Why Contemporary Women Artists Are Obsessed with the Grotesque

Tess Thackara
Jan 18, 2019 6:22PM

If artists are generally boundary-crossers, a younger generation of (mostly women) artists is going for full penetration—making artworks that speak to something deep in the body, producing responses that range from carnal attraction to disgust.

Among the most potently grotesque examples are Tala Madani’s nightmarish babies and dystopian fantasies of voyeurism and violence, and Jala Wahid’s visceral, sculptural allusions to cuts of meat and dismembered organs and body parts. Or take Marianna Simnett’s unsettling, darkly comic videos that bring to life imagined narratives of bodily invasions—including a gruesome nasal operation and a fable about varicose veins and cockroaches-cum-cyborgs. Then there’s Maisie Cousins’s glossy, close-up images of a wet soup of food, decaying plants, and bodies, which recall the more appalling corners of Cindy Sherman’s imagination. In painting and drawing, too, the grotesque is rampant, with elastic, deformed, or monstrous bodies populating works by Christina Quarles, Ebecho Muslimova, Jana Euler, and Dana Schutz.

Photographs by Maisie Cousins. Courtesy of the artist and TJ Boulting.


In recent exhibitions of work by older and historical artists, as well, we’ve seen the walls erupt in freakish, fleshy forms that have threatened the contained space of a room, as in Dorothea Tanning’s Chambre 202, Hôtel du Pavot, on view in her retrospective at the Museo Reina Sofia and traveling to the Tate Modern early this year. The ceilings of art spaces have dangled with multi-limbed, Medusa-like monsters and cyborgs (like the sci-fi-inflected psychic landscape of Lee Bul, who had a retrospective at London’s Hayward Gallery in 2018).

With much of these artists’ works, the feeling of deep dread is often a blade’s edge away from erotic desire. As the narrator of Simnett’s film The Needle and the Larynx (2016) says, as she fantasizes about having her vocal chords surgically altered: “So sharp were his knives, so appealing…this was an irrevocable invitation.” This expression of temptation suggests a calling to make art—to create—as much as it does an inclination toward self-regeneration and other forms of transgression. The possibility of metamorphosing one’s flesh and image—of permeating thresholds—is both intoxicating and anxiety-inducing.

The grotesque is inherently associated with the feminine, long having shaped depictions of the female body—prostitutes, femmes fatales, and sorceresses.

The grotesque, as art historian Frances S. Connelly writes in her book The Grotesque in Western Art and Culture (2012), is “a boundary creature” that “roams the borderland of all that is familiar and conventional.” It is desirous of transformation—an “open mouth that invites our descent into other worlds,” like the underground rooms of Nero’s Golden Palace, excavated in the 15th century, which turned up walls decorated with hybrid figures sprouting bits of plants and architecture, and birthed the term “grottoesche.” (Today, our general understanding of the “grotesque” has been boiled down to mean simply “comically or repulsively ugly or distorted,” but art historians and theorists read more complexity into the term.) It is, in many ways, inseparable from the body, which is the most fundamental of boundaries. “What is most regulated in any culture is the body, particularly women’s bodies,” Connelly said during a recent conversation.

Doreen Garner, A Fifteen Year Old Girl Who Would Never Dance Again; A White Man in Pursuit of the Pedestal, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and JTT, New York.

The grotesque, she writes, is inherently associated with the feminine—bodied, earthy, changeful. That thinking has long shaped depictions of the female body, including archetypes of sexual or environmental threat, like prostitutes, femmes fatales, and sorceresses. Even centuries before the term emerged, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle “advanced the influential argument that a woman’s body is monstrous by nature, a deviation from that of the normative male,” she writes.

The term is fertile, opening up a womb-like space for new ideas and ethical conundrums to accumulate—a conduit through which cultures can play with taboos and shift the parameters of mores and conventions. It is perhaps no wonder, then, that some of the artists touching the grotesque assume a childlike, fairytale language. A fable tells us what is right and wrong, Simnett pointed out when we met. It is also “a game that you can write the rules for,” she said, one through which you can distort or expand reality. The landscape of morality tales and childhood lessons is ripe territory for boundary-pushing perversions to take root.

Very dark fairytales

Marianna Simnett, still from Worst Gift, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.


Children play a central role in several of Simnett’s films, whose absurdist, grotesque narratives are preoccupied with infection, augmentation, and altered states. In her opus Blood In My Milk (2018), the girl protagonist flirts with the outside world, even as adults warn of the risks that this external environment poses.

In scenes that take place within an echoey pink space suggesting the inside of an organ, children receive a lesson about the prognosis and treatment of mastitis in cow udders, interspersed with shots of oozing teats being squeezed and dissected. While an officious farm hand dispenses information about how to keep one’s milk clean and pathogen-free, the children engage in playground dares and brinkmanship that include fantasizing about dismantling a girl “into a million bits so she can never be rebuilt.” The children lust after blood in their milk.

