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March 25 - April 22, 2006 at Gallery Revisited, Silver Lake

by Mario Cutajar

Kitsch is empty calories for the soul: the saccharine junk food capitalism sells you as a substitute for community.  The prototypical example is Disneyland, at whose entrance you pass through a Norman Rockwell-fantasy of a small town that the homogenizing ethos of corporate behemoths like Disney long ago made obsolete.  Not that Disney invented kitsch.  More than a decade before Disneyland opened, Tod Hackett, the artist protagonist in Nathaniel West’s “Day of the Locust,” walks the streets of Hollywood observing office workers dressed as tennis players and shabby apartments done up as mosques, and introduces the reader to a vision of Los Angeles as an infernal theme park. (In my movie version, the artist hero would be Llyn Foulkes.)

Since the advent of Pop, the fashionable response to kitsch has been irony.  As a mode of cultural critique, irony has proved that there is no way to put quotation marks around an entire culture from within that culture.  Kitsch is all around us, and Pop irony is now no more (if it ever was more) than a digestive aid that enables the hip to consume the unhip.

So ubiquitous is kitsch that to exclude any association with it at this point is to remove oneself from practically all contact with anything resembling a shared culture.  For an artist that can be fatal (in a literal sense if you’re Mark Rothko).  Another option, of course, is to revel in the stuff.  And this is precisely what a number of younger artists, whose cultural memories are unburdened by nostalgia for anything that predated music videos, have been doing.  Welcome to bubblegum art.

Or in the case of YaYa Chou, who is one half of a two-woman show titled “Consumerism and Product #1,” to Gummi Bear art.  Chou’s most noteworthy object to date has been a chandelier made entirely of the chewy kid’s treat.  The other works in the show are a great deal more traditional, to the point of almost being Victorian.  They consist of various types of appliqué work on small canvases.  A representative work, “Rosie,” is an 18-inch tondo, painted tea rose pink and embellished with painted roses and flowers whose petals are false fingernails.  In the center, there is a fabric appliqué of a baby bear examining its paws.  The whole thing has the exquisiteness of a keepsake.  If there’s irony intended, it is subtle to the point of invisibility.

YaYa Chou, "Rosie," mixed media
painting including false fancy fingernails
on canvas, 18" diameter.

YaYa Chou, "Antler," mixed media.

YaYa Chou, "Chandelier," Gummi
Bears and mixed media.

Katy Bowen, "Quonset Hut,"
mixed media on panel.

Katy Bowen, "Hedgehog,"
mixed media on panel.

Katy Bowen, "Loch Ness,"
mixed media on panel.
Katy Bowen's work bears a superficial resemblance to Chou's insofar as Bowen, like Chou, also uses hobbyist craft materials.  These are introduced into her paint-by-numbers-like landscapes in the form of felt-lined pits and pompom-stuffed occlusions that are at once abstract and vaguely suggestive of lesions.  These disruptions mirror the outlines of the dominant shapes in the paintings but this simple, not to say simple-minded, relationship only accentuates their foreignness. The overall effect is of paintings afflicted with pastel acne. The artist thus manages to achieve, quite deliberately, the dorky hideousness that hobbyists usually only perpetrate unwittingly.  Is this yet another exercise in affirming that bad taste is the new good taste? In which case, Bowen would just be another hipster grooving on kitsch.  I think there's more to it than that.  Bowen is constructing a fictional hobbyist persona that reveals kitsch as the end product of trying to own the sublime.

The point becomes clearer when these paintings are viewed in connection with the artist's “Quonset Hut Visitors Center Gift Shop” project, which consists of an entire line of merchandise themed to a fictional historic site. Since the time Claes Oldenburg opened up “The Store" of refabricated everyday objects, the store/gallery analogy (the complement of the factory/studio analogy associated with Warhol) has served Pop artists as a means for reframing everyday objects as art and art itself as commodity.

Bowen's tourist-trap gift store sharpens the analogy, drawing a parallel between art dealing and tourism.  Both exploit the belief that the sublime is consumable and collectable, and pertains to a certain class of people who deserve or earn leisure.  In that sense, Bowen reveals something about kitsch that is easy to overlook.  Kitsch is not a type of object.  It is not a Precious Moments figurine or a tole painting.  It is the degradation that attends all commodification. The crafty (in both senses) hideousness of her work is a representation of this degradation, so "normal" in a world where everything and everyone is merchandise, that it takes a poke in the eye to draw attention to it. But let's not forget that in the context of the art world, a poke in the eye is also effective marketing.