Tag Archives: GROTESQUE

SOME KIND OF BEAUTIFUL

May 26, 2017

Storm King Wavefield, by Maya Lin, Storm King Art Center, New Windsor, New York (2009, photo from stormking.org)

What is beauty? How is it defined, described, discussed, deconstructed?

Looking at personal favorites, I ponder four themes of beauty: 1) man-made, 2) God-made, 3) the Grotesque, and 4) the ethereal.

1) BY MAN OR WOMAN

One category of beauty is that made by the hands of a person. And its beauty can be at any size and complexity—from a gourmet delicacy to twisted steel beams six stories high.

Sushi at Urasawa, Los Angeles (photo from tomostyle.wordpress.com)
Sushi at Urasawa, Los Angeles (photo from tomostyle.wordpress.com)

I love the artistry in making sushi. Not only is the result visually appealing, but sushi’s beauty is also temporal. The creations exist as beautiful for only a brief moment, as the juices soak for too long and discolor the creation, as the temperature changes how the food glistens.

South Field sculptures, by Mark Di Suvero, Storm King Art Center, New Windsor, New York (1969 to 1998, photo from whattododigital.com)
South Field sculptures, by Mark Di Suvero, Storm King Art Center, New Windsor, New York (1969 to 1998, photo from whattododigital.com)

One of my favorite places on the planet is the 500-acre art park known as Storm King in Upstate New York. With immense scale, the sculptural installations are profound. No longer inhibited by the walls of a gallery, the sky is literally the limit. Art’s beauty reaches up, out or down, and does so more ambitiously than ever before.

Storm King Wall by Andy Goldsworthy, Storm King Art Center, New Windsor, New York (1998, photo from stormking.org)
Storm King Wall by Andy Goldsworthy, Storm King Art Center, New Windsor, New York (1998, photo from stormking.org)

2) BY NATURE

Mother Nature has delivered some of the most beautiful things in the world.

left: Devils Postpile National Monument, Mammoth Lakes, California (photo by Wally Pacholka); right: Hexagonal tops of the postpile columns (photo by Jerrye and Roy Klotz)
left: Devils Postpile National Monument, Mammoth Lakes, California (photo by Wally Pacholka); right: Hexagonal tops of the postpile columns (photo by Jerrye and Roy Klotz)

I favor the natural stone formation known as Devils Postpile. Basalt formations create hexagonal columns that start deep in the Earth and reveal their natural engineering at the surface. The beauty and structural logic of the hexagon is prevalent throughout nature.

Natural hexagonal structural logic (photo from aetherforce.com)
Natural hexagonal structural logic (photo from aetherforce.com)

3) THE GROTESQUE

left: Afghan Girl, by Steve McCurry (1984); right: Untitled #359, by Cindy Sherman (2000)
left: Afghan Girl, by Steve McCurry (1984); right: Untitled #359, by Cindy Sherman (2000)

Beauty can be obviously beautiful or not so obvious. Perhaps beauty does not have to be pretty and attractive, but rather, sublime.

The Steve McCurry portrait is universally considered to be one of the definitive portraits in history, akin to the Mona Lisa. Yes, McCurry’s work is exquisite. But I argue that photographer/artist Cindy Sherman has also captured beauty, but in her signature bizarre and deformed visions.

left: Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightly, by Annie Leibovitz (2006); Greer and Robert on the Bed, by Nan Goldin (1982)
left: Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightly, by Annie Leibovitz (2006); Greer and Robert on the Bed, by Nan Goldin (1982)

Countering the classical beauty of portraits by Annie Leibovitz, Nan Goldin’s work presents hypnotic, even frightening images of her friends. Starting as a raw, stark and intimate look into the life of the gay subculture of the 70’s and 80’s in New York City, Goldin’s “look” is later commercialized, nearly made trite. Even called beautiful, “Heroic Chic” arrives to the world of fashion photography.

