks striking, but far from insidious. A few compositions, strategically cropped, take on a life beyond what they depict, as in the photograph of the peacock perched on the broken torso of Kartik. And although Jaya Ganguly scales visceral depths in her array of monstrous figures, she has only reproduced her signature style — which is unfortunate for an artist of her calibre.
Rabin Mondal’s misshapen figures against lurid colours and geometric shapes illustrate the theme without quite illuminating it. Jogen Chowdhury, on the other hand, gets to the core of the matter. His seemingly bland images of putrefying fruits, their red flesh and pale seeds resembling decayed teeth inside an open mouth, get to the rot at the core of ripeness.