Post-Ironic Kitsch

This weekend I was on a panel called “Cindy Parra & Friends: On the Subject of Post-Ironic Kitsch.” I was one of the friends! The other friend was artist Meagan Boyd, and gallery owner Matt Kennedy moderated.

I was happy to be invited to discuss Cindy Parra’s excellent show, A Walk in the Clouds, at Gallery 30 South. Then I was delighted to see “post-ironic kitsch” as the topic! I’d never heard the phrase before, but instantly had some ideas about what it could mean — oh the possibilities! The event description referred to feminism, so this talk was everything I could have wanted.

“Post-ironic kitsch” struck a note with attendees, too. One of them she gasped when she saw the title, which is pretty much my reaction, so I was excited to be part of the conversation.

We talked about reactions to our conspicuously feminine, kitsch-looking artwork. Within the contemporary art world, kitsch art — which already has built-in stigma — is often accused of being created with ironic intentions. And the only thing worse than making kitsch art ironically, is creating it with sincerity. Ha! More on that later....

Matt Kennedy explained that he chose the term “post-ironic” to describe the way Parra is making her art — simply making work she likes. She grew up on a ranch and loves to draw horses. People are free to read more into the work if they want to.

Oh and you’ll want to! There are butterflies gently flitting around humongous horse penises, glitter lions ripping into unicorn necks, and flower-filled castle turrets.

Horse painting by Cindy Parra

Cindy Parra. Prize Winner, 2019. Oil on illustration board. 16 x 20 inches. 

There’s a clear lean towards the feminine in her work — an expression of joy and maybe a weird, mischievous aggression related to the lived experience of girlhood, adolescence, and womanhood.

Parra talked about the resistance to her work, particularly in art school, with Meagan and I sharing similar experiences.

I came up with a theory. There are reasons this kind of painting is very triggering for people, and if they are trying to decide if it is ironic or sincere, the artist can’t win.

Women artists have always had a very difficult time being taken seriously, and to counter this, one of their many strategies was to distance themselves from any and all signs of femininity. No pink, no bows, no unicorns; all this must be disavowed in order to get ahead.

Feminists have fought long and hard to free us from gender constraints. So if a feminine, kitschy painting isn’t ironic, then it appears to confirm the patriarchal view of women as infantile, weak, sentimental, and frivolous. And if it is ironic, the artist is seen as cynical, insincere, inauthentic, and wry, therefore alienating the viewer.

Categorizing “feminine kitsch art” on an ironic vs. sincere binary isn’t a discussion that happens in good faith. But there’s a third option. Somewhere in the middle of the continuum is a more complex place where there is refutation of shame and reclamation of the good. Even while hatred of the feminine can drive disgust, threats, ridicule, bullying, and dismissal, embracing the feminine allows for the expression of feelings (sentiment!), pleasure, whimsy, beauty, and fantasy.

So for me, “post-ironic feminist kitsch” is work that disrupts the ways women are commodified and kitschified. The artist makes what she wants. There’s something about this work that suggests feminine dorkiness, but doesn’t self-objectify, affirm old-fashioned gender rules, nor disavow all feminine codes. The complexity of the feminine in a work of art contains degradation, honor, and pleasure. The viewer is invited to come to their own conclusions, able to arrive at a more thoughtful place if they assume the artist is being authentic.