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Charlie White: Champion   
© Charlie White
Photo courtesy of powerHouse Books



By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 18 OCTOBER 2007 —The appearance of two new books of contemporary art allows us to pause and consider the power of New Kitsch. We needn’t pause that long, however, because true to the aesthetic of New Kitsch, each of those books takes no longer than two minutes to absorb. Given the time pressures and multiple distractions of contemporary life, two minutes may be all that a book on any subject can hope to obtain from a modestly attentive reader. When, after all, was the last time that anyone other than academics or students carved out time for a serious novel? While sharing the speakers’ platform at the New York Public Library with Günter Grass recently, Norman Mailer remarked that the people who trouble themselves even to write those novels will soon be regarded as eccentric as the authors of verse plays.

Extrapolating from Mailer’s prognosis, it won’t be long before all books will completely reveal themselves in less than the time it takes to brew a cup of coffee, but in the meantime, we have the contemporary art world—that charmed coalition of aesthetic social climbers—to bring us our quickie reads. Two recent entries stand out: one from Marilyn Minter (b. 1948, Shreveport, Louisiana), an artist who seems unafraid to try her hand at any two-dimensional medium, and the other by Charlie White (b. 1972, Philadelphia), a photographer first and last.

We must distinguish the New Kitsch sensibility of these two artists from that of the masters of Old Kitsch (formerly known simply as kitsch). Old Kitsch emphasized technique over content—or form over substance, if you will. It was characterized by excessive sentimentality and typified by once-respected, later passé (and now somewhat resurgent) painters such as Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Paul-Joseph Jamin. It was academic, simplistic and so 1890.

The New Kitsch is not sentimental. It is self-knowingly cool; but coolness, like sentimentality, is about showing off at the expense of perception and engagement. The cool man at the bar is a poseur, making minimal contact, doing his best not to be noticed enjoying how much he is being noticed. Cool art is rather the same: art that dares the viewer to admire and envy the artist’s sophistication, art that presumes to stand a cut above all except those in the know, smirking down upon those who don’t get it or can’t deal with it. All kitsch uses the human spirit as a mirror to reflect the spotlight upon the artist and patron, rather than the other way around. Like the Old Kitsch, New Kitsch requires only a short reach by the artist for an easy score, the difference being that New Kitsch replaces sentimentality with shock and mockery. What further unites Old Kitsch and the new is its obviousness. To be kitsch, a work must lack nuance and subtlety—those qualities that draw you back to it, making you see it with fresh eyes and perhaps finding new meaning whenever you return.

Marilyn Minter: Bullet, 2004
© Marilyn Minter
Photo courtesy of Gregory R. Miller & Co.

When Paul-Joseph Jamin painted Le Brenin et sa part du butin (Brenn and his Share of the Plunder, shown in the Paris salon in 1893) there was no pretense of subtlety. A merry, spear-carrying barbarian stands at a Roman doorway, his left foot overtopping a puddle of blood, while five maidens (four of them nude, and two of those in delightfully erotic bondage) await with fear and loathing the barbarian’s introduction of himself as their new boyfriend. The addition of a servant opening the door, a severed head and a small golden statue of a Roman god on whom one of the women gazes in a forlorn hope of divine intervention only compound the overall sense of silliness. At least Jamin had to demonstrate he could model the human form. The New Kitsch has no such barriers to entry.

In the three decades before his death in 2004, Helmut Newton was the grand master of New Kitsch in photography. Centered on fetishistic female nudes, Newton’s art is instantly understandable and often memorable, but by adhering to the rule of obviousness that defines all kitsch, it manages to add not a gram to the emotional weight that photography has provided to our collective understanding of the human experience. In sculpture, the grandmother of New Kitsch is Judy Chicago, whose monumental sculpture The Dinner Party (1974-1979) tries to do what art almost never can: be both political and good. Fair enough: Jacques-Louise David, with his Le Serment des Horaces (The Oath of the Horatii, 1784), accomplished just that, as have our best cartoonists, but the exceptions only help to define the rule. The Dinner Party consists of long tables forming a pubic triangle, each place setting representing in some dull and obvious way the life and contribution of a great woman of history or myth. It’s as subtle as a television commercial and takes about as long to understand and appreciate.

