“The long-awaited ugly painting competition had finally arrived,” writes Sheila Heti in her 2013 novel How Should A Person Be? A group of artist friends compete against one another for fun to create the ugliest painting possible. One of the artists feels “shame and self-loathing” at this wilful departure from classical standards of beauty; another wants to wash off the “dirty” feeling. Heti writes: “Was the winner of an Ugly Painting Competition the person who made the uglier painting… or was it the person who, though trying just as hard, made a painting that was inadvertently beautiful?”
Heti’s ugly painting competition came back to me while I was looking at some very ugly paintings in Pangaea II: New Art from Africa and Latin America, a new exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery, London. They made me think about what ugliness can do in art. Horizonte en Cálma (2011) by the Mexican artist Alida Cervantes is a large painting dominated by the colour yellow: a woman in a sunshine-yellow outfit stands in what appears to be a desert village. The palette is airy, sandy, light. However, she holds a machete dripping with blood and castrated male genitalia lie at her feet.
What makes the painting truly ugly is the expression on the woman’s face: the shocked calm following an irreversible act of violence. She seems to be experiencing a weird sense of euphoria. Her eyes are green and glassy and her earrings look like tusks. Her cheeks are a carnival red. A lone black dog walks behind her.
Cervantes was born in San Diego, California, but she grew up in Tijuana, the Mexican border city famed for its drugs, gangs, and prostitution. Less publicised is Tijuana’s growing art scene. When she was a child, Cervantes’ family employed servants, so she was aware of the racial and economic hierarchies of Mexican society from a young age. This understanding has informed her painting.
Horizonte en Cálma appears on first sight to be little more complex than the pointlessly nihilistic art that Saatchi became famous for sponsoring in the Nineties. However, it manages to convey a mood of true injury; both the woman and the landscape are infused with a dreadful hurt. This can’t be achieved by an artist without a belief that things are sacred and must be protected.
The woman in the painting could be a prostitute who has murdered her john; she could be mad; she could not be a woman at all, but a transvestite, hiding from the police. All these possibilities are suggested by Cervantes’ half narrative. The aesthetic of bubblegum brutality evokes the Come to Mexico tourism ads of the Fifties. While the obvious victim is the man whose genitalia have been cut off, the woman is most likely a victim too. This implies a greater tragedy – the victim becomes the aggressor. What has happened to her to make her commit such an act?
Unfortunately, this was one of the few moments in the exhibition when I was engaged. Most of the work by the 18 different contemporary artists from two very different continents was underwhelming. The title, Pangaea, comes from the Greek words pan (“all, entire, whole”) and gaia (“mother earth”); it refers to a geological supercontinent that existed 250 million years ago and encompassed both Africa and Latin America. This is the second instalment of a two-part exhibition.
Last year’s Pangaea I began with a huge installation, Casa Tomada (2013), by the Colombian artist Rafael Gómezbarros, which consisted of giant insects crawling all over the gallery walls to suggest the flows of migrant labour. It was impressive. Pangaea II tries a similar trick by beginning with a huge installation, Everything Must Go!, by the Martinican artist Jean-François-Boclé. It consists of 97,000 sky blue plastic bags, arranged together in a long rectangular mound, intended to symbolise the lives lost at sea during the transatlantic slave trade. Despite its bulk, the work doesn’t leave much of an impression.
What does leave an impression is a small sculptural installation, Entre Dos Aguas (2008), by the Cuban artist Jorge Mayet. It comprises a tree made of electrical wire, balanced precariously between two clods of earth. Stripped of all its leaves, both the branches and the roots of the tree are visible. Significantly, the span of the roots is greater than that of the branches, which breaks the symmetry of the object. It is beautiful and hopeful.
Mayet was born in La Habana, but lives in Mallorca, and his art is a reflection on roots and exile. He also draws inspiration from the ritual of burying offerings around the roots of trees, performed by the Yoruba slaves who were brought to Cuba from Africa. The tree is a symbol of what can withstand disaster.
I also liked Brazilian artist Alexandre da Cunha’s Nude VI (2012), which consists of three sunhats mounted on a mud-coloured canvas. At first glance, it looks like an abstract sculptural painting; up close, it might be a bird’s-eye view of workers in a field. It’s simple and charming. Confusingly, the catalogue explains: “Viewed from an angle, the protruding peaks of the rounded sunhats begin to suggest the physicality of human nipples.” This did not occur to me.
There’s a lot of work that’s much less interesting: Costa Rican artist Federico Herrero’s abstract paintings are childlike and repetitive; Colombian artist Diego Mendoza Imbachi’s vast graphite drawings of trees are a response to the industrialisation of the rural area of Cauca where he grew up. They are bland and forgettable.
Ethiopian artist Ephrem Solomon’s painted woodcuts are more promising. Untitled (2013) shows three women in black, their flesh cut out of the wood, their expressions seemingly accepting of some absurd fate. One is missing a shoe, which according to the exhibition catalogue suggests “a loss of presence”.
The room full of ugly paintings seems to exert a strange magnetism, however, and I go back there. Next to Cervantes’ work is Handsaw (2009) by the Brazilian artist Eduardo Berliner. A woman wearing a black polo neck stands in what appears to be a park, ready to saw a huge turtle in half. Her dress and demeanour suggest she is engaged in some conceptual pursuit rather than straightforward sadism. One of the problems with categorising artists by continent is that the viewer is encouraged to see the work as representative of a national malaise. Is the act of sawing the turtle in half a metaphor for the injustice of Brazilian society? Perhaps not.
Cervantes’ paintings do address Mexican history directly. She draws inspiration from 17th and 18th-century casta (race) paintings, a genre produced by the Spanish colonial authorities to show the consequences of mixed-race procreation. A typical casta painting would feature sixteen different combinations: for example, a Spanish man, an African woman, and a mixed-race child. This had clear racist overtones: by procreating with a woman of lower social rank, the Spaniard was thought to dilute his “racial purity.” Casta paintings were shown in public spaces to educate the populace.
The painting Máma (2010) by Cervantes is a disarrangement of the casta genre. The father is a white man with a brutish face who appears ready for a fight. His limbs are joined together like a doll’s. The mother is a Spanish woman in typical dress with seductive eyes. The child is mixed-race with an Afro. Together they look like a surreal assemblage of Hollywood bit-part actors, lost on a hot pink stage. The painting loses its power without the context of the casta genre, however. And the allure of ugliness can only go so far.
There is simply not enough good work here to fill nine galleries. Surely there must be better art to be found in two continents with such rich visual cultures.
Pangaea II: New Art from Africa and Latin America, Saatchi Gallery, London SW3 (saatchigallery.com) to 6 September