Op Shop Culture

Aesthetics In Mothballs

published in Like No.1, Melbourne, 1996
Michael J. Fox - Back To The Future (1983); Richard Avendon - Elise Daniels with Street Performers (1948)

Every year PEOPLE magazine does its two 'special' issues: "Where Are They Now?" and "Annual Best Dressed Worst Dressed". This year's issue gathers 'media personalities' to make and jokes and gush praise on famous people's outfits. Not surprisingly, a large number of dismissives use a hot term: op shop. Queeny comments like "leave it in the op shop, darling." This from a magazine that says it would be impossible for Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman to not look 'stylish'. I guess the message is op-shops are a no-go while mediocrity and banality are timeless qualities.

What is this thing with the op shop? What sets it up as a site for cheap shots? And obvious anti-fashion statements? Why does it persist as a well into which many cultural splatters fall? And - last and perhaps least - why do so many contemporary art installations look like op shop windows?

Hard core op shop versus soft core op shop

Soft core op shop is the stuff PEOPLE magazine belittles and bemoans - 'wacky' gear worn by extremely straight people who use the 'outrageousness' of their attire to affirm their innate conservatism. Nylon leisure suits which are too obviously daggy - like fat Elvis impersonations by 'new wave' comedians. Fake fur coats which are too obviously tatty - they're only hip thanks to expensive designers who revived them over eight years ago. Anything 'cool' is soft core - ie. anything originally marketed as 'cool', like corduroy and suede unisex bell-bottoms, satin or high sheen unisex body shirts. They're soft core because retro copies are worn by MELROSE PLACE stars presenting awards at the BLOCKBUSTER VIDEO AWARDS. These days, bimbo and bambo TV soap stars get stylists to dress them up in remade op-shop chic to send out a message to casting agents: even though we do bland TV, we have a potential 'edge'. The clothes are usually designed by graduates from fashion courses who have had Euro fashion history lectures on everyone from Mary Quant to Vivienne Westwood. These designers know the references despite being ignorant of the shifting envelopes of cultural narratives which fold over and crease every fashion statement they believe their designs to be making. These are the pitfalls of being soft core.

Hard core op shop now means down quilted vests (like Michael J. Fox wore in the mid-80s BACK TO THE FUTURE movies); bright blue, red or emerald green tracksuits (like TARGET made in the late 70s); and any patterned top that mixes beige with a day-glo colour (preferably the original deep peach day-glo called 'Rocket Red'). Ultra hard core is murky plaid cuffed-flares for men or women. Why? Firstly, they're unflattering to your figure - a real stylist no-no. Secondly, they're mega-rare - The only ones around come from the estates of dead fat men. All the smaller sizes have been scooped by thin and rakish street people who hang out in SAFEWAYs and NEW WORLDs, and who dress in gear left in bags in front of the op shop at midnight. And thirdly, they were rampant between 1972 and 1976 (every male from skinheads to politicians sported them), yet like the missing sock in the laundry, they pose the eternal enigma: where the hell did they all go? Just in case you missed the point, such hard core fashion statements do indirectly exploit the aesthetic fall-out from dreggy people most of you would cross the street to avoid. But that's fashion in its quintessential avant-garde (not postmodern) form. Ever since Richard Avedon took shoots of gorgeous peacock women striking a pose next to dumpy wog peasants, the template has been regularly applied: contrast beauty against its absence. Reduced to such binary polarities, style can become too easy and too obvious. Everyone gets hung up on playing out their opposite, their other, the nightmare that can't haunt them because they visited it first. These are the pitfalls of being hard core.

