Art Monthly: John Russell

artwork image
On Ugliness

Dave Beech on the counter-promise of ugliness

There has been an upsurge in talk of beauty, but no corresponding discussion of ugliness. Surely the socially ugly – the ugliness of resistance, with its oppositional stance against the status quo – is far more relevant than beauty in this time of protests? ‘The political opposition between beauty and ugliness is not felt as political at all, but as the self-evident, correct and natural affirmation of beauty and the equally self-evident rejection of ugliness. Beauty is good, ugliness is bad.

The nearest equivalent to Picabia we have today is John Russell. Art historians in the future will not look back incredulously at our judgement of Russell’s ‘orgiastic’ images as ugly. Jonothan Jones loves his work, which is usually a bad sign, but what he loves is his ‘hyperbolic overactive pop monstrosity’. These works will not suddenly reveal themselves to future generations as beautiful after all, once the limitations of our taste have been breached. No, these works are ugly with a purpose. Russell produces gruesome displays of horror like the Chapman brothers, whose work is also ugly in this critical sense that I am developing here. But Russell’s work is ugly twice over: once in the monstosity it depicts and twice  in the monstrosity it acts out in its materiality. In other words, his works are ugly in the precise the sense that baffles Schjedahl. Russell is not taken in by Schjedahl’s common-sense advocacy of beauty. His works, in all their teeth clenching audacity, have taken sides with the counter-promise of ugliness.

Art Monthly, 344, March 2011 http://www.artmonthly.co.uk/magazine/site/issue/march-2011/

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