Transgressing the boundaries

The notion of the grotesque in art has been around for centuries, but it is currently being re-imagined, often with humour and a sense of the absurd, by many contemporary artists.

Rudely transgressing the boundaries between the elevated and the profane
by Jonathan Griffin

The grotesque got its name by mistake. When, one day in fifteenth-century Rome, a young man fell into a hole in a hillside, he assumed he’d discovered a Roman grotto. He fetched a lantern and found wild frescoes over the grotto’s walls: half-human, half-animal figures, with legs and arms transforming into curling vines or ornamental volutes. In fact, he had stumbled upon Nero’s buried Villa Aurea, the raised floor level giving the rooms a grotto-like appearance. Nevertheless, the term ‘grotteschi’ stuck as a label for this newly discovered style that radically dissented from the classical restraint to which the Renaissance had hitherto adhered.

Conceptions of the grotesque have gone through many incarnations over the years, but something of this muddled etymology still persists. Whether one is talking about the carnivalesque use of the term, as expounded by Mikhail Bakhtin in his analysis of the Renaissance writer François Rabelais, or Wolfgang Kayser’s Romantic notion of it as something ‘ominous, nocturnal and abysmal’, the grotesque belongs underground. It is subversive, rudely transgressing the boundaries between inside and out, above and below, elevated and profane. It has to do with the corporeal subterranea – the guts and the bowels, and the processes through which internal juices are ejected into the world.

The League of the Gentlemen, BBC, United Kingdom, 2000

Little wonder that the grotesque is as popular today as it was in the fifteenth century. It allows us to get (at least a partial) handle on some of the most unspeakably vile and frightening categories of human experience, and it does so with humour and a sense of the absurd. Despite remaining distinct from comedy (which, unlike the alienating grotesque, is a convivial and socially cohesive genre), it has contributed to some of the most intelligent television and film comedy of recent years. Think especially of The League of Gentlemen,[1] but also South Park, Little Britain and the work of Steve Coogan and Chris Morris; not all caricature is grotesque, but when bodies are defiled or grossly exaggerated (with prosthetics, for instance) they become more disturbing than simple parodies. There is no easy laughter here.

The grotesque never strays far from popular culture. Perhaps that is where it draws its danger – by queering those subjects closest to home. Onetime collaborators Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy are twin titans of the grotesque in contemporary art, and while their approaches to it are quite different, their visions are both filtered through the detritus of daily life – foodstuffs, cartoons, film and TV.

Kelley’s approach was specifically Bakhtinian. His Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction series 2006–11 consists of elaborate reinterpretations of dress-up days, carnivals, Halloweens and fantasy rituals that he found photographed in high-school yearbooks. He was fascinated by the ways in which ordinarily suppressed desires seep through the surfaces of such scenarios. Caves and grottos were also always significant places for him. At the time of his death, Kelley was working on a reconstruction of his childhood home, to be sited next to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit. Beneath it, he planned to dig out a labyrinth of spaces for ‘private rites of an aesthetic nature’ – mysterious activities that one might well imagine to encroach on the grotesque.

McCarthy, in contrast, is preoccupied with the bodily rather than the social grotesque. The characters that populate his films, performances and sculptures move beyond caricatures – rather, as in the case of his depictions of the cartoon character Alfred E. Neuman (Bossy Burger 1991) or George W. Bush (Train, Mechanical 2003–9), they are caricatures of caricatures. The latter, an animatronic sculpture of two Bush-headed figures sodomising two cartoon pigs, dodges first impressions of coarse political satire when one realises that the hybrid figures are actually part president, part Disney cartoon pirate and part casts of the artist’s own torso. Uncertain laughter at an uncertain body has long been a hallmark of the grotesque.

Many of McCarthy’s projects involve the construction of sets in which he is filmed engaging in exuberantly transgressive behaviour (the sets often remaining in the gallery as evidence). They are not so different in status from the “grotto” of Nero’s villa, nor from Kelley’s deviant basement. The fibreglass rocks of Kaari Upson’s Grotto 2008–9 also provided shelter for the artist, who, wearing enlarged prosthetic breasts and a silicone vagina, inhabited various female stereotypes and participated in a phone-sex role play, Jungian therapy (also over the phone) and other rambling monologic diatribes. Upson’s alter egos are grotesques – not caricatures – and to spy on them in videos installed subsequently within the grotto is a profoundly disquieting experience.