Not surprisingly, hard core and soft core define the other. Hard core needs dags who think they're cool so that they can then be cooler. Soft core needs fashion radicals who venture into areas the designers (for the moment) fear to tread. Of course the designers will be there a few years down the track, while the hard core op shoppers will have moved elsewhere. The aesthetics are always morphing (though never really evolving) while the strategies and statements are overtly defined (though always saying the same thing). This is perhaps because the op shop is one of those peculiar sites where the politics of taste are strictly territorial: people either go too far or not far enough. It's not as if there is any stable reference or any validated history of its contents (although the Christie's auction of Warhol's ephemera collection did redefine the investment potential of junk for many a scornful businessman). It is these timeless and rootless aspects that make ops shop both a pathetic aesthetic recourse and a desperate artistic matter.

David Bowie (1970); Aerosmith (1974)

The op shop as pathetic aesthetic recourse & desperate artistic matter

The op shop as a pathetic aesthetic recourse. From little girls and boys dressing up in mum & dad's clothes (humanist photographers and film makers take note: it never fails) to drag queens pillaging the signage of the collapse of womanly/feminine codes (interventionist photographers and film makers take note: it never fails), the dressing-up in the discarded excess of the other is standard fare in any discourse on fashion. A parade of 60S counter-cultures first chose this recourse: from West Coast scene makers in their pre-Raphelite glitz and pseudo-chivalrous finery along Haight & Ashbury, to the East Coast emergence of camp and its intersection with bisexual Glam in New York. The former electrically trumpeted by Jimi Hendrix and Brian Jones; the latter chemically screamed by numerous Factory superstars. David Bowie's THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD (1971) with its original drag cover best captures the cross-over between these two streams of antique ambience: he languishes like Garbo in what looks like the loungeroom of someone who runs an antique store. This was the first era of drugged-out rock heads discovering old Hollywood movies on late night TV, finding old feather boas in bric-a-brac stores, and pinning up Maxfield Parrish-style posters by Rick Griffin and Robert Crumb. A time when anything new-world was repulsive and anything old-world was attractive. The core statement made over and over again was an escape from the present. The legacy of this tack-as-chic hangover has been acknowledged by 80s revivalist acts like Lenny Kravitz (afro-American John Lennon), Terence Trent D'Arby (carribean James Brown), Motley Crue (Hollywood Black Sabbath) and Aerosmith (New York Rolling Stones) - polysexual mulatto acts heavily marketed on the style resulting from their retro excessiveness and their theatricalized otherness.

While the op shop - or its precursors of market stalls and second hand boutiques - has been excavated for a redefinition of past aesthetic values, the op shop is also scavenged for any shreds of anti-aesthetic ethics. This is the op shop as desperate artistic matter - 'matter' being things that can't be regarded simply as loud, gross, funky, gaudy, but which are presented, received and articulated as first degree ugly. Two factors orient the op shop as desperate artistic matter. Firstly, the present is ungainly celebrated as the collapse between those who are so late they're uncool into those who force lateness to become cool. This is a sloppily unmediated present, wherein images, objects, sounds hang around like bad smells. They become drained of their original design flair and logic and become perceived as ill-formed statements. Stuff like metallic chocolate Sandman panel vans and classy hairdressers with names like Le Split Enz; cute grey terra-cotta frogs and tri-colour pastel windcheaters with Gum Nut Baby appliqued; towering SIZZLER signs and Ronald McDonald's hair; stretch acid wash jeans and beautiful guitar solos by Tommy Emmanuel. Stuff that is impossibly uncool and possibly everywhere you look (if you keep your eyes open). Secondly, these artefacts are the real thing. Perversely, their authenticity simultaneously marks them as material no one would dare reproduce while emptying the notion of authenticity. I should come clean here and say I am rolled into that latter group of desperates. However, I would like to argue that there is both perversity and productivity which arises from such desperate artistic matters.

