Where Is the Kitsch?
A friend whose taste I usually find impeccable (if we ignore the Sinatra-style white loafers he's been known to un-ironically sport) sent me to Cal State Fullerton's "Designed to Sell: The Art of Advertising" with the exhortations that it was "terrific," "excellent" and "incredible, even."
Which is why I've been wondering what could possibly have been up my ass the beautiful day I traveled to campus to see it. I know my blood sugar wasn't low; I'd stopped for some delicious salty grease from KFC on my way. It wasn't seasonal affective disorder; the afternoon on campus was a sunny delight. So I'd have to go with PMS. Because "The Art of Advertising" couldn't have been a bigger jumble of crap, and the longer I looked at it, the more I started positively spitting with rage (and chicken grease). Drawn from multiple "collections," the exhibit, spread over the two cells of the Atrium Gallery, looked more like it belonged behind glass at the Orange County Fair—you know, where people with an awful lot of time on their hands win blue ribbons for their masses of Strawberry Shortcake figurines and old-timey Kiss the Cook aprons—except "Art of Advertising" forgot the kitsch. There were stuffed M&M plushie monsters, and those "Read" posters you can find in libraries and which are funny when they've got, like, Snoop Dogg on them but aren't too interesting when they just say "Explore New Worlds: Read," and a painted menu board offering beef stew for 15 cents, and some pretty tea tins and cute flower seed packets and an empty bottle of cognac and Clinton/Gore stickers and a Sobe bottle and busy, junky posters for "Siggraph" and a blowup Oscar Mayer hot dog and a book under glass opened to a page about "motion displays," but without any actual motion displays, and a Lotto button and "E-Site" buttons and buttons reading "I've been Akamaized" and something about an oil mop.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph Fuckin' Christ!
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Were there actual advertising items of interest mixed in with the piles of rubbish? There were! For instance: goofy and funny Kodak standups from the '60s and '70s (I think one of the models, her white-hotpants-clad ass facing the camera, was Cybill Shepherd); cigarette trading cards; soup cans with their labels actually embossed like your better wedding invitations; and an Uncle Sam shouting at us, "I am telling you! On June 28th I expect you to enlist in the army of war savers to back up my army of fighters." Not quite as pithy as "I Want You," but everyone needs an editor. But while there were some actual objets from those olden, golden days, it was nearly impossible to discern them in the refuse. And the few didactic texts in evidence were buried in the effluvia and rarer than four-leafed clovers.
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The more (and more, and more) I saw of "The Art of Advertising," the more appreciation I felt for my friend and colleague Jim Washburn, whose "Rhinestones and Twangin' Tones: The Sound and Style of Country Music" right down the street at the Fullerton Museum Center showed how one can, through choice and intelligent curation, take a bunch of silly objects and let them tell a story as broad and full as America itself. "Rhinestones" takes a bunch of purty guitars and outstandingly gaudy Nudie suits—the bebaubled choice of rockers and country stars for nigh on 50 years, all from the same little Russian-Jewish tailor who made Elvis' gold lam jump suit—and illuminates just through these artifacts (okay, and some 1950s Roy Rogers lunch pails) style and whimsy and our unquenchable thirst for glitter and Keith Richards' unquenchable thirst for sequined marijuana leaves. Washburn tells the story of the American West, as filtered through the art of a Russian immigrant from the collection of Japanese businessman Mac Yasuda, whose care and love for his objets are bell-clear, and tells of the birth of country (many of its sounds borrowed from Hawaiian music, for instance, along with Scotch ballads), and of its most beloved practitioners, from Porter Waggoner to Billy Walker and Buck Owens. There is nothing about the subject Washburn doesn't know, and there is probably no one but he who could tell these stories in such an enthralling way. You don't have to search out the didactic texts here; they inform everything, letting us have the eye candy of the hilarious rhinestone suits but giving them weight and depth as well.
Maybe it isn't fair to expect such tales and weight from "The Art of Advertising"—Washburn gets paid to tell stories, after all—but just throwing a bunch of shit behind glass and pretending it's a comprehensive review isn't doing anybody any favors, except maybe the folks who make M&M's.
"DESIGNED TO SELL: THE ART OF ADVERTISING" AT CAL STATE FULLERTON'S ATRIUM GALLERY, 800 STATE COLLEGE BLVD., FULLERTON, (714) 278-2633. OPEN MON.-THURS., 9 A.M.-7 P.M.; SAT.-SUN., NOON-5 P.M. THROUGH JULY 19. FREE; "RHINESTONES AND TWANGIN' TONES: THE SOUND AND STYLE OF COUNTRY MUSIC" AT THE FULLERTON MUSEUM CENTER, 301 N. POMONA AVE., FULLERTON, (714) 738-6545. OPEN TUES.-SUN., NOON-4 P.M.; THURS., NOON-8 P.M. THROUGH JULY 9. $2-$4.
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