Describing the activities of the artist group gelitin as performances isn’t always accurate, especially when members of the audience are invited to join in. Sweatwat 2005 was an installation for which viewers took off their clothes, donned towels and climbed into a gallery space that was filled, ankle deep, with water. Piles of furniture, an obscene sculptural fountain and a home-made sauna crowded the space; the pipes from a transparent elevated toilet ran past the heads of visitors who were invited to sit and drink yellow cider with the artists. During the course of the exhibition, the gallery was a place where the boundaries between inside and out, viewer and artist, subject and object, clean and dirty were gleefully – and liberatingly – violated.

Visitors to Ryan Trecartin’s exhibition Any Ever 2011 entered carpeted and furnished rooms in order to watch his frenetic videos. Trecartin’s infatuation with adolescence lends itself to the bedroom as a site of private play-acting and experimentation (the teenage grotto), and his films often appear to have been shot in such places. The critic Peter Schjeldahl has likened him not to masters of filmic transgression such as Jack Smith and John Waters, but to Cindy Sherman, whose photographs of herself in disguise feature regularly in lectures on the Freudian uncanny, a close cousin of the grotesque. (Sherman, in heavy make-up and dyed hair, is uncanny; Trecartin, gabbling at the camera in bright yellow face paint with gold teeth, is grotesque.)

Also trampling across the line between the uncanny and the grotesque are Nathaniel Mellors’s lifelike animatronic sculptures, cast from the faces of actors in his films. Often they are programmed to deliver lines from the films themselves. Hippy Dialectics (Ourhouse) 2010 consists of twin faces connected by a long swag of hair. In the accompanying episodic film Ourhouse (ongoing from 2010), a character called The Object visits a family and proceeds to eat – and excrete – all their books. (Notice how the family home provides the setting for so many of these works.)

The grotesque is thriving not only in contemporary performance and video-based work. Depictions of grotesque bodies have a rich heritage in painting and drawing. There is a particular sensibility that can be traced from the introduction of cartoon imagery into modernist painting in the 1960s – when Philip Guston made the leap from Abstract Expressionism to cloddish pictures of heads with massive single eyes, or hairy pointing fingers. Jim Nutt, Peter Saul, Erró and John Wesley all similarly embraced lowbrow sources, and exploited the ordinarily innocuous tone of comic book characters to summon visions of derangement and dysfunction, often sexual in nature. (Within the world of bona fide cartooning, Basil Wolverton and Robert Crumb had themselves already been bombarding the defences of taste and decency since the 1950s and 1960s.) The heirs to this generation arrived in the 1980s – painters such as Carroll Dunham, George Condo and John Currin, who flagrantly polluted overt references to historical art (fine academic portraiture in particular) with pop cultural allusions. For obvious reasons, the history of the grotesque is intimately entangled with the theorisation of postmodernism.

Not only are these painters all men, but their work tends towards provocatively sexualised depictions of women. That’s not to say that their art is necessarily misogynistic – the later generation were all schooled in feminist debates around representations of gender, and to a greater or lesser extent work with their tongues in their cheeks – but these paintings’ grotesqueries reveal some conflicted attitudes towards their feminine subjects. (When women Pop artists, such as Dorothy Lannone or Niki de Saint Phalle, made equivalently sexualised work in the 1960s and 1970s, their images were graphically arresting, stylish and strident, but never grotesque.)

So it came to pass that a number of female painters began to make grotesque pictures of women, partly in riposte to the masculine domination of the genre. Lisa Yuskavage, Cecily Brown, Jenny Saville, Sue Williams and, more recently, Dana Schutz, Nicola Tyson, Nicole Eisenman and Tala Madani have all moved to reclaim the feminine grotesque. Yuskavage’s tenderly crafted paintings recall the fleshy excesses of 1970s soft-core pornography; her ambivalence about her confrontational subjects (none of whom seems to think themselves victims) is what makes them compelling. Schutz, Eisenman, Tyson and Madani make as many paintings of men as they do of women; however, their painterly puncturing of semi-abstract bodies (dissolving them, piercing them, exploding them) undermines the cohesive integrity traditionally ascribed to the fully functioning, autonomous masculine physique.

