For the love of kitsch 

Tacky, tasteless and totally irresistible

No matter how rough a work day she has weathered, Claire Butler can count on coming home and gazing into the mournful eyes of a homely, hungry poodle to give her a good, hearty laugh.

Actually, make that two homely, hungry poodles, each awkwardly rendered nearly life-size in oil paint by ungifted hands and looking out from plain wooden frames above Butler's couch.

The pitiful pair isn't alone. They share wall space with paintings of a dungaree-wearing chimp inexplicably clutching a baseball bat and at least a dozen kittens of varying artistic merit. Then there's Butler's most recent coup: a portrait of what was likely intended to be a Pekinese, but looks like a poorly executed Dr. Seuss creature against a shocking-pink background.

Butler has spent years amassing her prized collection of bad thrift-store art of other people's pets. The twisted synchronicity represented by the twin poodle paintings -- similar in composition and color scheme but bought years apart at different estate sales -- gives them the edge as her personal faves.

"As you can see, the poodles were both doomed to a corner with an empty food bowl," she explains, trying to keep a straight face. "Who would paint that?"

Yes, but just as relevant a question is: Who would buy that?

"Anything that is cheesy or overdone appeals to me," Butler answers cheerfully. "My home is my entertainment."

Butler, who has accumulated countless such collections since her high-school days, is an extreme devotee of that most maligned of cultural genres: kitsch.

And yet, kitsch is also one of the most beloved of cultural genres. From the twentyish hipster chick in Little Five Points who carries a "Facts of Life" lunchbox as a purse, to the yard sale fiend who freaks upon finding an amoeba-shaped ashtray in just the right shade of puke-green, kitsch is popularly embraced less as a guilty pleasure than as a legitimate expression of individuality.

Sculptured shag carpeting. Yard gnomes. Polyester leisure suits. Obscure Hanna-Barbera characters. Lawrence Welk records. Large wooden forks on the dining room wall. Textured prints from the "Pity Kitty" series. Any early brainchild of well-tanned marketing genius Ron Popeil. Spam croquettes. Each of these fit some kitsch maven's idea of cool.

Defined literally, "kitsch" is a German word essentially meaning "trash" or "junk." Introduced into popular lingo by 1940s art critics as a put-down for artwork that wallows in cheap sentimentality and comforting nostalgia, the term eventually found a broader use in describing almost any image, object or consumer product whose innate tackiness was once -- and may still be -- intertwined with a pop-culture sensibility. Kitsch collectors celebrate the allure they find in the disposable, the tasteless, the unfashionable, the schmaltzy, the hopelessly dated.

In the 1990s, kitsch proved to be the perfect aesthetic for jaded Gen-Xers, whose trademark approach to life is that of post-modern irony. That, in turn, has transformed ready-made kitsch -- from dashboard hula dancers to an array of T-shirts celebrating bad '70s sitcoms -- into a hot consumer commodity found lining local store shelves from Junkman's Daughter to Target.

The legion of folks buying into kitsch's retro-contrarian mindset has grown faster than you can say, "limited-edition Jim Beam whiskey decanter in the shape of a CB radio," another item proudly on display in the Butler household.

Butler's lifestyle is radically different from that of her youth. She grew up in rural South Georgia, the daughter of well-bred parents who were connoisseurs of expensive European antique furniture. When she was a teenager, she read that Andy Warhol had painted the interior of The Factory silver. Inspired, she covered the walls of her own bedroom in tinfoil the next day and was so delighted at her parents' horrified reaction that she decided to furnish it in similar style.

Today, she can scarcely recall the various collections she's amassed over the years: souvenir state plates from the golden age of Stuckey's; novelty fabrics; the "sad-eyed kids" paintings of Margaret Keane and her imitators; statuary of nude, embracing couples; and her latest interest, paint-by-numbers paintings -- but only copies of the pansy painting.

Like a museum curator, Butler will build and organize a kitsch collection until it gets old or she moves on to another subject. Then she boxes it up and stows it in her basement -- or simply gives it away. Serendipity and her love for trash culture is her guide.

Her most cherished collection is that of the fuzzy-plush tissue-box covers with the plastic doll's face on the front. She counts herself lucky to have found five in the past 20 years.

"Once something gets to be hip or popular, I usually decide to get rid of it," she says. "I have no interest in collecting anything for its value. As soon as my old lunchboxes started hitting $200 on eBay, I unloaded them."