The ugly op shop of the present & the over-designed present

This op shop of the present - this ugly, ugly, realm frantically trying to escape any legitimate codification - for some time has been a territorial marker of aesthetic investigation. I use the word 'aesthetic' in a hard sense, in that something as dumb, smelly and arbitrary as aesthetics (like, who really cares what's good or bad anyway?) is an effectively confounding escape from other theoretical discourses which cling to bodies of art like weeds from a stagnant pond. Granted that on the one hand this mega-ugly realm is in itself an escape from the high-style design-conscious neo-sophisticate retro-informed present, but on the other it feels like a healthy reflex against a saturated postmodernism. Most importantly, the anti-aesthetic ethics (ie. not anti-art statements but discursive rejections of any codes which could align you with the act of making a statement) of this nauseous op shop is a migratory site which attracts those who do not want to be confused with those who are desperate to become artists. It doesn't take a sharp cultural analyst to see that architects, interior designers, environmental designers, jewellery designers, graphic designers - they all deep down think they are the real artists, and those who carry the socio-cultural label of 'exhibiting artist' are somehow mere ideas people incapable of living in the 'real world'. While clearly being in the majority in this day and age (you can't walk anywhere now without somehow being manoeuvred through some terribly complex pre-designed space/ambience/zone/whatever), this group of crafts people and designers are no more than the bastard children of early 70s post-object art: earth sites, spatial environments, mobile mechanisms, body art, light sculptures, etc.

There is a simple way of putting all this. Art fucked up. It literally interpreted all the pre-postmodernist delinquents between Duchamp and Warhol who were lucky enough to be in the wrong spot at the right time to correctly say the wrong thing about art. This gang of conceptual delinquents collided, fused and melted popular culture into the gilt-edged zones of true art; they were frivolous, devious, strategic. What is often forgot is that once artists utter anything about the concept of art (as opposed to themselves or nature or boring stuff like that), their statements - however transient - will gravitate toward that swirling gaseous asteroid of 'the meaning of art'. New atmospheric conditions follow, causing a realignment of all previous statements about art. Duchamp and Warhol concurred: anyone can be an artist. The fallout from that statement 30 years later? Everyone is an artist, from my mother to a plumber to a cooking show host to the bass player in a funk band to a curator to the art director of a new tampon ad campaign. In such a climate, can you seriously blame artists trying out any knee-jerk reaction to get away from the seething mass of pod-artists? Can you blame artists becoming as restless (and deluded) as to want to be rock stars, film directors, novelists, actors?

The Gate (1987); Bad (1976)

Kitsch cinema, bland cinema & arthouse cinema

The 'over-designed present' is inescapable - a realm where government funding is directed into beautifying and aestheticizing the streets with blobs of hand painted tiles and metal figurative stick people. This outside world is a nightmarish vision of tasteful decor, pathetically controlled by people who probably wish public transport users showered more often. Much of the arts patronized by such delicate, sensitive people is similarly decor-oriented. The cinema - especially arthouse cinema, which ... um, must be cinema that can be labelled art - promotes images of that same nightmarish outside world; a world brimful of hope, humanism, ethnic food and sumptuous landscapes.

Yet when arthouse cinema shifts gear from the exotic into the 'poetics of the everyday', a dreadfully predictable bind rears its head over and over again: how do you show uncultured people with warmth, respect, dignity, devoid of judgement, or simply as a non-hierarchical piss-take? Australian cinema is particularly afflicted with this inability to depict anything 'non-stylish' or 'not-upper-class' without resorting to gross caricature and gaudy excess. From Hills clothes hoists to VEGEMITE jars to garden gnomes, the intelligentsia - those supposedly capable of a distanced perspective on things - have rendered the dumb masses as living icons of tacky op shop regalia. The point is that these icons were skilfully satirized in solid comedy-drama TV series like MY NAME'S McGOOLIE (late 60s) and RITA & WALLY (early 70s) - yet they still pop up in the early 90s boutique cinema from SPOTSWOOD to MURIEL'S WEDDING. Why? Because these middle-of-the-road films can't bring themselves to depict the iconography and landscape of the suburban milieu or the grime of inner city grunge. Where are the 7-11s and their Bionic Blue Bubble Gum Slurpees? The Heritage coloured trellis work on TABARET pubs? The yellow barn-like warehouses for BILLY GYATT'S? The main streets illuminated by orange fog lights? Just as soft core op shop is about pointing to the ugly whilst maintaining a beautified distance, soft core mass culture as depicted in arthouse Australian films is filtered through a similar beautification by relying on an established semiotics of kitsch iconography.

