A Matter of Taste: Exhibition Essay

This was written as part of the first exhibition I curated, entitled ‘A Matter of Taste’ way back in 2014. It was a celebration of the past, present and future of Kitsch in New Zealand.

From the curator:

Tomas Kulka said that “if works were to be judged democratically- that is, according to how many people like them, then kitsch would easily defeat all of its competitors.”

Kitsch has had an ebb- and- flow relationship with both critical and popular opinion. Naysayers dismiss it for its overt garishness, sentiment, and mass-produced marketability. At the most extreme end of this spectrum, there are those who believe that kitsch is bad, even immoral for deliberately evoking such cheap and easy emotions. This is supposedly achieved by presenting the viewer with an illusionary world that is comfortingly perfect.

Despite these acerbic accusations, Kitsch has become an artistic field that holds a considerable amount of power, perhaps for the very reasons it was first reviled. It is still branded as art that cares nothing for taste. Consequently, it has become an integral element of modern culture, where ‘serious’ art may have little to it beyond a declaration of ‘superior’ judgment by a handful of academics.

Within contemporary art, aspects of Kitsch are recycled in an ironic or knowing way. It is a way of turning social commentary about irony and style as well as all of the associated Hipster-esque attitudes and assumptions into a commodity and vice-versa. By referencing Kitsch there is an argument for artists highlighting our dissatisfaction with the present. Our world is a product of the industrial revolution, urbanisation, and capitalism. While this is paradoxically partially what Kitsch celebrated, there is also an underlying desire for the past. But why do we have such strong sentimentality for bygone eras? Is it because of our desires for a more easily defined past? Does it help us feel superior to a more innocent past? Or does the ‘familiar’ remind us of the innocent desires and foibles of the past with affection?

Ultimately, trying to define what Kitsch ‘is’ is a bit like walking into a roomful of mirrors- it ultimately reflects ones own prejudices about what constitutes ‘good’ art and design, and arguably speaks volumes about the individual just as much as the object.  Within the realms of this exhibition, the artists have been asked to explore notions of decoration, domesticity, and collectability in relation to Kitsch.

True to the subjective nature of Kitsch, these works respond to the aforementioned themes in a myriad of ways, referencing both aesthetic, historical and perhaps future tropes of Kitsch.-Everything from garish colours and cheap materials to  Reuben Paterson- inspired portraiture and souvenir knick-knacks. The exhibition emphasises the way in which Kitsch defies the notion of good design whilst commodifying nostalgia in the modern age.  This tableau has the potential to simultaneously evoke memories and provoke a response in equal measure. But in the end, it is all A Matter of Taste.


-Kate Powell, May 2014

Posted in Art

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