Black Velvet Paintings Move Beyond Kitsch

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

IF black velvet paintings are synonymous with bad taste, then black velvets in an art museum should be an aesthetic outrage, right? Well, time to reevaluate. Ever since Marcel Duchamp stuck a urinal in an art exhibition, iconoclastic artists have been pushing the boundaries of both ``art'' and ``taste.'' Duchamp's piece was considered by many to be anti-art. But plenty of 20th-century artists have tugged on the leashes of aesthetic presumption.

Once again, artistic suppositions have been turned upside down. ``The Art We Love to Hate: Black Velvets,'' a traveling exhibition that originated here and is now on view at Pennsylvania State University's Zoller Gallery, is outrageous, primarily because it upends one more prejudice.

Velvet painting actually boasts a distinguished history. Produced in societies all over the world, velvet art may have been invented by Islamic people, who also wove designs into the fabric, according to curator Jennifer Heath. Velvet came to Europe during the crusades and during the Age of Exploration was traded in China.

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One of the oldest surviving velvet paintings is a tiger from 19th-century Japan displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. From Japan, velvet painting was imported to the Philippines and exported from there to Mexico in the 1930s. Meanwhile, 19th-century English and American ladies painted flowers on black velvet for pillows and pictures.

Heath opens a few doors to the past and amply demonstrates that kitsch is not the whole story. Even among those pieces labeled ``kitsch,'' distinctions are made. In fact, Heath invites us to rethink the whole genre by presenting street-corner velvets from a variety of cultures and in a wide range of quality, including a number of fine examples of velvet folk art. She calls all of it ``household art.''

She has cleverly extended the content and meaning of the show by inviting contemporary artists to apply their skills to velvet. The scintillating result is a multicultural exhibition with a fervent emphasis on and homage to Mexican and Chicano folk forms.

``I think it's great,'' says Pennsylvania State University curator Cindi Morrison. ``The show has attracted people who were never here before.... It offers a good mix of both kitsch and serious art.... I hear them laughing in there, and several people have confessed to me they have [a velvet painting] at home. But they do get the difference between the kitsch and more serious contemporary works of art.''

Part of that difference includes the serious intent of the artist. The contributing artists who took on the challenge of velvet found it difficult to paint on.

Jill Hadley Hooper found new respect for the artisans who worked with velvet after she encountered the material's capacity to absorb paint like a sponge. Nonetheless, her all-over wallpaper-like design with a single howling coyote is elegantly realized.

Linda Herritt's sharp installation comments on velvet as household material. Anonymous household arts are not appreciated as ``art,'' which is associated with ego, she says. Much of her feminist art is therefore concerned with enlightening the viewer to the artistic among the ordinary.

Tijuana artist Beto Ruiz painted one of the most riveting works in the exhibition. Commissioned by performance artist Guillermo Gomez-Pena, it is a portrait of Gomez-Pena in costume for ``Border Brujo.'' The result is an elegant denial of factory reproduction.

Chicano artist Carlos Fresquez paints frequently on velvet. He also recycles trash and found objects in his art. According to Heath, Fresquez enjoyed upgrading a despised form to fine art. His night cityscape is serious art in a humorous vein - the buildings sprout like wild asparagus in lively disarray against the black background.

When first asked to contribute to the show, realist painter Sandra Kaplan was delighted for the opportunity to ``play around.''

``At first I didn't take it seriously - I took it tongue-in-cheek,'' she says. ``But no artist can really do something visual without serious intent. So I explored an unexamined area of my creativity.''

Her ``Vincent's Van Goes West'' is a ``found velvet'' - a desert scene with cactus - enhanced by her rendition of Van Gogh's ``Starry Night'' in craft fabric paint on black. Sparkle and glitter reinforces the Van Gogh colors in an amusing parody of the original.

The show includes plenty of the roadside kitsch that gave black velvet its reputation: ``Virgins of Guadalupe,'' portraits of rock heros, weeping Elvises, and assorted religious and souvenir velvets. Clothing, altars, and contemporary versions of Victorian ladies' paintings as well as European landscapes all find a place here.

Heath took on velvets deliberately to challenge elitist ideas about art. ``The art world thinks of itself as the upholders of culture, though it basically relegates most people to TV. It's a place of high prices and locked doors. So people watch TV. In other times and cultures, people lived surrounded by art - it was part of their lives - part of daily life.''

Heath finds beauty and skill even in the kitsch she has assembled. Most viewers do, too, even if they won't admit it. Sometimes it's a question of challenging ourselves to see what is really there, to look with new eyes at what surrounds us.

* ``The Art We Love to Hate: Black Velvets'' returns to Boulder, Colo. for documentation after Sept. 19. It later moves to Seattle's Center for Contemporary Art, and other venues on the West Coast.

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