Few films escape this. Maria Kozic's production design for BODY MELT (1993) positions the film as an apt stylistic document of the innate blandness of outer-outer-suburban living - so much so that for many film industry people the film's 'look' was unintelligently bland. If there were some screaming kitsch icons in it, then the film may have been regarded as 'witty', 'perceptive' and 'subtle'. This wave length of design in BODY MELT is in synch with the op shop as desperate artistic matter: it is effectively forced to become 'unintelligently bland' in order to avoid being read as overt signage in a saturated postmoderm environment. It sets up a dialogue with other films which have been shaped by a rigorous and unflinching design sensibility which seeks to retain the bland, the ugly, the non-descript, the hyper-present: TRASH, BAD, OVER THE EDGE, JEANNE DIELMAN, DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN, MARRIED TO THE MOB, PULSE, THE GATE, BOILING POINT, BEAVIS & BUTT HEAD, L'EST, MY NEW GUN, SAFE. These films collectively share that desperately artistic op shop voice by emptying themselves of all possible visual pleasure so as to site their worlds in the decidedly a-cinematic telemovie world where public transport ends and fast food takes over; where domesticity becomes an inescapable universe. These films are the cinematic equivalents of track suit tops, grimy plaid flares and shiny quilted vests in an era dominated by the gross widescreen perfumery of gorgeous, luscious films like DIVA, LA BAL, THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN, THE SCENT OF GREEN PAPAYA, LIKE WATER OVER CHOCOLATE, BABBETTE'S FEAST, THREE COLOURS.

The terror of girlie stuff & the smear of grunge

Arthouse cinema in some respects is the revenge of women's pictures - meaning that their excessive poetic femininity and tasteful eroticism in perfectly matches the hysterical maleness of body-obsessed action movies. This is a blunt gender distinction - because the distinction between these two markets of exploitation is blunt. However, a more complex gender distinction in contemporary art separates that which denies the op shop and that which privileges it.

The serious-looking stuff with sand on the floor, two hanging light bulbs, a sofa coated in sugar cubes and a photo of Maria Callas spinning on an old turntable (note: this idea is non-copyright, so go for it) - that's art intent on transforming op shop fodder. The stuff full of knitted poodle lamps, crocheted ponchos, SCOOBY DOO place mats and scented with PALMOLIVE soap - that's art intent on privileging op shop treasures. The former results from men or women imbuing the conceptual oil slick between Beuys and Keiffer and producing conceptual art that is decisively intimidating. The latter is often the produce of emerging women artists (and some gays - Juan Davila is a supreme mistress here) crossing belemia with art and vomiting up cute iconography from terrorized childhoods. I've heard many a male comment about 'girlie' (ie. neither feminine nor feminist) installations which makes me wonder if 'non-girlie' found object collages are validated only by the specious weight of their conceptual thrust. 'Girlie' op shop art usually looks like ... well, girlie op shop art. But that may be the point - that there is no Teutonic philosophical cock behind it pumping into our cerebral gaze. It is the stuff of bag women; prostitutes; tired mothers; senile ladies; grubby daughters - all caught in a seductive nightmare of therapy shopping, mall cruising and bargain hunting. Kruger can make a PC (and very daggy) quip by ripping off the uni student slogan "I shop therefore I am"; girlie op shop art flaunts the teen-movie stupid pleasure of "shop until you drop". If you don't think 16 CANDLES, THE BREAKFAST CLUB, PRETTY IN PINK and SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL are incisive films, then you just won't get it. (Try Pagan Kennedy's FANZINE! book for some kind of insight.)