To visit the home of Clay and April Croker in their quiet DeKalb subdivision is to step through a wormhole straight into a 1950s America that probably existed only in our revisionist imaginations. The living/dining room is a set decorator's wet dream: a console phonograph with built-in bar; a long, low couch with a tubular backrest; a complete turquoise-and-white dinette set; a cabinet from a vintage TV outfitted with a working picture tube; shadowboxes apparently dueling for the title of most outrageous; and pseudo-cubist artwork so far out of style it almost looks modern again. Almost.

Nearly every corner of the Crokers' ranch house has undergone a thorough retrofitting. The bathroom walls are spatter-painted to resemble vintage Formica; every scrap of drapery features a wrongheaded abstract pattern that would make Martha Stewart weep; wrapped in a straw mat, the rumpus room wet bar is a Polynesian oasis; numerous posters tout such schlock-horror films as 1956's The She-Creature ("Hypnotized! Reincarnated as a monster from hell!").

And the couple's new puppy? Named Tiki, it's -- what else? -- a toy poodle. "She completes our '50s motif," explains 40-year-old Clay Croker, half-smiling, perhaps wondering if their obsessiveness seems pathological to outsiders.

Croker, a Cartoon Network animator, fell under the thrall of mid-century kitsch about 15 years ago when he stumbled on a picture book about '50s style.

"As an animator, I'd rather draw a wacky '50s couch than some boring contemporary couch, and we just decided to furnish the house that way," he explains. "I grew up in a home with an early American decorating scheme, which I hated. It's like the kid whose parents wouldn't let him have a motorcycle, so he goes off to become a biker."

So dedicated is Croker to his chosen era that he constructed an intricate shrine to the drive-in theater in a corner of his basement. He also tricked out his back deck with functioning drive-in speakers so he can show movies on a screen hanging between two trees. The commanding, 8-foot highway sign for the old I-85 Drive-in is bolted to the back of the house, where it doubtless holds the same fascination for B-movie hounds as a chunk of the True Cross would for the faithful.

When the nearby drive-in was being dismantled a couple of years ago, the Crokers visited the construction site nearly every day to see what kitschy cast-offs they could salvage. Clay recalls holding a large hunk of concrete and peering through the full-length glass door of the old-school concessions stand inside. It had been abandoned in such haste that the candy signs, hot-dog machine and other vintage trimmings still sat untouched, a veritable time-capsule of Cold War-era nostalgia within reach. Squelching the desire to smash and grab, he dropped the concrete and went home. Returning the next day, he found the entire building and its trove of classic contents had been plowed under by a bulldozer.

Pesky things, personal ethics.

Dan and Lora Kohler have invested a sizable share of the last eight years and a disturbing portion of their disposal incomes trolling antique stores and the Internet for funky housewares. For Lora, kitsch is a matter of personal style that runs in the family. "In the '70s, my parents were into Danish Modern furniture and bright, melamine Heller dinnerware, so they were pretty hip," she says.

The Kohlers' Poncey-Highlands studio apartment, however, is stocked with items that likely would give even her once-mod parents pause. From the deep-pile shag rugs to the double-boomerang coffee table, from the table lamp fashioned of heavily shellacked driftwood festooned with plastic leaves to the vintage ephemera lining virtually every horizontal surface, there's scarcely an inch of the Kohler crib that doesn't reek of kitsch or retro-chic.

"Once you have the furniture, you've got to have the accessories," says Lora, an engineer. Among her prized possessions is an enviable collection of swag lamps composed of colorful spaghetti-string plastic and a near-complete set of the highly sought-after "Starburst" pattern dinnerware from the mid-'50s.

"Collecting Starburst is my one big indulgence," she confesses. "But it's something people at work just wouldn't understand because it's not what you'd think of as fine china."

Scattered throughout the apartment are several distinct collections of rather random stuff: an army of small plastic creatures Dan explains were the prizes from boxes of the nearly forgotten '70s cereal Freakies; various souvenirs featuring the fruit-headed "Florida Orange Bird"; assorted figurines and models of green-skinned hot-rodder Rat Fink; and a bathroom decorated completely in Charlie Tuna memorabilia.

If the cartoon rodent is arguably Dan's counter-culture hero, then the beret-wearing Starkist shill with the unexplained death wish is definitely Lora's. And the best part is, there's negligible competition from other collectors to drive up the price of cardboard displays, Frisbees and toys bearing his image. Sorry, Charlie.

"He's such a hipster, beatnik, '60s New Yorker," Lora says. "It's just absurd."

At least in the context of selling canned tuna.

