“I don’t see any kitsch.”
Curator Bradford J. Salamon pauses a moment after shaking my hand, raises an eyebrow, then asks, “Oh, really?”
I sweep my arms around me, pointing at the fortysomething pieces in the gallery. Aside from a Margaret Keane wide-eyed girl poking her head over a brick wall, none of it actually qualifies as kitsch.
Bad art created by artists trying to create good art, kitsch is a good-faith stab at making something important that isn’t. It’s art that appeals to the easiest of sentimentalities and is comfortable, with the safety of a large audience in mind. Think Thomas Kinkade’s cruddy landscapes of homes covered in snow, windows illuminated by light. Kitsch is the art equivalent of George Orwell’s “prolefeed,” mass-produced garbage news, entertaining and titillating, distributed to the uneducated to distract them and keep them stupid.
Coastline Art Gallery’s awkwardly titled “Kitsch-In-Sync: Art and Its Opposite” is laid out like a quick flip through an Instagram account. Uninteresting art is hung next to great art is hung next to garbage art is hung next to meh art, and then the cycle begins again. In his rambling catalog intro (and in person), Salamon’s reasons for the show are all over the place, asking a surfeit of questions about the role of gatekeepers, artists and how they view themselves; how opinions on art change over the years; what themes should or should not be represented; and whether art should have meaning. Those are valuable ideas worth discussing, but the exhibition almost wholly ignores the intended theme, as if the artists involved didn’t understand what the show was about or because Salamon’s lack of clarity on the subject sabotaged it.
I won’t bother to mention work that’s unexciting or middle-of-the-road or that aggressively tries to be offensive (with the exception of the moronically pretentious Post Prandial Puke by Eric Minh Swenson, an installation of record albums, cigars, vomit and unspecified “DNA,” something so ineptly executed and flat-out ugly that the less said about it, the better). Some of the most interesting work references kitsch without crossing the line into it: agit-prop maestro Jeff Gillette’s hate-on for Disney’s fabricated happiness, Toilet Castle, putting Mickey and friends amid Third World squalor; Arthur Taussig’s smile-inducing OOO MAO MAO, built of communist propaganda buttons inside a bamboo frame; Kent Twitchell’s Godfather of Branding, a pencil-on-polytab rendering of Kinkade’s portrait; Kerri Sabine-Wolf’s elegant American Flamingo; and Tom Dowling’s pareidolia installation, The Madonna Inn and Other Destinations with Wallpaper, a visage built from two picture-frame eyes, a plastic chandelier, vase and fringe-table nose and mouth, topped off with a Frida Kahlo-esque unibrow of draped brocade. And I laughed at Michael Flechtner’s Maneki Neko Menorah made of wood, dreidels and plastic Japanese beckoning cats.
Other exceptional work has zero to do with the show’s themes: Regina Jacobsen’s Abomination, a jaw-droppingly intricate feminist oil painting of a topless woman that’s half dresser dummy against the ominous background of a church altar festooned with flowers; David DeFelice’s well-painted but otherwise innocuous oil-and-charcoal canvas Jungle High Tide, with several men holding fish that they’ve caught; Ciara Rafferty’s levitating pool furniture in Austin Motel One; Serena Potter’s intriguing photorealistic painting Dilemma, with two adult women looking at a stash of dirty magazines found in a man’s closet; Kristine Schomaker’s melancholic conceptual piece, Comfort and Joy, its vacuum-sealed plastic bags filled with gaudy Yogurtland spoons hanging on the wall; Jeffrey Vallance’s delicate mummified fruit inside a reliquary, Environmental Orange, speaks vividly of OC’s past while also looking damn cool; Joel Woodard’s Vicegrips, a haunting acrylic on a 50-inch-by-36-inch canvas, its office-desk IT grunt slowly turning into his faceless-drone co-workers; Laurie Hassold’s skeletal rat odes to Banksy; Karrie Ross’ child-like mixed-media Your Stairway Lies in the Whispering Wind; and Little Bed, David Michael Lee’s clever ode to Rauschenberg’s Bed, the artist’s ingenious pillow cases for sale bringing the show back to the theme of kitsch’s more mercenary focus.
Obviously, just those mentions would suggest that the exhibition is filled with a host of talented artists—and it is. Even if the quality of the work is uneven, Salamon has fine taste, and most of it is at least interesting. But much of it is also too self-conscious and deliberate, trading heart and passion for an empty smirk and a wink. The bread-and-circus appeal of kitsch doesn’t ask the hard questions, keeping us ignorant and uninformed at the expense of a new, less trivial understanding of life. In a world in which most people can’t tell if the news they’re reading or hearing is true, a public differentiation between seductive junk and meaningful work is important, but this missed opportunity isn’t the show to do it. Artists making art about kitsch isn’t actually kitsch; it’s just time wasted by good artists making stuff not worthy of their talent.
“Kitsch-In-Sync: Art and Its Opposite” at Coastline Art Gallery, 1515 Monrovia Ave., Newport Beach; coastlineartgallery.blogspot.com. Open Tues. & Thurs., noon-4 p.m.; Wed., 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Through March 21. Free.
Dave Barton has written for the OC Weekly for over twenty years, the last eight as their lead art critic. He has interviewed artists from punk rock photographer Edward Colver to monologist Mike Daisey, playwright Joe Penhall to culture jammer Ron English.