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This one’s for you, Walt.

An inspection of the most underrated artist of the last century, and how irony could have saved him. By Neal Von Flue

The first time I can ever think of hearing about him was 20 years ago at an outdoor mall in Costa Mesa, California. It was the holiday shopping season and we rented a small gazebo for a while, to sell our homemade ceramics. There was an enormous outdoor Christmas tree there and one of those shopping mall art galleries. His art was displayed in the window and I remember listening to people when they walked by- sometimes they exclaimed when they saw them. His work was unmistakable from a distance or at a glance, and that impressed me a great deal- a contemporary artist being such a household name.

They say that one in twenty American homes has one of his prints. And back then people looked in the window of the gallery the way their kids looked into a toy store during the holidays. They marveled at it. How someone could accomplish with only their two hands, something so lush and dreamlike; something so gorgeous and serene.

I should preface this by saying that 20 years ago, I didn’t have a very sophisticated eye. I was a young artist and I wasn’t very well travelled, so I would have been very hesitant to take apart the work of a world-famous painter- someone who had created a signature style and then built a million-dollar industry on top of it. The paintings themselves didn’t do much for me, but I wasn’t offended by them like most of the fine art world seems to be.
But now, I don’t mind taking a more serious look at his work and methods.

Thomas Kinkade is the self proclaimed (and trademarked) “Painter of Light” and it’s easy to see why.

This google image search will show you a decent overview of his work and, unlike most image searches of an artist’s name, the results are incredibly uniform. The palette, values, and saturations are all very tightly controlled. At thumbnail size, you can see they all have the same viewpoint: eye-level or slightly lower. The objects in the frame are all roughly the same scale- never overpowering each other- and sometimes the same elements show up in multiple paintings, just rearranged in order to make a new composition. These qualities all lead to the feeling of a formula- a paint-by-numbers subject. All of which does nothing to help the feeling of, I guess I’d call it- hollowness that the work provides.

While some sections have a misty, spatial-haziness to them that adds to the depth, the level of detail is incredibly controlled and even. There are no bold moves, no slashes at the canvas, no emotion in the forms. Just equally-detailed descriptions of objects in saturated color, from corner to corner. He relies heavily on the middle darks to create contrast so the blackest areas are small and tightly knit, mostly bleeding directly off toward the edges as fast as they can, shrinking from the airy and light-filled spaces of the center.

They feel a bit too detailed, really. You look at them for a while and you get fatigued with the beauty of them. They are like too much Turkish Delight; so treacly sweet and elegant. And overindulging in them may give you a stomach ache.

The biggest impression they make to me is that they are pouring over with detail and yet also empty. They are purposefully serene, but the lack of a central subject makes them feel like a matte painting for a film or cartoon. As if each image is patiently waiting in jewel-like clarity for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to come dancing in.

This makes sense because Thomas Kinkade got his start by painting animation backgrounds, for none other than rebel animator Ralph Bakshi and fantasy master Frank Frazetta, on their collaborative film “Fire and Ice”. Bakshi hired Kinkade for his first official art job and Kinkade shrewdly negotiated salaries and benefits for himself and a close friend from art school, James Gurney.

Kinkade is on the right, Gurney on the left. They later went on the road together, creating a how-to book on bumming the country as an artist. According to Gurney:

…We left after a couple semesters because we started getting jobs, and the school wasn’t teaching what we wanted to learn. Plus, after reading the on-the-road adventures by Jack Kerouac, Charles Kuralt, and John Steinbeck, we wanted to leave behind the cramped, windowless classrooms and confront the real world with our sketchbooks. We filled our backpacks full of art supplies and hopped on a freight train heading east out of Los Angeles. We were too broke for hotels, so we slept in graveyards and underpasses and we sketched gravestone cutters, lumberjacks, and ex-cons. To make enough money for food, we drew two-dollar portraits in bars by the light of cigarette machines.

Kinkade’s mature work (at least as popularized by his company and his fans) seems at-odds with this description. Someone who hopped trains across the country drawing two-dollar portraits in bars and looking for the real world, later becomes the person who vigorously trademarks a moniker like “The Painter of Light” and devotes all of that creative energy to pumping out repetitive overly-stylized visions of imaginary Americana.

You could see it as a sellout for the ages.

And if you know about Kinkade’s later years- including his death of alcohol and valium at 54- it’s easy to draw the conclusion that this dichotomy took its toll. At his pinnacle, he was known for outbursts and public intoxication. He was arrested for drunk driving. He was accused of selling his own artwork outside of his company at a deep discount, so that he could then buy up his own devalued stock. He publicly groped a woman’s breast at a sales event in Indiana, allegedly exclaiming “These are great tits!”

In Las Vegas he openly heckled Siegfried and Roy at one of their shows, inexplicably yelling at them “Codpiece!” “Codpiece!”

The man who built a company which negotiated to make millions by doing Disney-sanctioned art in his trademark style, once publicly urinated on a Winnie the Pooh figure at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim while saying “This one’s for you, Walt.”