Damian Hirst, with his buzz-sawed barnyard animals and his skull made of precious metal and jewels is the current darling of New Kitsch. There is even kitsch that does not require the artist to be an artist; consider Jenny Holzer , who posts her own aphorisms, sayings and meditations in a variety of media. It’s not merely that she has transformed art into writing; it’s that, as writing goes, hers isn’t that readable. It’s all platitude, chiseled in stone.

When kitsch works, at least on its own terms, it provides an easy reaffirmation of the patron’s values and beliefs, whether it is the sanctimonious belief in one’s view of God—as shown in the gargantuan sculpture of an Anglo-Saxon Jesus installed by the Mormons in Salt Lake City—or the smug belief in one’s own superiority to pop culture and consumerism, in the mode of contemporary art. Old Kitsch and New Kitsch equally embrace erotic titillation—not to respect it for the jollies it provides, but rather as an expedient, in the way that a comedian playing a tough room reaches for the cheap laugh earned by an off-color joke.

Marilyn Minter’s new book, Marilyn Minter (Gregory R. Miller & Co., 224 pages), champions so much of what we’ve come to expect from New Kitsch, it is practically a one-woman retrospective on the subject. There is a good deal of text in the book, but pushing that aside, you receive a trove of shock and mock: a portfolio of Warhol-influenced close-ups of food preparation (eroticized as 100 Food Porn (1989)) and multiple close-ups of women eating their jewels and of women in expensive shoes getting their feet soiled by foul weather and poor street maintenance.

Marilyn Minter: Shit-Kicker, 2006
C-print, 11 X 14 inches, unframed
Signed Edition of 100
© Marilyn Minter
Photo courtesy of Gregory R. Miller & Co.

Only a portfolio called M&M IV caused me to slow down in my sprint through the volume. The portfolio consists in the main of extreme close-ups of carnal embrace. I was particularly impressed with the four-image Porn Grid (1989), in which Minter (b. 1948 Shreveport, Louisiana) shows herself to be a master at rendering fellatio. I have only good things to say about that, starting with the fact that fellatio (from the Latin meaning "to suck") is perhaps the most beautiful-sounding word in the English language. My favorite among the images is the one in which it takes three eager female tongues, working in unison, to blow the job. I do have to stop, however, as I catch myself delighting in that labor of love, and ask if it is not anything but trite and obvious—which is to say, just another example of New Kitsch.

For Charlie White’s book, Monsters (powerHouse Books, 98 pages), the photographer has staged all his photographs in real-looking settings. The surrounding text in this instance is so minimal, even I had time to poke through it, and reference is made to artistic influences such as Paul McCarthy and Jeff Wall, which I understand, and Caravaggio , which I suppose I understand.

As with Minter’s works, White’s photographs both shock and poke fun at contemporary pop culture. A recurring motif is found in a life-sized (we can only so presume), nude space alien that intrudes itself into scenes of middle-class life. In Cocktail Party, the bare-assed extraterrestrial is chatting up a blonde while Homo sapiens socialize around the sofa and on the patio. In Sherri’s Living Room , Sherri, in the nude, lies with the alien on a sofa, consoling him over an unknown hurt. In Fantasy, the alien wrestles in bed with a man and a woman. The equally staged, but alien-free Midnight Snack shows a naked man and a nearly naked woman in an awkward conversational moment in the kitchen; although the models are actual human beings, they both rather look like the alien, so maybe there is a thematic link.

