Highlights from the Brenau Collection: Hank Virgona’s “Urinal”

Nov 29, 2018
Allison Lauricella

A Reflection on Beauty
An excerpt from Jennifer Benitez’s presentation at the 2018 Brenau Research Symposium

This piece by New York artist Hank Virgona is titled Urinal and was created in 1976. It was created by the use of mixed media, including watercolor, acrylic, pen and graphite. Up close and in person, you can see almost every stroke of his brush — in what appears to be a sort of wash that is likely a mix of watercolor and acrylic. Closer to the actual handle of the urinal is what appears to be pen and marker. The overall colors of the piece are muted and muddied, while the lines of the handle and the urinal are hard and prominent. The urinal contrasts the background and is placed directly in the center so that it can be directly established as the focal point. There is also an intentional use of light that hits the subject, highlighting the metal handle and top corners of the urinal.

Jennifer Benitez at the 2018 Brenau University Research Symosium. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

When I imagine a piece in a gallery, I picture a beautiful subject created with the use of elegant techniques, representing some hidden meaning or capturing an iconic moment in history. Here, is a urinal.

Aesthetically, I couldn’t understand why, until I realized the questions this piece set up for discussion. What standards define beauty in art? And how do we decide what a quality subject is? By presenting a less than refined subject in a beautiful medium, the subject’s original use and context has been transformed.

This urinal gives the backhand to the traditional values that we carry as viewers. This piece was created in 1976, ironically, during a time when the feminist art movement was flourishing in America. Women were demonstrating and showing their advocacy of women’s rights and liberation of their sexuality through art, so Virgona was essentially doing the same, just through the perspective of a male. By changing the subject’s original purpose into something new, he managed to add value to his subject.

If I’m talking about a painting of a urinal, I have to at least pay homage to another famous urinal — Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. Going back to my aesthetics and criticism class, I remember being asked, “Do you consider this art?” and immediately answering, “No!”  

It is the opposite of traditional beauty. My initial natural human response is negative, but a response has been triggered nonetheless. Fountain was a complete attack and challenge to the established art world, a test to see how far the definition of art could be stretched and a way of seeing if the subject of a piece really matters.

This is where Virgona’s and Duchamp’s works share a similarity other than their subject matter. They have taken the intent of a utilitarian object and transformed it into a meaningful object. I spoke to Virgona during my research, and he mentioned something very interesting about his inspiration. He was doing his business in a stall, when he looked up and saw this urinal through the crack. He didn’t remember what time of day it was, but he remembered that, at that moment, the light was hitting the urinal so beautifully that he felt the intense need to capture it.

Virgona didn’t care that the purpose or appearance of the original subject wasn’t beautiful. He pictured the subject being beautiful in the medium in which he was going to capture it.

Not everyone sees the beauty in the little things, and this was a way of creating a dialogue on how beauty within a subject is subjective. Ugly things can be made beautiful and beautiful things made ugly, all through the power of art. Urinal stimulates a reaction by taking a questionable subject and making it look beautiful, making us as an audience take into question what our culturally conditioned responses to subject matter and beauty are.