At first glance, they are cheap, yellow, rubber dishwashing gloves with a peculiar floral pattern – perhaps an ingenious, cutting-edge promotional movie product tie-in, or maybe just Williams-Sonoma looking to make kitchen gloves seem fancy.
Upon closer inspection, the floral pattern resembles embroidery. Further inspection reveals something almost bizarre, absurd even: They are cheap kitchen gloves, yes, but that embroidery? It’s real, done by hand, stitch by stitch, meticulous.
The gloves are the handicraft of artist Rachael Anderson, who, along with Minna Jain, is exploring kitsch aesthetics in “How to Be a Practical Artist,” which will open Friday at Studio & with an opening reception from 5 to 9 p.m.
Anderson’s and Jain’s ambitions for this show were multi-layered. They wanted to understand kitsch aesthetics and why we assign such labels to certain objects. They wanted to explore art from a practical standpoint. They also wanted to explore the gray area between art and craft and when one becomes the other, elevating everyday objects to fine-art status or deconstructing fine art into a practical, everyday object. And, they wanted to inject humor and irony into all of it.
But first, what is kitsch, exactly? Kitsch comprises objects that are cheap, banal and tacky, like mass-produced art and knickknacks, easily accessible and digestible, sometimes overly sentimental and overly decorative.
Picture that miniature ceramic lighthouse your grandmother has had on her shelf since 1972 or the pewter, buffalo-shaped paperweight you picked up at Yellowstone.
With its roots in mid-19th-century Germany, kitsch was ushered onto the fine-art scene in the 1950s, primarily by the pop-art movement as a way for artists to examine issues of mass production, industrialization and commercialization through irony, humor and political comment. Over time, kitsch and other pop-art offshoots such as lowbrow, camp and lowrider culture introduced the value of technical prowess and skill (in addition to the conceptual nature of contemporary art).
As Anderson said, kitsch is “the over-the-top nostalgic, overused, over-processed, over-quoted to the point where it’s lost its meaning and become decorative, meaningless, nostalgic crap.”
This injection of technical skill – craft – drew Anderson and Jain together. The two met when Anderson was an art student at Fort Lewis College. They stayed in touch after Anderson moved to the Dallas area for graduate school and then on to Waxahachie, Texas, where she teaches at Cedar Valley College. With similar aesthetics and a shared interest in co-opting everyday objects in their art, a collaboration was too good to pass up. The building momentum of both their work easily suited the project.
With contemporary art’s propensity to be overly-conceptual while hiding evidence of the artist and downplaying craft and technique, Anderson wanted to marry the two approaches, retaining a conceptual nature while infusing her work with signs of life and touch.
“As much as people say (they want) fine art, they still want to see the circus. They still want to see the tight-wire act,” she said. “They want to see this feat of skill.”
The work Anderson and Jain produced for the show definitely injects irony into kitsch culture, but behind some snarkiness is a pure, skilled craftsmanship. Many of those skills – embroidery, quilting, stitching, pinstriping – were learned specifically for each piece. This aspect of the show engaged both Jain and Anderson the most.
“As much as it’s funny and nostalgic and ha-ha-ha, there’s also a legitimate desire to just interact with the world with my hands and not just be an intellectual artist but someone who sits and hones skills and creates,” Anderson said.
Jain was interested in exploring the voids between fine art, decorative arts and craft and why we value them as we do.
“If we devalue those things, culturally, what are we saying about the people who do them and the contexts they came out of?” she asked.
Jain hopes these tensions permeate her work, where an observer might see throwaway rubber kitchen gloves ... that have been meticulously hand-emroidered, questioning what it is they’re looking at, exactly, and if it’s even art. “I think of those tensions as a violin string or a bow ... If there isn’t the appropriate tension there, nothing happens, there’s no music, you can’t play.”
firstname.lastname@example.org. David Holub is the Arts & Entertainment editor for The Durango Herald.