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A Pretty Ugly Exhibition

from the NY Times

Art Makes Such Weird Bedfellows

Thomas Müller

Pretty Ugly The group exhibition, split between Gavin Brown’s Enterprise and the Maccarone Gallery, features works from about 75 artists, including Bernard Buffet’s “Les Folles.” More Photos>

Everyone-into-the-pool gallery group shows are always a welcome distraction in a steamy New York midsummer, even when the water is tepid and unsightly matter floats to the top, as is the case in “Pretty Ugly,” a group exhibition split between Gavin Brown’s Enterprise and the Maccarone Gallery.

There are about 75 artists on the guest list, though it feels like a cast of thousands, so logic-defying is the lineup. Hannah Wilke rubs shoulders with Marsden Hartley, and both press flesh with Elizabeth Peyton, Rudolph Schwarzkogler and Bruce LaBruce.

Like most art world shindigs, this is an intensely networked affair. Lots of best friends of friends — artists who are the partners of curators, who are planning retrospectives of other artists, who are represented by the galleries presenting the show — along with a few bused-in oddballs (two Stanislaws, Szukalski and Witkiewicz) and recruits from the modernist mothball brigade (Pierre Alechinsky, Bernard Buffet).

Summer shows of this kind can be newsy; they can indicate shifts in direction in art that will unroll in the season ahead. But this one doesn’t feel that way. In fact it feels a little old. Its basic premise is that our ideas of beauty in art are changing, but we’ve known that for years. Pretty and ugly have been the twin poles of contemporary figure painting for ages now. Merged together — and they are always merging — they turn into weird. And weirdness is, basically, what “Pretty Ugly” is about.

An installation of such paintings across a front wall at Maccarone establishes a couple of things: first, the show as a whole will be organized by themes; and second, it will be an old-new mix. In the floral lineup we find a 1918 Abraham Walkowitz still life next to Andy Warhol’s 1964 poppies along with Mark Grotjahn’s “Angry Flower (Big Nose, Baby Moose)” (2003), all bracketed by Takashi Murakami smiley faces from just last year.

The sculptor Stanislaw Szukalski (1893-1987), also from Poland, was an art star in his day, so highly regarded that, when he was at mid-career, the Polish government erected a museum in his honor. When the building was leveled by German planes in 1939, Szukalski fled to the United States and settled in Burbank, Calif.

Although he lived in obscurity there, he was not inactive. Among other things he formulated a universalist theory of history called Zermatism, based on the premise that all human life originated on Easter Island, that Polish was the source of all languages, and that a race of malevolent Yetis was destroying civilization as we know it.

His freely espoused aesthetic and political views gained attention in California cultural circles: he was as rabidly anti-Picasso as he was pro-Ronald Reagan and regarded art critics as the scum of the earth. The attraction of his neo-Symbolist sculpture — a life-size bronze bust in the show of the Polish military hero Bor Komorowski looks like a sad-eyed Darth Vader — is harder to fathom.

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Posted on July 25, 2008 by Editor

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