It's beginning to look a lot like Kitschmas
Southern California’s undisputed curator of all things kitsch is bringing his holiday bonanza to Ventura
By Essie Lustig 12/20/2012
Charles Phoenix describes himself as a man with a particular “Pee Wee Herman, Martha Stewart and Huell Howser” sensibility. A California native son, Phoenix dedicates the majority of his life to celebrating Southern California’s rich tapestry of kitsch, evolving modern design and theme-park-style geography. As a guest on Conan and NPR, he’s touted his love of holiday Americana, amateur slide photography and campy twists on classic recipes. On Saturday, Dec. 22, Charles Phoenix will bring his majestic Retro Holiday Slide Show to the Ventura Center for Spiritual Living, also known as “The Mayan Temple.”
Earlier this year, Kodak completely discontinued its famous Kodachrome slide film as it was edged out of the market by digital photography, smart phones and PowerPoint, but the scarcity of the medium will not deter Charles Phoenix. He spent the last 20 years amassing slides from places like garage sales, flea markets and estate sales. After he selects the slides that best fit his current theme out of his collection of more than 200,000, Phoenix narrates over the slide show with what he describes as “observational humor and storytelling.”
What sets Phoenix apart from other artists who utilize “found” photography in their work is his complete reverence for his subjects. He understands that these holiday memories, while funny to the outside observer, are brief glimpses into private worlds. Kitsch is not an aesthetic to be mocked, but rather, it is an examination of the ubiquity of popular culture and, in the case of amateur photography, how iconography relates to the individual. His goal is to “shine a light on the more colorful aspects of our culture; that’s what holidays are — they best define the word kitsch.”
Charles Phoenix contends that his Retro Holiday Slide Show appeals to a wide cross-section of people, from modern design aficionados to the rockabilly crowd and, ultimately, to their “normal” parents. The parents especially relate as the luscious Kodachrome medium evokes almost cinematic memories.
“Christmas has remained very similar from the mid-century to the present,” he notes. “The mechanics [of Christmas celebrations] are still there, we just have LED lights now and far less tinsel.” The show also touches on something very human: a year’s worth of anticipation culminating in exhaustion, gifted bottles of booze and the stray unwanted gift.
Aside from his slide-show extravaganza, Phoenix is the proud food engineer behind the “cherpumple,” the dessert equivalent of the “turducken.” The cherpumple is a stack of three pies (cherry, pumpkin and apple) ensconced in three different layers of cake. Of course it is frosted. In his test kitchen, he continues to pay homage to the popular food of yesteryear, usually adding a slightly coronary-inducing twist such as fried breakfast cereal and a melting fondue snowman shaped entirely out of a king’s ransom of Velveeta and cream cheese.
Not only is Charles Phoenix a showman, he is an established author of popular coffee table books documenting vintage Americana, such as his book of slides, Americana the Beautiful: Mid-Century Culture in Kodachrome, and a love letter to his home turf, Southern California in the’50s: Sun, Fun, and Fantasy. A mind-blowing picture of an Oxnard strip mall can be found in the latter. Obsessed with theme parks, he leads field trips around downtown Los Angeles and several other Southern Californa kitsch treasure troves.
When attending the Charles Phoenix Retro Holiday Slide Show, prepare yourself for an evening of holiday-themed memories, narratives behind the slides, some lesser-known facts about Ventura’s kitschy past and just a tiny touch of voyeurism — for art’s sake. Although little in life is certain, regarding the show, Phoenix assures, “It will really put you in the mood for the holidays. I guarantee you that.”
Holiday dress is encouraged, but not mandatory. Sometimes, things look perfect just the way they are.
Presented by Attaboy Vintage, the Charles Phoenix Retro Holiday Slide Show takes place on Saturday, Dec. 22, 8 p.m. at the Center for Spiritual Living, 101 S. Laurel St. Ventura. Tickets are $25 and only available at www.charlesphoenix.com.