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"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.
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