Artist goes for ugly in new exhibit
October 24, 2007
ASPEN Recently, Lily van der Stokker showed her latest work, a piece in red and purples with big red shapes sticking out here and there, to her boyfriend. His assessment – “OK, that’s ugly!” – didn’t prompt the expected response of, say, a slap in the face and banishment to the spare room. Instead, van der Stokker, who splits her time between Amsterdam and New York City, said, “OK, I’ll make some more like that.”She is trying to duplicate the ugliness of that first piece, but expresses a smidgen of dissatisfaction that she hasn’t been able to do so. For To the Wall, the current two-person exhibit at the Aspen Art Museum, van der Stokker had planned to title her installation “Sorry, It’s Ugly.” But after assessing the design – a wall painting in yellow that suggests a fabric pattern, with some odd-shaped elements, plus a miniature closet beside the painting – she thought the ugliness was in some doubt. So she gave the piece the less emphatic title, “Is This Nice?”Apparently, making ugly art is not as easy as it would seem.”That’s difficult to do. Because the desire to make pleasing, acceptable things is a big desire,” said the 53-year-old, on her first visit to Aspen. “We made these drawings, with my assistant, but they came out not too ugly. It came out pretty. I couldn’t call it ugly, because that would be pedantic.”Van der Stokker has had previous experience with making things too pretty. Earlier in her career, she became known for what she calls her “positive work” – pieces that combined flower images with words like “wonderful” and “good.” It didn’t exactly put her in the mainstream of contemporary art.
“That was shocking to people who saw it,” she said, “because to make art with flowers – nobody did that. People thought, here’s this crazy woman; she can’t be real. Nobody took me seriously.”But I said, if we’re going to make it beautiful, let’s make it beautiful in a very superficial way.”Van der Stokker also has flirted with the non-beautiful before. A 1992 series of works was titled “Mistake Drawings.” One method she occasionally returns to is to pinpoint places where she has made mistakes or failures in her work, and then consciously duplicates those errors. “That’s very therapeutic and strange,” she said. “I like to make things that aren’t so easy to look at.”The purpose of all this is not necessarily to add ugliness to the world, but to define more precisely notions of beauty, and to know better our relationship to beauty.”At first, what you saw as an ugly thing, the next day, you like it. It’s like an ugly dog that you come to love,” said van der Stokker. “There’s lots of layers. Then you start to question yourself: Is there really any beauty or ugliness? There are so any different tastes, different things people can like.”
The conclusion she seems to be approaching is that ugliness and beauty are not static ideals, but qualities that shift over time, from person to person, and that can even co-exist. She makes a reference to jazz music: The tones can be abrasive, but used in the service of touching under-used sensibilities.”Jazz can sometimes be so raw, like a saw. It’s not beautiful at all,” she said. “It’s not always the beauty in art that touches you. It goes beyond, and touches you at a different level. If I say I’m trying to make an ugly thing, it means I’m going beyond the rules I’ve made for myself, these concepts of beauty.”It’s ugliness not in the sense of a negative thing. Ugliness can be quite beautiful. It shows a part of you that is maybe more vulnerable.””Is This Nice?”, the piece at the Aspen Art Museum, is the first work to be exhibited in van der Stokker’s latest series of “ugly” pieces. But she’s not sure how much further the series will go. There are limits to how much audiences and exhibitors will tolerate a lack of beauty in art. Even van der Stokker has her limits.”Museums are very safe,” she said. “If it’s too ugly, I won’t show it to the outside world.”To the Wall shows through Dec. 2 in the Aspen Art Museum’s upper gallery.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org