Art Grotesque

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Feckless art may charm but not sell, finds Vishnupriya Sengupta

Photos (Centre And Extreme Right): Anver K Siddiqui

A MAN IN his birthday suit sitting on a commode, surrounded by newspapers, magazines and various other toilet trappings, doesn’t make for a ‘pretty’ sight. Shridhar Iyer’s image certainly irked artist Jogen Chowdhury. “That kind of image is not quite part of our cultural heritage,” he says, evidently disturbed. “More importantly, it wasn’t even art. It was just a haphazard display, there was nothing creative in it.” The apparently unsavoury image, however, gelled well with Pretty Ugly, an art show that wrapped up on February 7 at Kolkata’s Bose Pacia Gallery. So much so that the gallery used it on the show’s invite.

Curated by critic Romain Maitra, the exhibit showcased the gamut of possible forms — film, photography, painting, sculpture and installation — by the likes of Iyer, Sutanu Chatterjee, Nidhi Agarwal and the irate Jogen Chowdhury. “Artists are usually reluctant to step into a domain not readily beautiful. I wanted artists to redefine this notion of beauty and depict its flipside, invoking ugliness and its spirit,” says Maitra.

The show’s theme proved challenging, both artistically and commercially — several artists declined to participate and the show didn’t translate into sales, although the gallery says three works by Agarwal and Jaya Ganguly have been shortlisted by a buyer. There are perhaps still very few in the Indian art establishment who might agree with the late FN Souza’s comment that “painting for me is not beautiful. It is as ugly as a reptile. I attack it”.

Maitra, however, still presses his case of being satisfied with the show’s results. It may not have been very nice to look at but Pretty Ugly did exude a rare vitality that, in effect, is beautiful. We aestheticise what we find ugly in order to ingest it, and, meanwhile, there are some perks to the experience. Samit Das’ photographs of deities, for instance, are refreshingly hideous and manage to present some rather grungy goddesses. Nidhi Agarwal’s The Scream uses the same motifs from her earlier work but this time there is wit in the bunch of 10 cigarettes aggressively smashed into one mouth.

“I tried to zero in on artists whose works veer towards ugliness, but in a restrained fashion,” says Maitra of the 23 artworks he commissioned for the show. “I left the artists to interpret it on their own terms.”

Someone like Rabin Mondal, who is used to engaging with primitive and folk art, might be worth heeding about the value of rawness in the works: “The distortion of reality need not necessarily be ugly.” Jaya Ganguly emphasises how ugliness and beauty are twin sides of the same coin and, like beauty, ugliness lies in the eye of the beholder.

That might explain why Iyer didn’t find any takers for his toilet installation. “Kolkatans are perhaps not ready to accept so bold an image,” justifies gallery director Bhavna Agnihotri. “That’s why the installation and invite were looked upon as gimmicky, although they were well received by art connoisseurs abroad.” Or, perhaps we natives just like our doses of cheekiness to come free.

vishnupriya@tehelka.com

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