Is the Campiest Camp Necessarily Naïve?

04/13/2011 4:00 AM |

“The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance. Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.” So wrote Susan Sontag in her essay “Notes on Camp,” a 58-point thesis on all things ostentatious and overstated, works of art that delight in their own aestheticized hollowness—from which Tiffany lamps and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake were born.

Lower East Side gallery Invisible-Exports is offering its own take on Sontag’s 1964 work with Notes on Notes on Camp (through May 8), a group show that crams 16 equally outrageous objects into the narrow gallery space. Works like Brent Owens‘s “Softee Log” (2009), a piece of driftwood full to bursting with ice cream, and Bob Mizer‘s “Unknown” (1973), a photograph of a handsome Marine who mugs for the camera in full military dress—minus his pants—are slick and silly. For an object to be worthy of Camp, style must trump content, and Notes delivers plenty of nonsensical niceties.

Artists Cary Leibowitz and Mike Bouchet both exploit antiquated, overly serious media for their self-consciously silly pieces—Leibowitz’s candy-colored, polka-dotted diptych scolds the viewer in a feminine scrawl, “I Told You I Was Wearing This.” And Bouchet’s set of spare ribs seem as grim as any Dutch still life rendered in somber oil paints and hung on a gallery wall.

The modern king of all things Camp, John Waters, is represented by two pieces. “Rush” (2009), a giant bottle of the combination incense-party drug of the same name, lies on its side in the middle of the gallery floor. Oversized and soft to the touch, it’s reminiscent of Claes Oldenburg’s inflatable food sculptures. In the photograph “Destroy All Screeners” (2006), Waters is pictured tossing a handful of DVDs into a fire, a benign smile on his wrinkled face.

Sontag concludes that authentic Camp is overly sweet and earnest in a world overrun by the sardonic. As she wrote in point 18, “One must distinguish between naïve and deliberate Camp. Pure Camp is always naïve. Camp which knows itself to be Camp is usually less satisfying.” And in a cultural climate where irony reigns supreme, one gets the sense that the works at Invisible-Exports fall into the latter category—perhaps the time for pure Camp has passed. That being said, a log filled with fake soft-serve (and market-valued at $3,500) is still pure fun.

(images courtesy Bob Mizer, John Waters and Invisible-Exports)