As conversations around representations of gender have become more nuanced and subjective in recent years, so too have the ways in which artists choose to respond to them. Mika Rottenberg, Nathalie Djurberg and Stanya Kahn would all probably identify as feminists, but their performances, videos and animations stray far beyond standard dogma. They share a sensitivity to the interior experience of the female body, and the ways in which that inner space projects into the outside world (those boundaries again). In Rottenberg’s films, such as Dough 2006 or Squeeze 2010, large-bodied women are pushed by – and push into – holes and gaps in the strangely interactive architecture of her sets. Djurberg uses clay as a mutable analogue for human (and animal) bodies in her animated fantastical films. In her video Arms are Overrated 2012, Kahn’s wisecracking protagonists are made of crumbled sheets of paper. These artists portray the human form as nothing more than unstable material waiting to be reshaped by forces outside of its control – what Bakhtin called ‘the ever unfinished, ever creating body’.

The grotesque is an unpredictable firing weapon. When deployed, it usually sprays its buckshot on to more than one target. Artists of colour have made grotesques out of racial stereotypes in order to provoke viewers with questions not only about race, but also gender, sexuality, class, political power and historical record. Rarely, if ever, do they offer their own answers. Kara Walker, Chris Ofili, William Pope L and Ellen Gallagher are most often associated with this strategy. Gallagher, whose signature collaged motifs include bulging eyes, huge lips and Afro wigs (stolen from racist historical caricatures), has said that her art is not intended to be ‘corrective’. Part of these artists’ ambivalence derives from the fact that they have trouble identifying with the stereotypes themselves. As always with the grotesque, the ill-defined distinction between self and other is a source of much anxiety.

The characters in Kalup Linzy’s videos, which approximate television soap operas, are often voiced or acted by Linzy himself. Like Walker, Ofili, Pope L and Gallagher, he takes on ludicrous racially specific caricatures and presents them half ironically, half sympathetically. Perhaps it makes less sense, however, to align Linzy’s project with African-American precedents than to that of a (white) artist such as Upson, who also trades in stereotypes, or to Trecartin, whose films articulate queer sensibilities and concerns, or to Mellors, who draws so widely from television. These structurally unsound categories begin to crumble under their own weight.

In reality, the grotesque, as the art historian Frances Connelly has written, ‘does not exist except in relation to a boundary, convention or expectation’. There’s no such thing as a single grotesque. Thankfully, there will never be a shortage of boundaries or expectations for it to offend.

Essay details. Jonathan Griffin, Rudely transgressing the boundaries between the elevated and the profane: the grotesque, Tate Etc, issue 26, August-October 2012.

Basil Wolverton, Lena the Hyena, ink, 1946
The Shock of the New

Ref. class, feminism, gender, humor and satire, installation, painting, performance, politics, sex, video art, visual culture, abstract expressionism, pop art.


Jahsonic notes that "since at least the 18th century (in French and German as well as English) [the term] grotesque has come to be used [commonly] as a general adjective for the strange, fantastic, ugly, incongruous, unpleasant, or disgusting, and thus is often used to describe weird shapes and distorted forms such as Halloween masks. In art, performance, and literature, grotesque, however, may also refer to something that simultaneously invokes in an audience a feeling of uncomfortable bizarreness as well as empathic pity."[2]

Leonardo da Vinci
Grotesque Head, c. 1480-1510
sanguine, 17.2 x 14.3 cm
Royal Library, Windsor Castle

In his book The Grotesque (1972), Philip Thomson provides a brilliant definition of the grotesque as "the unresolved clash of incompatibles in work and response", being this clash paralleled by the ambivalent nature of the abnormal, which often is present in the grotesque.[3]

