Felipe Cardeña or Elitist Kitsch
by Gillo Dorfles and Luigi Sansone


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Conversation between Luigi Sansone and Gillo Dorfles about the work of Felipe Cardeña, his mysterious, eclectic artistic figure and the meaning of kitsch in contemporary art

Sansone Felipe Cardeña has a strange, complex biography. There are plenty of strange stories, rumours and gossip associated with his name… he used to be a street mime; well that’s corroborated historical fact, since he was seen by a vast number of people at a 2005 show in Milan (entitled Miracolo a Milano), portraying a headless Saint John the Baptist. In that period he was practising a strange form of street art, sticking paper flowers on the walls in the street, all over the world… that’s also been confirmed, seeing as there are lots of photos from a decade ago, of his flowers stuck up in strategic locations all over the world, including Cuba, Russia, Northern Europe and Thailand. Then his real presence just vanished and, assisted by an actual “studio” of helpers, he launched definitively into art collage, with original compositions on canvas, using paper as the exclusive medium.
Dorfles I already find this really interesting. He’s certainly not just any artist. That’s why it’s really difficult to place him in the contemporary art scene. There have been similar cases in the history of art and literature too, of artists who divest themselves of their own identity as a graceful, conscious gesture, with what you might define as conceptual implications. In my opinion, this element can be filed under kitsch, albeit an extremely cultured, evolved kind of kitsch.
Sansone This is a very important element. Felipe is therefore a kitsch creature, starting with his non-linear and intentionally contradictory biography, modelled as it is to fuel the rumours, gossip and even discussions about changing identity, the sense in creating art and the mechanisms of success in mass civilisation…
Dorfles Of course. Kitsch always and exclusively feeds on and thrives within the mechanisms of mass culture, which are then the greatest driver of “popular kitsch”…
Sansone In your book on kitsch, you actually talked about cultural industrialisation as a founding element in creating popular “common or garden”, triumphant kitsch, much more so than art with a capital A.
Dorfles Yes, even if I’d be careful not to mix three elements that are diametrically different. On the one hand you’ve got kitsch that’s everywhere, the junk you can buy on market stalls or in souvenir shops, then on the other there’s the kitsch of artists who, in the belief that they are creating “highbrow” artworks, actually create bad painting or in any case bad art, in the sense of art of highly questionable taste, and so they end up in unintentional, uncalculated kitsch.  Lastly you have artists - like Salvador Dalì or Enrico Baj, to mention two famous historical examples, but nowadays, too, an unusual and interesting artist like Felipe Cardeña -, who put together refined and extremely cultured, elegant “elitist kitsch” art, almost on the easel, we might say.
Sansone These are the very artists we put together at the Oggi il kitsch exhibition at the 2012 Milan Triennale, which started with legendary names like Dalí, Savinio, Usellini and Meret Oppenheim, and moved onto artists active in the Sixties and Seventies like Enrico Baj, through to examples of today’s very fashionable contemporary artists, like Luigi Ontani, Cracking Art, Corrado Bonomi and, of course, Felipe Cardeña. As well as unusual folk from outside of the art system like Rudy van der Velde.
Dorfles Yes, van der Velde is a different kettle of fish again, I would say, because of his being outside of the artist system. I would define him as an artist who is ‘completely kitsch’ to the core. While in Felipe Cardeña’s case it should be emphasised that this is purposefully kitsch art, elitist kitsch, that’s neither unintentional nor coincidental...
Sansone Highbrow kitsch?
Dorfles Yes, highbrow, elitist, refined… certainly not for the masses. I mean, it’s not the kitsch of a little painting being sold on a market stall. Its elegance actually makes it not so easy to push  on the public, the critics and the market. It’s along the lines of Baj.
Sansone We could define it as conceptual kitsch.
