Felipe Cardeña and the Poetry of Kitsch
by Edward Lucie-Smith


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Kitsch has become the real language of contemporary culture. Just before I sat down to write this brief introduction to the work of Felipe Cardeña, I was in Lithuania, conversing with someone who runs a major public art space in that country. «The problem is,» he said, «that there is now this yawning gap between the public and the private sphere in the visual arts. An exhibition of contemporary art in a public space now usually tries to be a major theatrical event – installations are orphaned theatre decors, deprived of the actors who should inhabit them. Too often we feel like intruders when we visit. And there is, of course, no mistaking the theatrical parentage of video, which now rivals installation work in popularity. What it adds up to is the fact that supposedly major contemporary art now tends to prolong its life only in memory. It appears briefly in some biennale or major museum of modern and contemporary art, such as the Pompidou or Tate Modern, then vanishes for good. Those who had the luck to attend the event commiserate with those who didn’t, but of course descriptions are no substitute for the real thing.»
There remains, with the mass public, not merely an appetite for the immediate jolt of theatrical experience, but also a thirst for objects, little tokens, talismans with a good story attached. They feel less intimidated by these than by the icons of the high culture of the past, which in any case they cannot afford to possess and live with. Hence the rise of kitsch. It is this phenomenon that Felipe Cardeña examines, with wit, sympathy, and more than a touch of poetry. His sources are wide ranging, as befits an artist who lives in the world of the musée imaginaire, and its all-powerful new facilitator, the Internet. In this exhibition you will find images from almost every known culture in the world – Leonardo da Vinci (Lady with the Ermine) jostles shoulders with Gauguin, Boccioni, the comic-strip hero Batman, and Japanese anime. Especially frequent are gods from the Hindu pantheon, rendered in a style that owes something to the cheap religious oleographs found in Indian stores and shopping marts all over the world, and perhaps even more to Bollywood films. These very diverse human images are inserted into a matrix of sumptuous flowers, with the occasional piece of fruit. The implication is that these divine beings live in some heavenly sphere, contiguous with our own, but fully visible only when the artist permits us to see it.
The painting/collages one sees here are kitsch, but also commentaries on kitsch – on the longing for a narrative that can be shared, that will remain within both intellectual reach and physical reach. It is no accident that these works are quite modest in size. Nor is it accidental that, when the icons of high culture are present, they are made the subject of a kind of ironic hyperbole that removes the element of intimidation.
We live in a democratic culture, and these are essentially democratic artworks, though they do not push any kind of political or social agenda. They understand the need for fantasy and romance. They are in no sense threatening. They are challenging only to a kind of elitism that denies to the mass audience the possibility of art that is intimate, that speaks to the spectator-one-on-one, without any pretence at cultural superiority.