"I like collecting the cute stuff, the fun, cartoonish stuff," she adds. "It's like getting back a piece of my childhood."

In this sentiment, of course, lies one of the cornerstones of kitsch's appeal. As children, before our sense of aesthetic taste has time to develop, we are drawn to that which is colorful, funny, sugar-coated and makes us feel good. So to rediscover and collect the gaudy relics and throwaway icons from our youth -- whether it be "Land of the Lost" or the Mr. T cartoon, Space Invaders or Donkey Kong, "Keep on truckin'" or "Where's the beef?" -- can be strangely comforting to adults who have to deal with mortgages and daily commutes.

But then, how is it that so many thirty-somethings and Gen-Xers have come to develop a deep sense of nostalgia for a time before they were born -- namely, the '50s?

The strange juxtaposition of an earnest, conservative (read: square) society that was nonetheless beginning to embrace a wild Space Age design sensibility -- cars sprouted tailfins, upholstery patterns turned abstract and surreal -- made the late '50s and early '60s the watershed years for American kitsch. Of course, as with most trend-spotting, this realization only came through hindsight.

Robert Sherer grew up outside lovely Huntsville, Ala., where his dad worked for NASA, his mother appeared to belong to the Bouffant-of-the-Month Club and every backyard cookout looked like a scene out of Apollo 13. The young Sherer was an avid Boy Scout struggling with his sexual identity who yearned to paint like the dead Dutch guys whose work showed up in film loops during art class. (Beep! Next frame.)

When he hit town to attend the Atlanta College of Art in the late '70s, Sherer was in for something of a rude awakening.

"I'd show people pictures of my family, and they'd all burst out laughing," he says. "It didn't occur to me that anyone would view my real life as kitsch, until I came to Atlanta and met some more sophisticated folks."

Sherer's own epiphany came when he first saw the early B-52's and finally got the joke. He immediately organized a road trip with friends to raid Alabama thrift stores and came back in a car filled with plastic go-go boots and polyester flares.

"It was scary how quickly I swung toward kitsch," he says. "For me, it was a rebellion from my former seriousness. Really, it came to me as a salvation."

As a celebrated local artist, Sherer draws on his own background to create works that sometimes cut too close to the bone for others who take themselves too seriously. His recent "Boy's Life" series, executed with an old wood-burning kit onto log cross-sections and leather in a graphic style reminiscent of old Scouting manuals, depicts pubescent boys engaged in vaguely suggestive camaraderie. It's unlikely to earn Sherer a merit badge.

"I've had people say, 'I know you're trying to make fun of this, but I don't get it and I don't appreciate you poking fun at real moments in my life,'" Sherer says, adding that he's likely to catch more heat for his current project, which uses skewed "Leave It to Beaver"-ish images to mock what he terms "heterosexual propaganda."

"But while I'm presenting these images as kitsch, I'd be lying if I said I didn't have a deep love for this stuff," he says. "To me, kitsch has a special ingredient that the merely tasteless or tacky don't have; it must have an emotional pull for people. It should have a pathos."

To further refine our definition, consider the following:

An object doesn't have to be in bad taste to be kitsch (although it certainly helps); however it should at least be in "low taste" -- designed to appeal to the broadest possible audience -- or sufficiently banal. From Warhol's soup can to Lichtenstein's "true romance" comic panels and Rauschenberg's use of found objects, pop artists have used everyday, otherwise meaningless, items from consumer culture to make an instant connection with the viewer.

More recently, graphic artist Paul Frank has appropriated such pop-culture icons as the monkey sock puppet and Hello Kitty for his kitschy designs, while Italian sportswear company Iceberg has crossed familiar Disney and Warner Bros. cartoon characters with designer jeans to create ironic fashion statements in which the joke is on anyone willing to pay post-modern prices. And we haven't even mentioned the late Versace's über-Greco designs.

Nor are bad taste or mere banality enough to elevate an item to kitsch status; a certain over-the-top Je ne sais quoi is required. For instance, Martin Denny and Esquivel are kitsch, but 101 Strings and Mantovani are simply crap. Wild-patterned disco shirts are kitsch, while Member's Only jackets are just dorky.

Kitsch appreciation, by its very nature, is somewhat elitist and conspiratorial. Not only is the collector effectively proclaiming that he knows the difference between good taste and bad, but that he is sophisticated enough to see the ironic beauty in objects that fall somewhere beyond the pale. The hipster who leaves the house wearing a chartreuse Ban-lon shirt, plaid double-knit high-waters and two-tone loafers is implicitly appealing to those who will "get" it and considers his outfit something of a joke at the expense of people who assume his mother simply dresses him funny.