"Something analogous to humour can appear in plastic forms, when we call it the grotesque. This is an interesting effect produced by such a transformation of an ideal type as exaggerates one of its elements or combines it with other types. The real excellence of this, like that of all fiction, consists in re-creation; in the formation of a thing which nature has not, but might conceivably have offered. We call these inventions comic and grotesque when we are considering their divergence from the natural rather than their inward possibility. But the latter constitutes their real charm; and the more we study and develope them, the better we understand it. The incongruity with the conventional type than disappears, and what was impossible and ridiculous at first takes its place among recognized ideals. The centaur and the satyr are no longer grotesque; the type is accepted. And the grotesqueness of an individual has essentially the same nature. If we like the inward harmony, the characteristic balance of his features, we are able to disengage this individual from the class into which we were trying to force him; we can forget the expectation which he was going to disappoint. The ugliness then disappears, and only the reassertion of the old habit and demand can make us regard him as in any way extravagant.
What appears as grotesque may be intrinsically inferior or superior to the normal. That is a question of its abstract material and form. But until the new object impresses its form on our imagination, so that we can grasp its unity and proportion, it appears to us as a jumble and distortion of other forms. If this confusion is absolute, the object is simply null; it does not exist aesthetically, except by virtue of materials. But if the confusion is not absolute, and we have an inkling of the unity and character in the midst of the strangeness of the form, then we have the grotesque. It is the half-formed, the perplexed, and the suggestively monstrous." —Santayana, 1895.[4]

In popular conversation and commonplace contexts, grotesque is persistently associated with the ugly or the abject. Technically and ademically speaking, however, grotesque is not just a synonymous with the ugly or the abject. Today the grotesque sometimes transgresses the boundaries rudely. Sometines doesn't do it in that way. Historically, the grotesque has been subtle too. This is true from the motif of The Sorcerer in prehistorical art to Francis Bacon's Lying Figure in a Mirror of the early 1970s. In his text, Griffin mentions the Domus Aurea and authors like Bakhtin and Kayser, but subsequently he tends to avoid dealing with the doubled-edged nature of the grotesque. Instead, he focuses on the commonplace significance of the term. According to Griffin's text, the grotesque is synonymous with nonsensical humor and the abject. But, as Thomson explains, the absurd is not exactly the grotesque: the grotesque has a structure; the absurd has none. Moreover, even if seemingly meaningless, the grotesque cannot but carry a truth of its own.[5] Griffin considers the ordinary sense of the grotesque, which he mostly associates with the coarse and the repulsive. True, excess tends to typify the grotesque, but ambiguity, together with suggestion, persistently play a crucial role in it too. Unfortunately, Griffin does not consider the latter in his essay, which is thus partial and incomplete. In other words, his essay is not on the grotesque as a nuanced aesthetic category, but on certain cases that involve coarse grotesqueness. —Mariano Akerman

"A FINE grotesque is the expression, in a moment, by a series of symbols thrown together in bold and fearless connection, of truths which it would have taken a long time to express in any verbal way, and in which the connection is left for the beholder to work out for himself; the gaps, left or overleaped by the haste of the imagination, forming the grotesque character." —John Ruskin.[6]

The Subtle Way in the Quest of Freedom
by Mariano Akerman

There are grotesques that go beyond the ordinary, the coarse, the repulsive, the abject, and the artless. Instead of being shallow and prosaic, such grotesques prove to be subtle and thought-enlarging. They often involve considerable ambiguity and different levels of sugestion. Some of them constitute authentic visual paradoxes and, being undoubtedly transgessive, they all express the artist's disagreement with the limitations of the real world. Imagination helps to make the artist free. So the artist's imagination becomes a weapon, and the artwork a revolution per se.

Anonymous, Just don't expect it to roar, 2006

Fine grotesqueness has to do with nonconformity, but also with creativity, depth and inspiration. A fine grotesque involves sensitivity, thought and skill.

