The title of Crossing Art’s latest exhibit, “Beyond the Colony of Kitsch,” comes from a New York Times article written just after Hong Kong gained independence from England in 1997. At that time, all over Hong Kong, people were celebrating their newfound freedom by producing and buying cheesy yet innovative souvenirs, termed kitschy by some and catchy by others.
Defined in 1939 by art critic Clement Greenberg as the dumbing down of culture caused by consumerism, kitsch invades our daily life in America in the form of items as delightful as they are useless.Designer toilet seats, tissue box cozies and lawn gnomes figure heavily into American iterations.
In Crossing Art’s latest exhibit, artists Sin-ying Ho, Heungman, Teresa Kwong, Bing Lee, Annysa Ng, Samson Young and Kaho Albert Yu; all from Hong Kong, explore notions of kitsch through video, ceramics, photography and installation. The result is a high culture-low culture clash, housed inside the Queens Crossing mall, an appropriate place for such a collision.
The entrance to the Queens Crossing building features a laminated wall, framing the elevators with a brick-colored design appearing to imitate an as yet undiscovered marble. The highly designed glass enclosed lobby holds spiral staircases going both up and down. TV screens near the elevators showcase the building’s many offerings.
A restaurant on the second floor serves nouveau Asian cuisine to the soft sounds of a Chinese imitation Celine Dion. Patrons dine surrounded by strands of falling water. Lit with blue lights, the water is guided by thin nylon cords and falls straight, tame and somewhere between beautiful and tacky.
It is only upon venturing into the austere basement of Crossing Art that patrons of the shops at Queens Crossing may reflect critically upon the fluff that surrounds them. The dimly lit gallery is worlds away from the shops that surround it, yet remains in dialogue with them through its latest exhibit.
Gallery co-director Jennifer Junkermeier says patrons attracted to the mall for other reasons often wander into Crossing Art with no concept of what a commercial art gallery is. “They are like ‘What is this space? Is it a museum?’” At times this gets frustrating for Junkermeier, who has been involved in the art world for many years, but at the end of the day she feels the gallery has a worthy mission. “We want to be here to let people know that you don’t have to go to Chelsea to see really great work and that there is a venue here in Flushing … it’s been a really cool thing to work with Sin-ying … she is a local artist from Flushing whose work fits in very well with our gallery as well,” Junkermeier said.
Ho’s work is as decorative as it is complex. She creates pottery mash-ups, working clay into different shapes and sizes on her wheel, then cutting them in pieces to reattach them to each other. The vessels that result are Frankensteinian creations adorned with the blue and white of fine china and printed commercial icons or pop culture images she gleans from the Internet.
Ho’s pieces at once reference handmade ceramics exported from China during the 17th century and the $10 versions which may be purchased at tacky stores across the country. She indicates the pervasiveness of global commercial culture, hiding in plain sight American favorites like KFC and Barbie in her works, mirroring the ways in which U.S. consumer culture has infiltrated homes all over the world, at once clashing with and morphing to accommodate aspects of traditional local culture.
At the same time, Ho’s work may be seen as a commentary on the ceramic trade itself, which boomed as porcelain clanked across the sea in ships from China to dinner tables of the rich and famous in Europe.
Chinese porcelain took on Western motifs as artisans began catering to Europeans.China dominated the market until European manufacturers such as Meissen borrowed Chinese motifs and produced quality porcelain at a cheaper price, since there was no added shipping cost, according to Sotheby’s. The Chinese porcelain industry declined as many industries have today when under-priced by Asian imports, making Ho’s ceramic commentary all the more exciting when considered in this context.
Over time, porcelain fashions changed and tasteful blue and white china was supplanted by a more gaudy and ornate European version, which would later be called kitschy (though not with that exact word) by Goethe. The term “kitsch” was used after industrialization to distinguish authentic works of art from manufactured commercial pretenders. The word itself is said to derive from the German “verkitschen,” which means to make cheap.
In Greenberg’s 1939 essay “The Avant-Garde and Kitsch” he posited the avant-garde art movement as existing in opposition to kitsch, however today the boundaries between the two are permeable. Artists such as Toronto’s Shary Boyle and Jeff Koons use porcelain to explore notions of kitsch, drawing from Meissen gaudiness and modern culture to deliver art that is in some ways as avant-garde as it is kitschy.
Kitsch has been reinstated as the so-bad-it’s-good guilty pleasure of consumer culture, often celebrated in works like the Samson Young’s “Build Socialism With Chinese Characteristics” on display at Crossing Art.
In Young’s piece, he is dressed as a teletubby and sucks a lollipop like a child, reminding viewers of the role nostalgia often plays in the positive valuation of kitsch. Like an overly sweet aftertaste, kitsch lingers beyond colonization.
‘Beyond the Colony of Kitsch’
When: April 29-May 16, Tuesday-Sunday, 11a.m.-6p.m.
Where: Crossing Art, 136-17 39th Ave. (at Main Street) ground floor