Tala Madani is another artist who, in a different way, explodes any veneer of female containment or childhood innocence, making infants and girls agents of the grotesque. In her painting Sunrise (2018), a baby wields a sharp knife at a naked woman’s groin. An infant’s first act, the painting reminded me, is one of violence.

In other compositions populated by menacing babies on all fours, withering adults are left in the dust. Shafts (2017) depicts a group of monstrously overgrown tots crawling off into a void-like cyberspace, with beams of light projecting out of their assholes. An aged man in the foreground holds up a flaccid string of feces like a banner of mortality—the next generation might have evolved into light-shitting cyborgs, but we are still blood, matter, and excrement.

The children in Madani’s works also exercise sexual agency. In her animation Sex Ed by God (2017), a young girl with legs splayed is being studied by an older man, a boy, and God (the narrator of this lesson). She reaches out of the frame and grabs her male onlookers, shrinking them down to size and squeezing them into her vagina, along with the rest of the scene. The adolescent counterpart to a baby who explores the world with its mouth, this teenager-protagonist processes the world and corrects its distorted power balances through her sex. (Madani has a corollary of a kind in the work of Ebecho Muslimova, whose ink drawings feature a female alter-ego who fills and consumes the world with her vast and doughy naked body, luxuriantly covering and penetrating objects—a piano, patio furniture—with uncontrollable flesh and organ.)

Madani’s universe is one whose grotesqueries seem shaped, at least to some degree, by the thrills and anxieties of sexuality, motherhood, mortality, and technological change. But it is also one in which children subvert the hierarchy between parent and progeny. The grotesque becomes a means to dissolve power structures.

Both familiar and alien

Jala Wahid, Born From and Buried in Baba Gurgur (detail), 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

The contemporary grotesque is interested in underlining the way that bodies that are different from the (white, male) norm, or that, in deviating from impossible standards, are treated as aberrant or monstrous. Artists who touch the grotesque subvert and claim power in part by owning flesh and blood.

When I visited Jala Wahid’s studio recently, one sculpture she showed me comprised a cast of the artist’s buttocks resting on a smooth liquid-like surface that is based on the shape of a natural oil well. The exposed position of Wahid’s dismembered rear is both “a provocation and a vulnerability at the same time,” she told me, its position on an oil slick alluding to the politics of Kurdistan, where her parents are from. In her work, she is often thinking about the contested Kurdish body, which is continually “under threat” but also resilient—a body that is both powerful and yet subject to power and control. Another in-progress sculpture in the studio, a thick wedge of slick red jesmonite, will eventually approximate the form of a bloody ox liver that Wahid encountered in a meat market in Kurdistan. (It brings to mind the work of Paul Thek, whom she cites as an influence.)

The contemporary grotesque is interested in how bodies that are different from the white, male norm are treated as aberrant or monstrous.

Wahid is drawn to the great diversity of textures and colors that exist in bodies (in flesh, organs, offal), as well as the relationship between butcher and animal. She wants, in some way, to approach her role as a sculptor like a meat handler—with both violence and reverence—and to create forms that are live and confrontational. To frame her work solely in terms of power dynamics is to simplify it, however. She is interested in bodies in states of transformation, in their formal nuances and their vast capacity for expression. (She showed me a picture of an Assyrian frieze at the British Museum, which features the form of a hunted lion, its upper body upright and fierce, its hind legs shot through and flaccid—a single body in which “you have something really strong but at the same time dead and limp,” she explained.) But she does want her sculptures to have autonomy and wield a certain affective power in the room.

Jala Wahid, Broken Lining (detail), 2017. Courtesy of the artist.

When bodies spill out of their boundaries, or when parts are severed from the whole, they become something unsettlingly other. That forces viewers to renegotiate the borderlands between inside and outside, between themselves and the source of their disquiet. In Wahid’s work, body parts and unidentifiable cuts of meat force viewers into a visceral encounter with objects that are familiar, but also alien. “A human corpse is not in itself abject, but one’s encounter with it certainly is,” Connelly writes, describing an idea within the philosopher Julia Kristeva’s seminal 1982 essay on the abject in art. This recalibration of one’s relationship to the object engages the body as it tries to gauge whether the foreign article is a source of threat or attraction—perhaps both.

In the work of sculptor Doreen Garner, we see this at play to profoundly disturbing effect. In some cases hung from meat hooks, her hulks of fleshy silicone are neither human nor meat—too dismembered and deformed to be human, too suggestive of the whole to be flesh alone. Upon inspection, the horrifying human steaks, pierced with pins, reveal the fingers of a hand, or a stray breast. Garner’s objects are intended to touch a nerve deep in the viewer’s own body—specifically, to register the trauma visited on the bodies of enslaved black women by members of the American medical industry. This is the grotesque as a means to produce shock and empathy—to expose the transformation of the body into something monstrous as a consequence of the abuse of power.

Doreen Garner, Onika, 2014. Courtesy of the artist and JTT, New York.