See more on the Grotesque and architecture.

left: Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Opus 57, the “Appassionata,” by Ludwig van Beethoven (1805); Bud Powell (photo from thejazzlabels.com)
left: Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Opus 57, the “Appassionata,” by Ludwig van Beethoven (1805); Bud Powell (photo from thejazzlabels.com)
Lily (photo by Anthony Poon)
Lily (photo by Anthony Poon)

4) THE ETHEREAL

How do we defined the aural beauty in music and its ethereal qualities? Both the music of Beethoven and Bud Powell have been described as beautiful and Grotesque, with its poetic lyricism alongside jarring rhythms and discordant harmonies.

Lastly, this portrait too is beautiful. Ethereally.

PETERSEN AUTOMOTIVE MUSEUM: ARCHITECTURE OF THE GROTESQUE

December 18, 2015

Street façade of the Petersen Automotive Museum, Los Angeles, California (photo by A. Zahner Co.)

I don’t mean ugly or gross. The Grotesque, an art movement, originated in 16th century Italy, and by the 18th century, the philosophy traveled to France, Germany and England. The Grotesque exists today in many forms of painting, sculpture, music, literature, architecture, and other arts.

Originally, the decorative style combined and distorted human, animal, and plant parts. Whether in its basic historical form or in contemporary explorations, adjectives for the Grotesque include the following: bizarre, uncomfortable, disgusting, weird, comical, twisted, and deformed.

Thelonious Monk at the piano, from www.thewinehousemag.com
Thelonious Monk at the piano (photo from thewinehousemag.com)

Take the 1963 recording of Thelonious Monk’s Tea for Two. This territorializing rendition is often thought of as melodically disturbed, unharmonious, and rhythmic off balance. Some have even called Monk’s music perverse and violent. But the irony is this: the so called ugliness of his music is often considered pleasurable. In fact, Monk’s music is considered one of the most important and most enjoyed jazz of our time, by experts and mainstream

Three Studies of George Dyer, 1967, by Francis Bacon
Three Studies of George Dyer, by Francis Bacon, 1967

In Francis Bacon’s paintings, note how often viewers comment on the artwork’s beauty, even when Bacon represents tortured and deformed faces.

Dining scene from The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, 1989
Dining scene from The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, 1989

Consider Peter Greenaway’s 1989 The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. The vivid and lush interiors with the decadent and abundant dishes of food open the film beautifully and hypnotically. Eventually the interiors and food transform into something else.

Towards the end of the movie, the excesses of the cinematic beauty become repulsive. It is not simply that beauty is overtaken by the perverse, but all the same properties that made the films’ beauty actually beautiful, reaches the limit to represent the expected qualities of beauty. The overwhelming proportion of beauty becomes horrific but still attractive: the Grotesque.

Whether with Monk, Bacon or Greenaway, the evolution from beauty to something undesirable to something pleasurable, supports Immanuel Kant’s belief that beauty is restful and that the sublime is movement. Kant argues that, “this movement may be compared to a vibration, i.e. to a quickly alternating attraction toward, and repulsion from, the same object.”

Street arcade of the Petersen Automotive Museum, Los Angeles, California, photo by A. Zahner Co.
Street arcade of the Petersen Automotive Museum, Los Angeles, California (photo by A. Zahner Co.)

And so it is with the Petersen Automotive Museum, recently opened to the public in Los Angeles. Previously, I critiqued the Broad vs. the Petersen, two local museums under construction at that time. As I started to write an article about the now complete museums, I chose to not compare and contrast. Instead, I sought an academic framework to discuss the Petersen.

I have no idea if the architects of the Petersen, KPF from New York, were testing the philosophy of the Grotesque. Somehow, I doubt it. But I think contemplating the enormous racing red and chrome building in an intellectual context gives the design prowess and gravitas. If not for such an academic narrative, then all I can hear from every passerby is, “This Petersen is ugly.”

Upon arriving at the museum, do not avert your gaze. Do not simply call it unattractive. Perhaps you will be taken by Kant’s movement, where this new sculptural building will repulse you and eventually attract you. Hopefully.

Detail of steel ribbons, photo by Blake Z. Rong
Detail of steel ribbons (photo by Blake Z. Rong)
© Poon Design Inc.