Grunge makes an cursive intersection here. 'Real' grunge is downright reactionary: all solid working class without the fucked-up neuroticism which fuels heavy metal. Flaccid grunge is when VANITY FAIR (1992) gets Leibowitz (patron saint of ultra-daggy no-style New Yorkers) to photograph famous rich people to dress up in - wow - cream 3/4 leather coats with floral A-line skirts and green platform booties. The clothes actually look great; the people look stupid, like footballers getting married. The development of grunge is quite likely centred on a soft gender war - between the guys who want to wear their check flannelette shirts like a warrior code and the girls who are sick of wearing floppy asexual windcheaters emblazoned with their boyfriends' heroes. When girls start raiding the op shop for outfits, the style starts mutating and growing, giving us rowdy stylistic atrocities which VANITY FAIR imperceptively lampoons and WHO bemoans. Sonic Youth's choice of Mike Kelly's knitted dolls for their DIRTY album is a key interstice. Having forgone the Germanic macho tone of Gerhard Richter's candle series for their previous DAYDREAM NATION, Kelly's dolls made a hard core Californian op shop statement for a bunch of New York art rockers who were mutating more and more with non-art fringes of grunge, jazz and noise. Embedded deep within a semiotic strain of grunge and post-grunge album covers based on 'original' op shop art (Margaret/Walter Keane big-eyed prints, amateur sex photos, 'outsider' weirdo/bad paintings, etc.), DIRTY is quite possibly the definitive soundtrack for the art student op shopper.

The Breakfast Club (1985); Sonic Youth (1992)

The smell of art

When did the op shop enter art? It's a hard one to fix. Perhaps it starts with Duchamp's fixation with dumb utilitarian store items like shovels, chocolate grinders and hat racks early this century? No - the ironic spectre of Duchamp has been filtered through Beuys to give us unfunny Germanic-style art which mixes real objects in sterile gallery spaces so as to make profound comments about the relationship between art and the world (derh). Or perhaps it's Schwitter's merzbau projects and their allowance for the outside world to grow into and across the art frame and gallery space? No - such meta-space projects persist today but more as a sign of neurotic and compulsive artists who simply don't know when to stop and move onto something else. So what about 'found objects' and their elegiac or surrealistic aura, as evoked in everything from Joseph Cornell's intricate boxes to Jan Svenkmeyer's alchemical animation, all haunted by talismans retaining a lost investment of humanity? No - the rash of little trinkety-bits-&-pieces which covers much current art and photography is so rarefied and tasteful that only wood, metal and food stuffs are allowed by their old world charm.

No, the op shop is mundane by comparison. Remember what an op shop is: the opportunity for the disenfranchised to obtain contemporary possessions at less-than market value. The real op shopper is independently poor, living in the shadows cast by use-by dates: he or she would rather have you believe they shopped at TARGET. The op shop in art is something different: less found object and more sought object; less ephemeral appearance & more ubiquitous presence; less ghostly aura and more fresh corpse; less the scent of mysticism and more the smell of disinfectant; less intuitive selection and more reactionary consumption.

In some respects, the original Pop artists (the more formal aestheticians of them) celebrated this mundanity before it became problematized by the critical reception and dissection of their work. Thiebaud's cakes, Rosenquist's backgrounds, Ruscha's gas stations, Rooney's cereal boxes - not one of them was ever interested in popular culture as an academic discourse, yet they were specifically attracted to the objects of their obsession. Interestingly, the 70s wave of photo-realist painting continued on this hard formalist bent by produced some fascinating documents of ugly 70s Californian stuff before it hit the op shops (and the critical revival of Ruscha says a lot about this kind of conceptual and formal continuation). Perhaps the early 80's style-conscious bring-back-image artists went retro to separate themselves from any 70s aesthetics. Sherman, Salle, Longo and Kruger cut a retro stance by mimicking the 50s and 60s and scavenging mini skirts and wigs, skin flick and cheesecake mags, futuristic corporate ads and businessmen's attire. Scratch their personae: under Sherman is Bridgette Bardot and Sophia Loren; under Salle, Fellini and Bertolucci; under Longo, Tony Rome and Matt Helm; under Kruger, Rod Serling. Not a whisper of the 70s; not a single archaeological dust speck of disco, glam, metal or punk. A second wave of artists had cottoned onto this by the end of the 80s (given a critical voice through the deliberately-titled REAL LIFE journal), giving us the deliberately problematized work of Levine, Prince and Koons - all of whom archly reintroduced the dumbness of aesthetics into their work under a conceptual post-Pop guise.