Doreen Garner, Red Rack of those Ravaged and Unconsenting, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and JTT, New York.

Garner’s work occasionally recalls the work of a historical pioneer of the grotesque in art—Robert Gober—in particular, works like the artist’s Untitled (1990), a slumped chest cast in wax that sprouts a female breast on one side, a hairy male pectoral on the other. This crumpled human fragment expresses the vulnerability of the human body, and insists on its gender hybridity, while also speaking to another abuse of power that simmers beneath his work—that of the U.S. government’s failure to respond to the AIDS crisis.

A fascination with monstrous bodies

Jana Euler, detail of Global warnings (people who are over 100 years old), 2018. Photo by Kristien Daem. Courtesy of the artist and dépendance, Brussels.

Jana Euler, detail of Global warnings (people who are over 100 years old), 2018. Photo by Kristien Daem. Courtesy of the artist and dépendance, Brussels.

The grotesque, of course, is not owned by women artists. It’s interesting, as well, to note how queer artists, in addition to Gober, have played in this terrain. In his latest show, at Ashes/Ashes, Ryan McNamara presented a sculptural showcase that included I Can’t Even Think Straight (2018), a sad, cartoonish figure practically melting off the wall. Faces dissolve into pools of liquid fish scales (Whispers, 2018); a series of gungey monsters with skin dripping from their brains joyfully snap selfies. The ghoulish group was in part conceived as a celebration of the queer nightclub in Phoenix, Arizona, where McNamara danced with other outcasts and misfits in his youth.

But women, too, are deploying monstrous bodies in the world to empower the marginalized, or to satirize cultural norms and behaviors around age and gender. In two of artist Jana Euler’s latest paintings, she seems to offer biting commentary on our culture’s existential angst and exaltation of youth. Global warnings (people who are over 100 years old) (2018) is a mosaic of portraits of the elderly, each with a fantastically warped face. They are melted, pinched, and sunken, with cyclops eyes glaring from foreheads, and mouths swiveled 180 degrees.

Jana Euler, race against yourself, 2018. Photo by Kristien Daem. Courtesy of the artist and dépendance, Brussels.

In race against yourself (2018), a naked man rides an equine incarnation of himself, hands and feet turned into muscular hooves. This ghastly centaur and its rider are set against a fleshy backdrop composed of a snaking, human-faced colon, squeezed into the painting’s borders. The work speaks to something deeply perverse in human psychology—a propensity to hurtle through our lives at break-neck speed until our bodies crumple and we hit the grave. We can’t escape our own proclivities, much less our flesh and blood.

Indeed, a profound awareness of human mortality is rarely far from the surface when it comes to the grotesque. When I asked Connelly about the common preoccupation with degrading flesh and food, she had this to say: “Life is constant change; we’re eating the world, the world eats us. We’re all mortal. We’re all human. We’re all meat. That’s seen as really traumatic.”

Other artists have created distorted, dismembered, and multi-limbed bodies to more optimistic effect. Christina Quarles paints bending tangles of limbs, bodies that insist on setting their own parameters and determining their own identities. Cindy Sherman continues to irreverently expand the possibilities of the grotesque, harnessing digital technologies to create fabulously idiosyncratic faces via her Instagram feed—ones that contort her visage in every direction except towards any convention of beauty; her fictional selfies are gloriously aging, sun-damaged, plastered in makeup, with features too big, too small, too gender-ambiguous.

Sherman expands the aesthetics of the (female, queer) body. In Maisie Cousins’s saturated close-ups of decaying messes of flesh, entrails, petals, prawns, and flies, too, something generative emerges. Cousins’s celebratory collisions of wet body parts, food remnants, and plants give the abject a facelift. Images of mild disgust find a place within the aesthetic of slick fashion magazine advertising. As such, they variously recall Sherman’s glossy, stomach-turning mixtures of waste, Marilyn Minter’s photorealistic renderings of gaudily made-up bodies and imperfections, and Gina Beaver’s paintings of bodies and fast food. (The latter artist will open an exhibition at MoMA PS1 in March.) Cousins’s photographs are full of innuendo, ripe, inviting us to find beauty in things spilling outside of their borders—to see our own bodies in the bounty of organic matter that the world has to offer.

Photographs by Maisie Cousins. Courtesy of the artist.

It makes sense that among a generation increasingly comfortable with open, fluid approaches to identity—and fluent in the great toxic and transformational soup of the internet—artists value aesthetics rooted in states of change and hybridity. “I feel that is a constant, to be in a permanent state of transition,” Simnett told me. “In a sense, everyone is undergoing a mutation. It’s where I feel most natural. You get to meet a million more people, species, ideas. It’s like tendrils constantly reaching out, rather than staying put.” This hunger to explore and break down the boundaries of human experience, however anxious or unsettling—to deconstruct and reinvent the body—is generating some of the most vital and complex art being made today.

Tess Thackara

Header video by Maisie Cousins. Courtesy of the artist.