And kitsch doesn't have to be old, although a certain distance is often needed to allow people to rediscover an object they previously dismissed merely as tacky. That's why an old Avon cologne bottle in the shape of a Southern belle is considered kitsch, but the latest saccharine offering from the Franklin Mint registers only as tasteless junk. And while the work of Thomas Kinkade, self-described "Painter of Light" and tireless Christian panderer, fits the strictest, most classic definition of kitsch, it will be decades before any hipster with a molecule of taste would want that dreck in his house.

Conversely, mere age does not confer kitschiness. While Danish Modern housewares and Heywood-Wakefield furniture are inextricably linked to mid-century style, their grace and timelessness rescue them from the realm of kitsch.

Claire Butler wistfully recalls the halcyon days of Elvis collecting, when she visited Graceland just after The King's death to show her respect by dropping a wad on non-licensed Elvis shot glasses and plaster busts at the cheesy store across the street.

Back in the day, the kitsch queen sang in underground bands and hung out with the likes of Ru Paul, living in a house decked out in cool-looking vintage junk. But, Butler admits, "The appliances often didn't work and the furniture wasn't comfortable. As I get older, I find myself buying a new coffee-maker to replace the used one."

A deference to convenience and accepted good looks may be the first moves away from a kitsch lifestyle, according to Vic Matich, whose 20th Century Antiques in Virginia-Highland has been a '50s mecca going on 20 years.

"The people still buying kitsch now are kids and those who have no money," he says. "Five years ago, I sold 500 lava lamps; now I sell none. The trend right now is the better-quality '50s stuff that blends well with more contemporary furnishings. You can't put a sunburst clock next to a $6,000 Le Corbusier chair because it just dates and kills the piece."

In other words, most home-owning adults now want their vintage timeless, not tacky.

Of course, if contemporary culture has a mantra, it's that context is everything. But for a critical eye to discern its discreet charm, the objet de kitsch is just another piece of junk on the shelf at Goodwill. Look at it this way: Does a bright aqua kid-suede-and-mohair cardigan sweater qualify as kitsch if your great uncle still wears it every day, or only after it's been snatched up at the estate sale by some goateed slacker pup?

There's one special evening of kitsch Robert Sherer will always remember fondly. He was tagging along with friends to a backyard luau thrown at the Sandy Springs home of Howard and Joyce Schulman when he thought he'd died and gone to Polynesia. A 6-foot tiki idol overlooked the swimming pool, which was flanked by large lava rocks and ringed with torches. A swinging bridge led guests over to a wooden platform where the host mixed drinks at a bar shaped like a boat. But the crowning touch was the hostess, Sherer recalls.

"Joyce came out wearing clear acrylic heels with live goldfish swimming inside," he says, his voice betraying excitement even now. "Her hair was stacked high and parted; between the two peaks was a tiny footbridge with a little Japanese girl holding a parasol."

Sherer and his friends tried to get their middle-aged hostess to dish about her kitschy getup, but it quickly became clear, he says, that she had intended no irony: She simply thought she was stylin'. "Here she was, the paragon of all that we had been trying to achieve and she didn't realize what it meant to us," he says.

Howard Schulman is surprised to be remembered now, years after his divorce, for his home's tiki theme. It's true that he was inspired to overhaul his backyard after visiting Disney World's Polynesian Village in the late '70s, and he still sounds bummed that engineers couldn't get the lava rocks to shoot flame like he had wanted.

But the tiki idol is long gone, he says, and there are so many other multi-cultural influences present. The dining room is Asian motif, the bedroom African; two Japanese statues stand guard beside the Jacuzzi. Elsewhere in the meticulously maintained house, Mexican pottery sits next to West African totems next to Chinese sculpture.

A ship made entirely of burnt matchsticks hangs opposite a large macrame landscape; a black velvet painting of Moses holding the 10 Commandments anchors the hallway. A troll doll, wearing a warm-up suit and sweatband under his flying mop of green hair, stands majestic on a white piano. In the guest bathroom, a vintage footprint bath mat hangs over the shower railing. The front door bell plays "The Star-Spangled Banner."

It took some effort for the Schulmans to get their home just like they wanted it, Howard says.

"When we bought the house, it had lime-green shag carpet and monkey wallpaper," he says, shaking his head. "It was so atrocious."

scott.henry@creativeloafing.com

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