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For the love of kitsch

Tacky, tasteless and totally irresistible

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No matter how rough a work day she has weathered, Claire Butler can count on coming home and gazing into the mournful eyes of a homely, hungry poodle to give her a good, hearty laugh.

Actually, make that two homely, hungry poodles, each awkwardly rendered nearly life-size in oil paint by ungifted hands and looking out from plain wooden frames above Butler's couch.

The pitiful pair isn't alone. They share wall space with paintings of a dungaree-wearing chimp inexplicably clutching a baseball bat and at least a dozen kittens of varying artistic merit. Then there's Butler's most recent coup: a portrait of what was likely intended to be a Pekinese, but looks like a poorly executed Dr. Seuss creature against a shocking-pink background.

Butler has spent years amassing her prized collection of bad thrift-store art of other people's pets. The twisted synchronicity represented by the twin poodle paintings -- similar in composition and color scheme but bought years apart at different estate sales -- gives them the edge as her personal faves.

"As you can see, the poodles were both doomed to a corner with an empty food bowl," she explains, trying to keep a straight face. "Who would paint that?"

Yes, but just as relevant a question is: Who would buy that?

"Anything that is cheesy or overdone appeals to me," Butler answers cheerfully. "My home is my entertainment."

Butler, who has accumulated countless such collections since her high-school days, is an extreme devotee of that most maligned of cultural genres: kitsch.

And yet, kitsch is also one of the most beloved of cultural genres. From the twentyish hipster chick in Little Five Points who carries a "Facts of Life" lunchbox as a purse, to the yard sale fiend who freaks upon finding an amoeba-shaped ashtray in just the right shade of puke-green, kitsch is popularly embraced less as a guilty pleasure than as a legitimate expression of individuality.

Sculptured shag carpeting. Yard gnomes. Polyester leisure suits. Obscure Hanna-Barbera characters. Lawrence Welk records. Large wooden forks on the dining room wall. Textured prints from the "Pity Kitty" series. Any early brainchild of well-tanned marketing genius Ron Popeil. Spam croquettes. Each of these fit some kitsch maven's idea of cool.

Defined literally, "kitsch" is a German word essentially meaning "trash" or "junk." Introduced into popular lingo by 1940s art critics as a put-down for artwork that wallows in cheap sentimentality and comforting nostalgia, the term eventually found a broader use in describing almost any image, object or consumer product whose innate tackiness was once -- and may still be -- intertwined with a pop-culture sensibility. Kitsch collectors celebrate the allure they find in the disposable, the tasteless, the unfashionable, the schmaltzy, the hopelessly dated.

In the 1990s, kitsch proved to be the perfect aesthetic for jaded Gen-Xers, whose trademark approach to life is that of post-modern irony. That, in turn, has transformed ready-made kitsch -- from dashboard hula dancers to an array of T-shirts celebrating bad '70s sitcoms -- into a hot consumer commodity found lining local store shelves from Junkman's Daughter to Target.

The legion of folks buying into kitsch's retro-contrarian mindset has grown faster than you can say, "limited-edition Jim Beam whiskey decanter in the shape of a CB radio," another item proudly on display in the Butler household.

Butler's lifestyle is radically different from that of her youth. She grew up in rural South Georgia, the daughter of well-bred parents who were connoisseurs of expensive European antique furniture. When she was a teenager, she read that Andy Warhol had painted the interior of The Factory silver. Inspired, she covered the walls of her own bedroom in tinfoil the next day and was so delighted at her parents' horrified reaction that she decided to furnish it in similar style.

Today, she can scarcely recall the various collections she's amassed over the years: souvenir state plates from the golden age of Stuckey's; novelty fabrics; the "sad-eyed kids" paintings of Margaret Keane and her imitators; statuary of nude, embracing couples; and her latest interest, paint-by-numbers paintings -- but only copies of the pansy painting.

Like a museum curator, Butler will build and organize a kitsch collection until it gets old or she moves on to another subject. Then she boxes it up and stows it in her basement -- or simply gives it away. Serendipity and her love for trash culture is her guide.

Her most cherished collection is that of the fuzzy-plush tissue-box covers with the plastic doll's face on the front. She counts herself lucky to have found five in the past 20 years.

"Once something gets to be hip or popular, I usually decide to get rid of it," she says. "I have no interest in collecting anything for its value. As soon as my old lunchboxes started hitting $200 on eBay, I unloaded them."

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