Out of all the gross stuff that Thomas Kinkade allegedly did, that last one makes the most sense to me because I can see some parallels between Walt Disney and Thomas Kinkade. Each began in earnest, and through hard work found themselves in the sell-out trap. Sitting atop the wild sunfisher of artistic fame, trying desperately to hold on to their ideals amidst a vicious popularity. Trying desperately to direct what their name will mean after they’re gone. They also both had a fondness for an idyllic America, a country that was great before their fame.

And for Disney, it was never more exalted than in the vision of hometown life, and of childhood imagination. He bought Winnie the Pooh and his friends because it reflected the small miracle of a child in a forest, with his toys come to life.

And maybe for Kinkade- the product of American 60’s counterculture chewed up by the 70’s and spit out by the 80’s- it was a struggle with his rebellion. Maybe being caught between his artistic morals; his youthful iconoclasm and his desire to be successful, is what drove him to where he ended up.

His paintings make more sense to me when described as the headache after an 80’s cocaine bender.

And if he was younger- or lasted longer- and his art was being generated in our current age of pop-culture irony, I believe Kinkade would be lauded as a master. He would be shown alongside great modern artists like Brandon Bird and Banksy as an incredibly intelligent satirist, selling back the castor-oil of his hero Disney’s trampled vision of Americana on a spoon heaped-high with white sugar. (Interestingly enough, Brandon Bird bought the domain name before Kinkade’s company, and refused to ever hand it over. On his site, you can read a 2003 exchange with a rabid Kinkade fan.)

From a technical standpoint, Thomas Kinkade’s accomplishments are pretty grand. He can move paint. But the application of the idea- the seeming earnestness of it’s motives- are what cause such revulsion in the “serious” art world. If he was a young person now and still full of that grit which he used to keep himself warm in graveyards, he could wear a black jacket, paint the exact same images and be lauded as a master of irony with unparalleled technical skill. A true wolf in sheep’s clothing.

If his bucolic paintings were background art for some other obscure 80’s Ralph Bakshi cartoon, Kinkade would be held up by lowbrow art enthusiasts as a genius. A deft mimic of sarcastically huge proportion. They would recognize and appreciate what they are: cotton-candy mirrors, empty in the middle and waiting for character(s).

Ralph Bakshi agrees:

They miss the true brilliance that is Kinkade.
Kinkade painted the brilliant landscapes of the religious right, the Tea Party and all the other Rush Limbaughs in America. He’s selling back what Americans want. This is the most homespun vision of the distorted right and nostalgia-looking Americans reaching for purity without knowing what it really is — all through his landscapes.
IT’S BRILLIANT, and goes by every art critic and major museum in the world. I love it. And it’s just that [which] I made my movies about — the blind, pretentious and ugly.
Tom Kinkade was a great, a good friend of mine and I will miss him. As an artist he nailed it — and that’s rare.

It seems like there’s a chance that Kinkade didn’t know this about himself. He took it all too seriously- held on too tightly- and because of that we have his legacy: The Thomas Kinkade Studio, an art factory who’s mission (according to their website):

…continues on the path that Thom himself started and developed. Thomas Kinkade Studio Artists paint in the true Thomas Kinkade style with great attention to detail, a love of light and an overwhelming appreciation of the way a picture can tell a beautiful story. Carrying on the model Thom himself had been driven to develop, Thomas Kinkade Studios carries on the Kinkadian tradition to create art that will stand the test of time and be treasured for the ages.

They make license-oriented works; Disney characters and more. And like a Disney production line, no actual artist’s names are anywhere to be found. The hands who create these things mimicking Thom’s style are absent.

At the head of the collection from The Thomas Kinkade Studio is a painting inspired by one of the holiday season’s treasured movies: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. And in this grab for pop-culture Christmas nostalgia, there is considerably more black than we expect to see in the Kinkadian Tradition:

The quintessential foils of the modern American family experience; the Griswolds, stand in the snow marveling at Clark’s 25,000 brilliant lights that cling to every side of their house like a microscope-vision of a virus attacking a host. Thin wispy curls of smoke from the choked-down chimneys hold up the matte-painting sky and the clouds swirl around in a spiral, like the cold light of the moon is sucking them in.

And Cousin Eddie stands behind them all drinking and smoking and holding the hose to his RV toilet, drizzling a puddle of human filth into the snow right on the edge of the shadows and light, while Santa’s sleigh- consumed in flames- burns across the moon like a comet. Going down with all hands on deck.

Maybe over there at the Kinkade Studio, sitting in a long straight line of painters, there is an Artist. Someone who snuck the Castor Oil in this image past the lips of the company controllers with a spoonful of nostalgia and the age-old promise of greed. Someone who knows the game and fully understands the true genius of their benefactor in this new age where nothing is sacred, not even Christmas. Someone who sees the subtlety of a joke that can only come from no one getting it.

Merry Christmas to Thomas Kinkade and this new Kinkadian Tradition.

Happy holidays to you all. And may God bless the Fakers.

Words © 2015 Neal on Flue. All images are © their respective owners and are used for review purposes only.

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