Melting popular culture into Pop art

I can't help whingeing about art's innate inability to deal with the everyday, the trashy, the ephemeral, the transient, the lost, the abused, the crappy, the dismissible, the forgotten, the murky, the mass, the stupid, the fucked-up, the bland, the empty, etc. without either (a) dwelling on and languishing in a poetic sensation of these aspects; (b) rendering these aspects hyper-sterile by scrutinizing them under the track lights of the gallery-void; or (c) being plain ignorant of the broader and more fertile references which the contents of the installations establish. It could be that despite all the great work produced within the post-Pop continuum collectively says: there's a world outside my practice and I have no way to deal with it and I'm real fucked-up about it. The rise of installation art in the quake of 80s figurative painting seems most traumatized by the spectre of the outside world and intent on rebirthing the gallery space by turning it inside-out so as to uncover some mystical core resonance in the gallery-void. No doubt about it, this makes for some intriguing and complex work, but so often that cerebral buzz is dulled by artists making lazy inferred cultural statements and randomly ejaculated references into popular culture. Pop art was an intensely abstract movement and had little to do with figuration and depiction, even though it employed 'images' as its material and matter. It's my thesis that Pop artists - and the crucial post-Pop artists - speak through popular culture: they leave popular culture unmediated and mobile, circulating as an unnamed meta-substance whereby the outside world and the art gallery melt and become interchangeable and indistinguishable. And when the op shop is used in this way, the desperation of such a tactic is productive.

My strongest impressions of hard core op shop art are similarly interchangeable and indistinguishable. One impression comes from entering the official Victorian Police exhibit at the Royal Melbourne Show around 1970. Stuck in the corner was the 'pad of a drug addict': a mouldy mattress on the floor, old newspapers on the wall, a badly dressed and badly posed mannequin leaning on the mattress, and a single hypodermic lying on the wooden floor. The wig was falling off, too. Hilarious, nightmarish, minimal, tacky, existentialist, deluded and unbelievable all at once. In a gallery today, we could be talking post-Sherman/Koons/Jake & Dinos Chapman high-art statement. At the Show back then, we're talking about a cop (!) being forced into creating a tableaux in order to illustrate an educational point, but coming up with the kind of window display senile ladies put together for op shops. Another impression comes from Christian Boltanski's installation Reserve at a Biennale of Sydney over a decade later. A simple but imposing work featuring a four-walled 'room' constructed by towering, rickety wooden frames into which were stacked old clothes. I walked into the walled space through a narrow entrance and was overpowered by smell and silence. The clothes smelt of moth balls and the clothing worked as acoustic deadening - a major sonic sensation you almost never experience in the church-like reverberation of wood-floored empty spaces in galleries. The effect was both suffocating and liberating; the sensation was like walking into the essence of op-shopness, swallowed up in its wombic folds of lost children and dead adult's clothed skin. This was and is op-shop-as-art, yet emptied of all damp intellectualism and full of a visceral dryness. I was in a gallery, trapped in an art installation, and the last thing on my mind was art.

Wayne Thiebaud - Cake Window (1964); Christian Boltanski - Reserve (1990)
Text © Philip Brophy. Images © respective copyright holders.