December 12-18, 2002
Kitsch and high art cohabitate at Wexler Gallery's current show.
Clement Greenberg argued, pretty convincingly, in his essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” that, for a variety of sociopolitical reasons, kitsch developed as a clever bit of mimicry into a simplified “cardboard cutout,” that made art accessible to just about anybody. Since then, the idea that mainstream “high” art can be rejuvenated by the ideas, imagery and styles of popular “low” art has been demonstrated in the work of artists like Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Mike Kelley, and in recent times more and more artists have used popular culture as a source. We can see excellent examples in this exhibition, curated by local artist Rain Harris. By appropriating aspects of kitsch, the 15 American artists whose work is gathered together in this show all grapple with the moral, social and political dimensions of taste. But they all do it by channeling their ruminations through an aesthetic processing of authentic experience and, just as important, by investing the “cardboard cutout” of kitsch with complexity and a weighty sensuality.
Several of the artists with work in the show draw inspiration from the history of decorative art, especially from the flamboyant Rococo or Victorian periods. Harris and Susan Beiner rely on the absurdity of excess to make an ironic homage to their sources of inspiration. Beiner's Aquatic Bulge, a glazed porcelain teapot with odd organic growths on its spout, neck and handle, is encrusted with thousands of tiny ceramic shells, leaves and other organic forms, while Harris' Little Miss Priss Gets Dressed Up (2002), a vessel formed from three gourd shapes, four feet and nine openings, is covered with a pattern of store-bought decals of purple and white violets. Likewise, Nermin Kura and Matt Towers employ a method of overemphasizing certain aspects of their big, overstated vessels -- using, respectively, floral motifs and extruded squiggles -- raucously stretching the constraints of a functional object.
Small figurines, ranging from Meissen-ceramics sentimentality to Franklin Mint quasi-historicism, provide a starting point for other artists. Inspired by the lowliest kitsch, Linda Cordell's garishly self-conscious Cat Fight (2002) shows a scrawny cat wearing boxing shorts and gloves. Paradoxically, the cat is beautifully crafted of porcelain with a luminous, pearly blue-white glaze over lovely textured fur. Adelaide Paul's understated miniature porcelain dogs, on the other hand, appear surprisingly and pleasantly oblivious to their surroundings. A winsome female nude, made by Christyl Boger, is refreshed by a postmodern sampling of patterns. Russell Biles' marvelous figurines of JonBenet Ramsey are ominous and complicated souvenirs of American pop culture. All of these artists outmaneuver our expectations of lowbrow figurines by adding deeper layers of social commentary and unbridled sensuality.
Kim Dickey, Lady J (Cornea #2) (1996), 2 1/4
inches by 6 1/2 inches, porcelain.
Sex and other private physical functions provide the framework even more overtly for the work of a few other artists. Emily Keown's colorful knitted covers for a toilet and urinal speak about our desire to hide these functions, while playfully referring to the knitting hobbyist's obsessive covering of objects like toasters or computers. Kim Dickey also addresses bodily function in her Lady J series. These are exquisite white porcelain shell-like objects with scallops and spouts, which are meant to be handheld and functional as female urinals. (The show also contains elegantly Rabelaisian photos of the pieces in use.) The flattened and smooshed spheres and nipples of Scott Bennett's small pieces are evocative of sexuality and the body, though the glazes -- gold, splotchy pink and green -- are anything but naturalistic. Sergei Isupov's remarkable sculptural pieces are inspired in part by figurines, but contain many unconventional references to the body and sexual fantasies. In Obsession (2002), for example, Isupov starts with the detached form of a human leg and draws a mournful human face on one side, a series of tiny male nudes on the other and, on top, a lovely depiction of a hand resting gently on an exposed clitoris.
Employing the predictable sweetness of the clichéd ceramic collectible and paperweight, two other artists have injected unexpected visions of violence and death. Charles Krafft has made a series of implements out of porcelain with a painted blue decorative pattern. His attractively decorated ceramic machine gun, grenade and switchblade, though clearly nonfunctional, address deeply troubling social issues. Similarly, a huge and impractical paperweight by John Byrd, Untitled (Paperweight) (2000), offers a disturbing combination of flowers, butterflies and dead animals caught weightlessly in a clear plastic heart surrounded by a blue satin ruffle. At 32 inches by 32 inches by 10 inches, this piece can't really function as a paperweight, but it's loaded with uncomfortable contradictions involving love, death and real sentiment.
Clement Greenberg believed that kitsch provides the viewer with "a shortcut to the pleasure of art that detours what is necessarily difficult in genuine art." Happily, there are no shortcuts to the meaning of any of the work in this exhibition; each artist takes us on an even longer journey from art to kitsch and back to art again.
Tastefully Tawdry: An Exhibition of Contemporary Ceramics, Through Dec. 24, Wexler Gallery, 201 North Third St., 215-923-7030