Kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence. —Milan Kundera
As the foregoing quotes indicate, some people have a tough time with kitsch. For Kundera, kitsch is closely linked to totalitarianism, in that irony, individualism and anything else that might “infringe” upon our collective denial of certain unpleasant realities must be exiled—“banished for life—in order for kitsch to survive. In 1939, 45 years before Kundera put forth his thoughts on the matter in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, art critic Greenberg blasted kitsch in a contentious Partisan Review article that became an article of faith for the emerging school of “abstract expressionists”—a term he coined in the same essay. Figurative painting, he argued, was dead as a doornail; henceforth, painting must supply its own subject matter and remain untainted by the figurative image. Any attempt to make the painted image compete with the photograph could only end in tawdry cliché. What Greenberg didn’t know at the time is that abstract painting would eventually fall prey to cliché as well—“abstract kitsch,” as critic Edward Scruton calls it, “novel in its presumption, if not in its effect.”
There’s no denying that just the name of Pet Pictures, an exhibit currently on display at the Sutton West Gallery, calls the worst to mind for people with a low threshold for kitsch. Coyly alliterative and bluntly self-explanatory, it summons images of Franklin Mint collector’s plates, soft-focus photographs of puppies tumbling out of wicker hampers, soaking-wet cats glowering out of toilet bowls, and so on. As long as there’s a greeting-card or a high-school-guidance-counselor’s-office-poster industry, do we really need any more cute pet pictures? Even where animals sneak their way into more highbrow art, isn’t one William Wegman snapping pictures of his stupid Weimaraners enough? What could possibly be kitschier than a show called Pet Pictures, anyway?
Another thing Clement Greenberg didn’t take into consideration was Missoula (though, really, in 1939 why would he have?), where many pets lead domestic, social and sometimes even culinary lives that would be the envy of some people. Dogs in particular: At some Missoula social events they outnumber humans, and where else but here do you have to take canine compatibility into account while planning a potluck or barbecue?
Missoulians love their dogs, so it makes perfect sense that over half the pieces displayed in Pet Pictures depict man’s best friend, and that the show itself would be a juried exhibition to benefit the Missoula Humane Society. Sutton West Gallery owner Miriam Mindich will judge the works on April 15, when there will also be a party at the gallery, to which pets as well as owners are invited. Clement Greenberg would have sneered at the very idea, but would you expect better from a man who once killed a dog with a shovel?
It’s not really possible—or fair—to weigh the individual and aggregate worth of the works in Pet Pictures against the charitable aim of the exhibit. You’d be a fool not to expect sugar-shock levels of adorableness; you’d be a cold-blooded jerk not to feel at least a little of the surging joy I felt looking at so many different animals, depicted in so many different ways, that have meant so much to so many people, and even so amount to just a drop in the bucket measured against the veritable Glacial Lake Missoula of local pet-love.
Surging joy, I tell you. Sometimes you just have to chuck your pretentious esthetic strictures out the window and feel the love. There’s very little in Pet Pictures that isn’t kitschy after some fashion, but there are also very few pieces that aren’t charming to look at.
First the dogs, and two pieces by N. David Wilson really stand out. One is a golden retriever painted in autumnal red, orange and goldenrod-yellow oils on a purple background that makes it look, from a distance, like a painting on black velvet. It’s called “Holy Toby,” as befits an image reminiscent of the low-rent canonization afforded to Elvis and countless lonely bullfighters at roadside stands across the country. The work by Wilson that better reflects the broad interpretation of the exhibit title (gallery owner Mindich left the interpretation entirely up to the artists participating) is “The Importance of Dogs,” rendered as much by addition as by subtraction in oil, oil stick and graphite. It shows a beach scene that looks as though it was chipped out of another painting, with psychedelic clumps of Van Gogh foliage in shocking pink and battleship gray. The pet component, admittedly, is a little less prominent than in some of the other works—which, even if the painting had nothing else to recommend it, would at least add variety in a show where pets are otherwise front and center.
Several dog photographs are featured in Pet Pictures. Allen Hay contributes a group of five: “Libby,” “Toby” (not Wilson’s Toby, presumably, but hey—this is a town where mi perro es su perro, too) “Paw,” “Sunset Stroll,” and “Drips.” All five prints are pleasant enough, “Drips” being the one that really captures the moment. (It’s a universal truth: Dogs drip and shake when they get wet. I recently watched a one-reel short from the 1890s and was mildly amazed to discover that, for as archaic as the people looked in their stuffy dress and droopy moustaches, the dog that shook himself dry after swimming the canal looked like he could have been filmed yesterday.)
Johnny Patterson contributes two photographs of his German shepherd: “Marko in Cattails” is a double exposure of the dog and frost-rimed water foliage; “Marko in Blue, Pierce Lake” captures the pet striking a vigilant pose on a dock shrouded with mist. Dogs striking heroic poses are always winners; they capture traits in animals that we value in ourselves, or at least wish we could. Other photos in the exhibit, like Allen Hay’s, likewise reflect our tendency to anthropomorphize our pets, only with doziness.
Another great dog scene is Raymond Burton’s “Dog Day Afternoon” (not surprisingly, many titles in the show draw on cliché and pop culture references), which shows man’s best friend taking his leisure on a parched lawn in front of a shack, surrounded by burn-barrels and other rusty yard detritus. It’s a scene right out of the deep North Side.
After dogs, horses make up the next biggest chunk of work in Pet Pictures. Jo Rainbolt’s “Everybody’s Favorite” features a horse that looks, style-wise, a lot like the bruins in her bear series, rendered in oil pastel and Fauvist colors. Sue Hummel’s horses are my favorite, though; there are two of them, one in pastel and one in pencil, and both remind me of the horse in Blaze and the Indian Cave and the other Blaze books by C.W. Anderson that I loved when I was a kid.
Clement who? Kitsch is beautiful, baby.
Join the artists of Pet Pictures and their pets at a party at Sutton West this Thursday, April 15, from 5 to 8 PM.