LA Expanded

Ugly Painting Competition

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A column by Catherine Wagley

Ken Price, "Hunchback of Venice" (2000), acrylic on fired clay, 14 ½ x 29 x 13 inches. Photo by Fredrik Nilsen. Courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

When LACMA curator Stephanie Barron arrived in the galleries of the museum’s new Ken Price (1935-2012) retrospective yesterday morning, she saw three women bent over trying to get a look underneath Price’s sculpture The Hunchback of Venice. The sculpture is one of the first you see when you enter the show. “Apparently, they got the memo,” Barron said last night, speaking out back behind the galleries with Thomas Houseago. The two were having what would have been a tête-à-tête on Price if not for the medium-sized audience seated on chairs on a concrete slab.

Price’s Hunchback, made in 2000, is a really funny, awkward looking orange and green organism-like thing. It has a skinny nose that curls up on one end, an arched tummy — or back — in the middle and a round, squat behind on the other end. Underneath the middle part, Price painted the sculpture a fluorescent purple. Bend over, and you should be able to glimpse it: the beautiful, bright-colored underside of an ungainly splotched body.

Hunchbacks are supposed to be ugly. Isn’t that the whole point of the Hunchback of Notre Dame story? The ugly being has run-ins with beauty but is fated for tragedy. Only, as soon as Victor Hugo published the novel, the Hunchback had our sympathy and his name became synonymous with lyrical storytelling.

Price’s Hunchback is singular and arresting — it looks like nothing else — which makes it really hard to think of it as ugly, unless you’re of the “what I don’t relate to repels me” school.

Sheila Heti, Ryan Kamstra, Sholem Krishtalka, Margaux Williamson. Photo by Lee Towndrow, via Paris Review.

I’ve been thinking about ugliness and art because I just finished Toronto writer Sheila Heti’s fictionalized memoir, How Should a Person Be? It’s book-ended by an “Ugly Painting” contest. The challenge is issued at the book’s beginning, when Heti and her friends are at brunch:

I remember none of the details of our conversation until the subject turned to ugliness. I said that a few years ago I had looked around at my life and realized that all the ugly people had been weeded out. Sholem said he couldn’t enjoy a friendship with someone he wasn’t attracted to. Margaux said it was impossible for her to picture an ugly person, and Misha remarked that ugly people tend to stay at home.

These are a few of the sordid fruits that led to the Ugly Painting Competition.
It is decided that Margaux and Sholem, both painters, will compete to see who can produce the ugliest painting. It takes until the very end of the book for Margaux to finish her ugly painting — Sholem does his much more quickly. In the last section, the same group that brunched together gets together to see and critique the two paintings. They flip a coin to see who will go first. It’s heads, and Sholem unveils his painting. He had done everything he hated most about what his painting students did. The group agrees its ugly and unpleasant to look at. But unpleasant seems to mean uninteresting to look at or think about, because Heti offers no observations or compelling thoughts about the ugliness Sholem has produced. Margaux goes next. Her painting is called Woman Time. She tries to explain the feelings that preceded it:
Well everything I like is ugly-beautiful. For me, what’s truly ugly is, like, tight blue jeans with a cowboy boots and a lot of makeup — restrained things. That’s really ugly — or like a really detailed drawing of a rocking horse. I think anything tight is truly ugly for me. Not ugly for the world — people love that — but it just looks awful to me. It looks like death.

She didn’t know how to make that ugliness into a painting, so she just worked instinctively. Yellow and black seemed ugly to her and she used those colors, then the painting became vagina-like, and she let it become that way, despite her resistance to such imagery. Of course, while the group’s talk about Sholem’s painting lasts for less than a page, they go on and on about Margaux’s. So which one is uglier? They never decide, not officially. But probably, if Margaux’s had a purple painted underbelly people would be compelled enough to bend over and see.