As an art movement, lifestyle, or film genre, kitsch can be pleasingly distasteful. It’s melodramatic, overdone, gaudy and tacky or sentimental and folksy. It was a prevailing style in South Florida in the 60s through the 90s, before a more streamlined modernism began to take hold. But like a pink plastic flamingo in the yard, there is something timeless and nostalgic about it. It’s what made Florida different.
A new show at The Box Gallery opening July 15th celebrates 3 decades of work by 4 exceptional artists that have left an indelible visual account of South Florida’s Kitsch Kulture of the 60-90’s era. There are 2 photographers, a ceramic artist and a multi-media artist, all of whom have made their mark.
Charles Hashim was a full time art teacher at Miami Dade Community College in the 1970s who plunged into crowds of people on the weekends to take black and white photos (“color is a distraction” he says) of the uninhibited people at rock concerts, marches, and parades. At a talk for his book release, “We Are Everywhere and We Shall Be Free: Charles Hashim’s Miami 1977-1983” (Letter16 Press), he said that he was “making art ,not documenting,” but he ended up doing both, capturing first time events such the Gay Pride Parade of 1979 and how people looked, dressed and reacted to the city’s life changing events around them.
At concerts he chose to shoot everything and everyone but the bands, focusing instead on the interaction of the crowds of young people sprawled out on the grass, getting high on the sunshine, music and – probably drugs. Others look on at couples making out, and trucker capped boys try to pick up girls in high waisted jeans and jumpsuits. He names the concerts he was attending which may account for who the crowds are and what they are wearing but you never see the bands.
One of his strongest set of photos is of a Ku Klux Klan cross burning rally in Davie in 1978, where a white hatted Klan member solicits donations in exchange for souvenir pens on a makeshift table in the middle of a field. A young mother looks on laughing while holding a baby and its bottle. He shot the crowd there too – middle-aged couples tailgating in the backs of pickup trucks, smoking cigarettes with their dogs at their feet, waiting on the show. The pickup truck sports bumper stickers that say “I’m Proud to be a Teamster”.
“I’ve never gone out with a picture already in my head — the real world of Miami is stranger than anything I could think of,” explains Hashim.
Photo Gallery | Click on the photo to enlarge it.
Pioneering gay rights activists wear gold lame dresses and heels to rallies, outlaw bikers kiss while giving the photographer the finger, and punk rockers spit on the crowds who worship them in spite of or because of it. There are amusing images too, such as the shot of the grinning young black couple and their kid standing outside the Grove Cinema screening a John Waters double feature of Polyester and Pink Flamingos.
That screening caught the negative attention of then Mayor Maurice Ferre who tried to get the shows shut down. These are the photos the tourist board don’t want you to see, then or now.
Carl Hiaasen of the Miami Herald said these are “cool photographs that are a wild, free-falling flashback to South Florida in the late ’70s and early ’80s. To those who weren’t there — and don’t believe what they’ve heard — this book is proof that it wasn’t fantasy. It was real.”
In the 60s, Miami was an odd mix of sleepy Southern town and Rat Pack oceanfront candy colored Art Deco. It lagged behind social upheaval in almost every way as the population aged. The pink and blue paint had begun to peel in the searing summer sun, retired people filled the run down Deco hotels waiting out their remaining time in the sun. New York photographer David Godlis spent time in the 70s with his grandparents in Miami Beach, wandering the heat stroked streets taking pictures of the way of life there that was slowly disappearing.
“1974 was a pivotal moment in the culture,” Godlis says by phone from his longtime apartment on St. Marks Place in NYC. “Nixon had resigned, Diane Arbus had released a stunning book in 1972 of street photos, lots of things were changing. I was taking photography more seriously so I went to Miami Beach for a few weeks to take a series of pictures. The place was like a weird dream, filled with old Jewish people playing cards, singing in the parks, sitting on lawns and stone walls by the ocean. I was hearing what my photo teacher had said – to look in all four corners because that’s what will be in the picture. By the time I finished the series – about 30 rolls of film in 10 days – it was the first time the pictures looked like my pictures.”
Senior citizens sprawled out on lawns, beaches, and parks, walking their dogs, sipping coffee and wearing the “Sunshine fashions” of the day they probably bought at the old Burdines on Lincoln Road. Leopard print caftans, big white rimmed sunglasses, and floral bathing caps festooned the women. Palm tree shadows threw across apartment buildings. The main attraction was the Yiddish Vaudeville that played at the local theater.
“I knew I had to shoot black and white, but I could never get them published because of that,” he says. “Florida was all about color to magazines. Looking back I’m glad I did though because it makes them more classic and timeless. The retired woman in the leopard print caftan with the white sunglasses and the dog in Miami is the forerunner of Debbie Harry of Blondie who I shot as she was just starting out at CBGB’s in NY 2 years later.”
Godlis’s recent book, “History Is Made at Night” documents the New York punk nightlife at CBGB club in the 1970’s, shot in in the style of Brassai, a French photographer who famously documented Paris between the wars. He has been featured in the New York Times and had several shows of those photos but has never exhibited the Miami series until now.
Carlos Alves kick-started his post-college career in the 1980s with a free flowing ceramic tile installation located on the floor and walls of the Art Center South Florida. The project eventually led to commissions by a number of public and private clients in the US, and from London, to Hong Kong. Alves’ use of custom handmade ceramic blue bananas mingled with souvenir ceramics of flamingos, Florida gators, art-deco memorabilia, and vintage Fiestaware transform kitschy objects of the South Florida’s Weeki Wachee days into grand installations at the private homes of the rich and famous and fine art collectors worldwide.
The recently deceased Dina Knapp introduced fine art as wearable art to the couture class and catapulted a trend that continues today. Knapp’s life was spent weaving craft, kitsch, poetry, and history into three dimensional works of art riddled with humor, truth, and the essence of life on South Beach.
Kitsch and Kulture
Transition in South Florida Culture 1960-1990 at The Box Gallery
July 15, 2017 through August 30, 2017
Opening reception Saturday, July 15th, 7-10 p.m.
Charles Hashim and David Godlis wil be at the opening signing books and photos.
If you visit, The Box Gallery is located at 811 Belvedere Road, West Palm Beach, 33405
The Retro Kitsch and Kulture Show at The Box Gallery celebrates 3 decades of work by 4 exceptional artists who impacted the South Florida’s Kitsch Kulture.