“Join the Cult of Ugliness”

with Georgina Gratrix

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It was 1920s South Africa. Irma Stern had just made her solo exhibition debut at the Ashbey Gallery in Cape Town. Entering a predictable, palatable colonial art scene, Stern’s modern and vibrant visualisations bred outrage. From supposedly reasonable critics to a public that responds from instinct, the show received negative remarks and reviews. Mocking her practice, one of the reviews was titled Freak Picture Exhibtion, the Art of Miss Irma Stern – Ugliness as a Cult. Justifying the headline, its author wrote, “where there is deliberate carelessness in form, there is not likely to be much thought… nothing except ugliness”.

Reflecting on the Stern effect, Aneta Pawlowska lists the initial commentary: “mad inspirations” “agony in oil” and a personal favourite, “insult to human intelligence”. The artist’s audience was so touched, someone responded to the show by initiating a police inquiry into public morality, an anecdote published in a column Stern wrote for The Argus titled How I Began to Paint in 1926. Surrounded by serious discourse, the experimentation and play in Stern’s practice is often neglected in visual studies. Revisiting Stern’s legacy, Georgina Gratrix confronts the tired notion that oil painting is a deadly serious medium. And with a comment like “Probably the ugliest painting I have ever seen”, sitting in the comment section under a Gratrix portrait from the exhibition The Reunion: Georgina Gratrix at Norval Foundation, Gratrix isn’t a stranger to the descriptor.

Studying and platforming an impasto, chaotic, grotesque, maximalist approach to mark-making and the public’s reaction to it, in a contemporary art world, The Cult of Ugliness points to how absurd the initial reaction to Stern’s work is when read a 100 years later, in a context that celebrates the modernist. In so doing, Gratrix encourages audiences to challenge their eye, inviting them to dismiss their aesthetic norms when engaging with art.

Speaking to Sarah Jayne Fell, Gratrix once described her work as being about more than understanding painting and its materiality. She said, “I think, in its most basic form, it’s still lifes and portraiture and using them as frameworks to understand my frame of reference, whethere it’s very personal or a broader worldview. It’s using these frameworks to find an aesthetically pleasing way to understand my own world.”

Coming at a time where the Gen Z social media presentation of the self is confusingly (but deliberately) blurred, grainy and out of sorts, as opposed to earlier clean, censored, idealistic portrayals, The Cult of Ugliness satisfyingly speaks to the current attempt to resist a narrow, neat and quiet idea of what makes things beautiful. A loud, colourful, clumsy and rested take on what deserves to take our breath away and be taken seriously, subscriptions to The Cult of Ugliness are rising.

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Ruth Ige. Don't hide your glory, 2022.
Acrylic on canvas. 122 x 122cm. (© Copyright 2022, STEVENSON. All rights reserved)