Dorfles Definitely, because it’s kitsch with a background of very strong cultural foundations. Looking at the paintings, you sense an in-depth knowledge of the history of art and the art system mechanisms behind it all. What’s more, Cardeña is also a highly imaginative, creative artist and therefore deserves to be considered as an authentic, not unintentional or amateur artist.
Sansone However it should be stressed that, unlike what happens in a lot of conceptual art, attractiveness and decorativism are not eschewed. On the contrary...
Dorfles Absolutely. Cardeña’s works are really pleasing to the eye, aesthetically rich, exuberant and decorative. But remember that attractiveness, seduction and decorativism are also part of the very essence of kitsch. They’re typical of kitsch art works, both voluntary and not. Think about souvenirs or market stall tat…i t’s very often attractive, entertaining and eye-catching, even if it’s almost always poor taste. Yet even intentionally kitsch works, like those by Baj or Cardeña, play on seduction and attractiveness. The difference with the former is that their attractiveness is vulgar, so to speak, while the latter are more refined, cultured and discerning. We’re talking about a form of refined kitsch used to achieve an anomalous, original, mould-breaking artistic effect.
Sansone The choice of using flowers as a background is also rather unusual, seeing as how throughout the entire Twentieth Century the floral genre was considered the prerogative of second class painting, of petit bourgeois living room, or even pizzeria decorativism…
Dorfles Of course, even this is part of an intentionally anti-conformist aesthetic choice. But the interesting part does not so much lie in the use of the flowers themselves: if Felipe had done a “normal” flower painting, he would be a bog-standard artist of scarce interest. What makes him eccentric and bizarre instead, as well as kitsch, is his superabundance and excess. That’s where Cardeña’s work is coloured in kitsch tones, in excessive decorativism, in choosing not to let the eye breathe and in obsessively filling the surface...
Sansone However the use of flowers also reminds me of Andy Warhol, who rediscovered floral decorativism as pure pop art in the Sixties.
Dorfles It was extremely cultured, refined art in that case too. Warhol totally knew what he was doing.  He wasn’t doing it ingenuously or involuntarily. He knowingly toyed with traditional genres and the motifs of the history of art…
Sansone Felipe is in a certain sense also very “pop”; we could say he’s an artist who sits halfway between kitsch and pop. And then there’s also the continuous referencing and shuffling of discordant elements, taken from newspapers, catalogues, magazines, even real gems stuck onto the canvas…
Dorfles Overlapping elements sourced from different origins is a typical kitsch practice. Not to mention those glittering gems, crystals and beading, which stick out on the canvas… or those rich, oriental style frames… it’s all part and parcel of the mixing and repositioning of genres and cultures that is the quintessence of kitsch, one of its most basic and distinctive features. The reference to gems is furthermore interesting because fashion has always fed on kitsch elements.
Sansone On that subject, here’s an interesting story. The fashion designers Dolce & Gabbana created a t-shirt that looks very like one of Felipe’s works close-up. It almost seems directly inspired by one of his paintings, bearing such a strong resemblance as it does.
Dorfles Ambiguity is another typical feature of kitsch and of contemporary culture in general. One thing always references the other.  Every creation feeds on other creations. Nothing is original any more, in the absolute sense, as it once was.
Sansone As regards ambiguity, Cardeña’s technique is also extremely ambiguous and distracting. Sometimes, when you look at photos of the paintings, you can’t tell if it’s collage or painting, they’re so defined and precise. It certainly brings to mind some Fifteenth Century works painted with tempera grassa, the collage almost disappears…
Dorfles Yes, the technique with which they are composed is essentially not all that important. Even if they were reproduced in their hundreds or thousands, they would never lose their aura of refined elitist artworks. Moreover, like pop, kitsch has taught us that nowadays everything can be reproduced. Every artwork can be infinitely replicated without losing any of its originality and its power. And Felipe Cardeña’s work is no different. Its power lies in the idea behind it and in the final image, not in the technique that was used to create it.

 Milan, June 2013