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Utah Museum Explores Art, Kitsch and Culture

Photo: Mikey Kettinger
Installation by Jean Lowe at NEHMA

The American Heritage Dictionary defines the word ‘kitsch’ as “Pretentious bad taste, especially in the arts.” Logan’s Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art has devoted a new exhibition to Kitsch and the evolution of its perception in the context of contemporary art.

Credit Photo: Mikey Kettinger
A painting and a reproduction by Thomas Kinkade at NEHMA

For the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art’s Curator of Exhibitions Becky Dunham, kitsch isn’t necessarily a negative thing. 

“It was originally meant as kind of a derogatory term, a way of describing these cheap knickknacks … But since then it has evolved to mean so much more than that, and that is really the approach this exhibition takes. It’s very much a scholarly evaluation of what is this word kitsch? Where did it come from? What does it mean in the world of art history, and what does it mean today?”

Credit Photo: Mikey Kettinger

The show includes two-dimensional, three dimensional, and multimedia components, with objects ranging from plastic action figures and puzzles to paper-mache rugs and sculptures.  The diversity of the exhibition invites viewers to form their own definition of kitsch, and their own opinion regarding value, and whether or not a work of art’s placement in a museum improves its quality. 

“The most ironic ting, and the funniest element of this whole display is the shot glass, which is this humorous, ironic side of kitsch, where you have an object like a shot glass that’s actually printed with an image of the temple in Salt Lake City, but it’s used to serve an alcoholic beverage, which is something that’s not partaken of in the LDS church. So there’s a bit of fun and play…that people are going to find very humorous and get a giggle out of.”

Credit Photo: Mikey Kettinger

Credit Photo: Mikey Kettinger

Another piece likely to generate laughs is a narrative painting by contemporary artist Jeffrey Vallance, which stands out for Andrea Dehaan, the museum's administrative coordinator. This painting is a self-portrait that shows the artist with shaggy blond hair and a mustache as he shakes hands with Smokey the Bear in front of a a truck with its hood open.

Credit Photo: Mikey Kettinger
Painting by Jeffrey Vallance

"I like the questions this raises because Smokey is shaking hands with the artist.  Is he shaking hands with the artist because the artist has stopped to help him with his broken down truck?  Is he shaking hands with Smokey because he admires him?  There are just so many questions raised by it...One big that it's Smokey The Bear, who's this iconic figure from the seventies and eighties to help prevent forest fires, yet they're standing in front of this very barren looking mountain so there are no forests that are visible. So it looks very desolate, which adds to Smokey's desperation with his broken down vehicle, but it doesn't really fit, and I like that it doesn't fit...I think what really drew me to it was just how initially out of place it felt, actually, compared to the really professional and polished pieces that you're used to seeing in the museum...But I do really enjoy it when people are using popular culture, or using nostalgia in a way that is ironic and using it to make a statement," said DeHaan.

Credit Photo: Mikey Kettinger
Additional commentary on Jean Lowe's installation from Becky Dunham
Full Interview with Artist Frank McEntire
Conversation between UPR's Mikey Kettinger and Infiltration Artist Jeffrey Vallance

A Matter of Taste: Art, Kitsch, and Culture is on view at Logan’s Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art through May 7th.    

Intro Music: Of Montreal