Monsters, in its large horizontal format, shows off the images, all of which are in color, to great advantage, and I rather enjoyed the two minutes I gave the photographs of Charlie White. It’s a fair question, however, to ask if merely staging a photograph makes it kitsch, and I think that the answer is no. What is kitsch is the staged photograph of the impossible; photographs of impossible scenes, especially color photographs, are too realistic in form to overcome the tension between the complete unreality of what is shown and the reality that the medium promises. All you get for your trouble is obviousness, which is to say, kitsch. If you don’t believe me, just ask any semi-talented amateur to show you what he’s been doing in Photoshop.

When White pulls back on his ambitions to be a contemporary artist and embraces photography as an end in itself, rather than a means to an end, the results are far more satisfying. Granddaughter   shows an attractive young woman standing in a formal living room, interrupted in the act of dining in the nude on a plate of fruit. It’s as contrived as his other images, but the young woman, unburdened by intergalactic intrusion, gets to show a bit of personality, which is to say, her humanity, in her hesitant but alluring gaze at the camera. White may not be the next Sebastião Salgado, but the image engages. The difference from the alien works in White’s book is that, however improbable it might seem that a woman might snack in the nude at Grandma’s house, improbable scenes challenge and delight (as Édouard Manet proved long ago with Le Déjeuner sur L’Herbe (Luncheon on the Grass, 1863)), whereas impossible scenes (involving extraterrestrials or, as in some of White’s images, their severed body parts) are there to show off.

Charlie White: Jody
© Charlie White
Photo courtesy of  powerHouse Books

Perhaps I can respond to Granddaughter because, however improbable it might appear, it does bring to mind images and feelings from real life. I recall how a neighbor across the street from me in New York City—a young, robust blonde known to me only as Blondie—would spend leisurely summer hours ironing in the nude, the lights of her bedroom ablaze. One afternoon, in that same bedroom, Blondie did literally everything that a lady can to make a gentleman caller feel welcome; then she moved away, presumably with her new friend.

Both the Minter and White books are intended as commentary on American pop culture. Why is it that contemporary artists think American pop culture and consumerism deserve any more commentary than they have already received? Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons already did the banality/celebrity-worship thing, and it’s hard enough to sustain interest in profound topics these days, let alone insubstantial ones.

I cannot help but reflect on the fact that, days before picking up the Minter and White books, I was in the Musée D’Orsay in Paris with my wife, where we viewed paintings by now so familiar, my wife said it was like reacquainting herself with old friends. There is L'Origine du Monde (The Origin of the World, 1866) by Gustave Courbet, which is nothing more than a close-up of female genitalia in a manner not unfamiliar to anyone who has opened Marilyn Minter’s book. And there are Olympia (1863) by Manet and Le Docteur Paul Gachet (Doctor Paul Gachet, 1890) by Vincent van Gogh —images, respectively, of erotic challenge and unhappiness familiar to anyone who has spent two minutes with Charlie White’s book. What gets me about those paintings (and almost anything else in the museum) is that, however many times I’ve seen them, whenever I see them again, they reveal something new to me about themselves and the experiences that motivated their creation. They resonate emotionally and they appeal intellectually. They are beautiful, and they are good. And they aren’t kitsch.

Marilyn Minter
Essay by Johanna Burton
Contributors: Mary Heilmann, Matthew Higgs

Gregory R. Miller & Co.(September 2007)
Hardcover, 224 pages
140+ color pages & 60 b/w pages
ISBN-10: 0-9743648-6-X,
ISBN-13: 978-0-9743648-6-5)

Photographs by Charlie White
Introduction by Sally O’Reilly
Interview by Benjamin Weissman

powerHouse Books (2007)
Hardcover, 96 pages
13.15 x 10.65 inches,
39 four-color photographs
ISBN: 978-157687-369-4

Alan Behr represents authors, artists and publishers as part of his law practice.  His own photographs can be seen at Leica Gallery in New York. Mr. Behr last wrote on the photography art market for   

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