1. Then lilies, turned to Tigers
Arts & Crafts
United Kingdom, 19th Century

2. Odilon Redon, Cactus Man, 1881
Ian Woodner Collection, New York

3. James Ensor
Skeletons fighting over a Smoked Herring
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique

4. Méret Oppenheim
Breakfast in Fur, 1936
Museum of Modern Art, New York

5. Dalí, Autumn Cannibalism, 1936
Tate Gallery, London

6. Andreas Paul Weber, Dung, 1967

7. Francis Bacon
Lying Figure in a Mirror, 1971
Museo de Bellas Artes, Bilbao

7. Quino, Untitled, c. 1971-73.[7]

9. Yuka Yamaguchi, A New Seedling, 2008

10. Choi Xoo Ang, Flying Hands, sculpture

by Mariano Akerman
1. These 1999-2002 British tv episodes belong to a genre known as black comedy and even to the so-called horror comedy. A black comedy (dark comedy) is a comic work that employs black humor, which, in its most basic definition, is humor that makes light of otherwise serious subject matter. Horror comedy is a literary and film genre that combines elements of comedy and horror fiction. This genre almost always inevitably crosses over with the black comedy genre; and in some respects could be considered a subset of it.
Philip Thomson on The Grotesque and Related Terms and Modes, The Grotesque, London: Methuen, 1972:
Parody. "Parody is often involved with the grotesque in an interdependent relationship of which it can be difficult to determine whether it is a case of parody being used as a grotesque device or vice versa. A parody (or travesty, or burlesque [...]) which is taken to extremes that is to a point where the conflict between parody and original, or between content and form, becomes intolerable—we might call a grotesque parody, and the grotesqueness may even blot out the parodistic intent. Similarly, grotesque elements are frequently used incidentally in parodies, especially where the intention is savagely aggressive. [...] Parody is used occasionally, to help achieve an overall grotesque effect."
Satire. "The same kind of interdependent relationship is found often between satire and the grotesque. The satirist may make his victim grotesque in order to produce in his audience or readers a maximum reaction of derisive laughter and disgust; and a grotesque text, on the other hand, will frequently have a satirical side-effect or score satirical points, naturally enough when one considers that the grotesque by its very nature is aggressive and aimed discomfiting in some way. But again the crucial factor separating the grotesque from satire is the confusion of incompatibles in work and effect. Unlike the satirist, the grotesque writer does not analyse and instruct in terms of right and wrong, or true or false, nor does he attempt to distinguish between these. On the contrary, he is concerned to demonstrate their inseparability. Satire (and we are of course talking about model cases) aims at two reactions from the audience: laughter, and anger or disgust, but it aims to produce these separately. The grotesque [...] produces a confusion of reaction."
The Comic. "The relationship of the grotesque to the comic is a matter of some controversy. As mentioned earlier, modern writers on the grotesque are almost unanimous in their insistence on the essential comic element in the grotesque. An exception may be Clayborough, but since he operates with different categories (Jungian) it is difficult to see just where he stands on the comic. Kayser is likewise evasive, but seems in the end to accept the necessary presence of the comic in the grotesque. In the present study I have taken the view that there is almost always a comic element in the grotesque (although it may be obscured and in some circumstances denied by rational afterthought)."
2. Jahsonic (Jan Geerinck), Grotesque, The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia, 2007 (accessed 5 March 2014).
3. Thomson, The Grotesque, 1972, p. 27 (Towards a Definition). Today, thanks to David Lavery, Thomson's important contribution is available online.
4. George Santayana, The Sense of Beauty: Being the Outlines of Aesthetic Theory (1895), New York: Charles Scribner, 1905, pt. IV: Expression, § 64: The Grotesque (pp. 256ff.; Online edition by Themista from Illinois).
5. This idea concerning the fictitious image is first expressed by Giordano Bruno, and is later restated by John Ruskin, George Santayana, Roger Caillois, and Philip Thomson. According to Bruno, "habet suam species phantastica veritatem" (De vinculis in genere, 1591). Bruno's dictum suggests that any fictitious species entails a truth of its own (Jahsonic, The fictitious image entails its own truth, Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia, 17 November 2012; accessed 5 March 2014). Caillois translates Bruno's dictum as "L'image fictive possède sa propre vérité" (Au coeur du fantastique, Gallimard, 1965, p. V).
6. John Ruskin, Modern Painters, Vol. III, chap. VIII, pars. 4-15 (Ruskin as Literary Critic, ed. A.H.R. Ball, Cambridge, 2013, p. 135: The Grotesque in Literature). For further discussion, see George P. Landow, The Aesthetic and Critical Theories of John Ruskin, chap. V, sect. IV: The Symbolical Grotesque — Theories of Allegory, Artist, and Imagination, The Victorian Web, 27 July 2005.
7. From Bien, gracias, ¿y usted? [Fine, thanks, and you?], published in 1976. For a discussion, see El ingenioso humor de Quino, Imaginarium, April 2009.


Pam Jones said...

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Ezequiel Pen said...

Such a good post! Thanks for sharing :)

Lara Felix said...

This post and its illustrations are priceless.

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