The Pervasive Fingers of the Grotesque

Meat Cake by Ava Klinger

Anagnorisis is very proud to announce that Dr. Nancy Hightower, Instructor in the Program for Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Colorado, Boulder, will be conducting a talk in conjunction with Another Roadside Attraction, Anagnorisis’ group exhibit exploring a newly dubbed genre of art, the Neo-Grotesque.

If I’m understanding Nancy correctly, in her teachings, the grotesque does not define a single genre, but is instead a catalyst that can contribute greatly to paradigm shift. It is part of what defines the threshold where cultural meanings clash and collide, creating sublime dissonance (a meaty tug of war) that is constantly reshaping cultural points of view.

The term ‘Neo-Grotesque’ was coined recently, and tends to include work by artists who are considered to be a part of the Pop Surreal, (aka, the New Contemporary) genre. Nancy argues that the term Neo-Grotesque, seemingly meant to differentiate the darker Pop Surreal artwork from the entire movement of wide-eyed women and iterations of limited edition toys, may be extraneous.

To whet your appetite for her talk on November 20th at the Ise Cultural Foundation, I’ve asked Nancy some questions about her background and viewpoints on the visual arts.

Samantha Levin: Can you give a short definition of the grotesque?

Nancy Hightower:  There’s no easy, “catch all” definition for the grotesque, which is why, in one sense, scholars love to debate it, and in another, why it still remains mostly under the radar as a true research field. However, I would say that the grotesque in art, literature, film, etc. must always include some kind of juxtaposition of humor, horror, and beauty, and that these tensions must be equally in play so that the audience is taken, somewhat unawares, by the shock of such pathos. The grotesque does not exist merely to be shocking, but, as Geoffrey Galt Harpham argues in his book On the Grotesque, this aesthetic serves as the place for a paradigm shift to occur.

SL:  Tell me a bit about your interest in the visual arts. Your background is primarily in literature, right?

NH:  Yes, my graduate work was primarily in 19th century literature, with a focus on Henry James. But my teaching was focused on world literature, so I was teaching the strangest short stories by Franz Kafka, Rabelais, Flannery O’Connor, Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, etc. It was in my secondary research on these authors that I happened upon the theory of the grotesque, and then began including art with the literature. So now if we read Rabelais, I also show the class some paintings by Arcimboldo, Bosch, Bruegel. We analyze how the rhetoric of the grotesque works throughout both literary and visual texts.

Photo by Jonathan Wolf

SL: I hear the projects you have your students do can be quite impressive and uncomfortable in the best ways. Can you describe a couple of them for me (and do you have pictures)?

NH: I have my students create a grotesque scene that questions a “truth” in American culture. I try to steer them away from clichéd topics to look more at how the truth came about. So, for instance, one woman wanted to think about what it was that made marriages fail, and so through some pre-writing, came up with the thesis that our consumer culture drives us to consume each other. Her photograph was of the most beautiful wedding cake made of raw meat (see title image at the top of this post by Ava Klinger).   Another student worked in an assisted living facility, and he wanted to jolt us into knowing how often we bury alive our elderly. He took pictures of his grandmother wearing a body bag. He wasn’t a photographer, but the look he captured on her face reminded me of Diane Arbus’ photographs—the tragic and comic simultaneously working upon us (see photo above by Jonathan Wolf).

SL: Is the photo of the cake a photoshopped thing, or did she really make a cake with meat in it?

NH:  She made the cake!! I don’t allow Photoshop to be used in this assignment. So everything is very, very real.

Nancy Hightower is “a neurotic college teacher by day and insomniac fantasy writer by night…,” who has written short fiction for artists such as Christian Hahn and Beate Engl.  She has also written a stunning essay called Relevatory Monsters for Cute and Creepy, a very ambitious exhibit curated by Carrie Ann Baade that will be on view in Florida next year (more information to come on that as soon as we have it!!).

Please join us for her talk on the grotesque in art and literature,

with a focus on the artwork in Another Roadside Attraction on:

Saturday, November 20, 2010
6-8pm 5-7pm

ISE Cultural Foundation
555 Broadway
New York, NY 10012
T:212-925-1649

To RSVP for this event, please visit our Facebook event page here.

A gallery of work that will be included in Another Roadside Attraction can be found here and the event page for the opening can found here.

2 Comments

  1. Fantastic, Lori!!

  2. Can’t wait to attend!!!

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