We all have our obsessions. For some of us, it’s collecting tangible things like stamps or vinyl records. Others are compelled by topics ranging from cooking to politics. For artist and professor Kirsten Rae Simonsen, her chance observation cum niche obsession is grounded in seemingly discordant domiciles and has led the Chicago native to following and documenting mock Tudor- and French Norman- style homes on O‘ahu for years. It also inspired her current exhibition at the Academy Art Center’s Mezzanine Gallery, which shows the fruits of her research and labor tracing the genealogical roots of suburbia and beyond.
The original concept behind suburbia in America and the United Kingdom was to make what Simonsen calls “country living” available to the masses (hence the title of her exhibition). The phenomenon can be traced back to the early 20th century when, on the mainland and particularly the West Coast, developers began adopting European styles of architecture. The interesting part of this endorsement was that they were not in fact mimicking true Tudor and French Norman styles; the products were often hybrids of both, in some instances dashed with local styles to create an architectural portmanteau recognized as the “Storybook” aesthetic.
Our failed or perhaps uninformed attempts at appropriating these styles, for me, recall the idea of kitsch. I typically hesitate to use this word for fear of its negative connotations (often directly associated with bad taste or lack thereof), but in The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of the Kitsch Experience, author and cultural historian Celeste Olalquiaga offers a very different and insightful association. She postulates that our conception of this often negatively conceived word actually lies in our vague understanding of a collective loss of authenticity. Here, kitsch is a term used to describe displacement; a strange, beautiful and tragic attempt to crystallize an inevitably ephemeral style.
Simonsen notes that the titles for her works were derived from actual marketing slogans originally used to sell the mock-style homes. Descriptive appellations such as “A Place of Delight Seeking to Give Leisure & Pleasure” and “A Charming Home in Paradise” seem to paint a picture of the perfect domestic sanctuary, reinforcing the already artificial feel of these contextual edifices. What I find most intriguing about these works is their pristine aesthetic. The structural masses, fantastical children and animals that adorn the ideological landscapes are depicted directly on wood panels. In a piece entitled “Home Sweet Home” (2011), a house floats abruptly on a majestic white cloud. The lack of any substantial context or backdrop effectively creates an uncanny feeling of deracination.
ARTiculations is a blog on culture and the arts by Carolyn Mirante for Flux Hawaii. Carolyn is a Honolulu-based art critic and Owner/Director of the Gallery of Hawaii Artists (GoHA), an alternative exhibition space dedicated to the contemporary arts in Hawai’i.