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Thomas Kinkade The Painter of Slight

June 5, 2012

In the mid-1980’s I was given an uncommon insight to press manipulation. I held in my hands a press release from Michael Jackson stating that in all current and future references to the singer the tag line “King of Pop” had to follow his name. This was not a request but a demand. The implicit threat was that if this was not met that there could be access restrictions imposed. As the years wore on, the moniker “King of Pop” was repeated so often by the mainstream media that it stuck. And far from being an editorial adjective that grew organically from critical acclaim, it became a fait accompli delivered by the massive PR wheels grinding out reputations.

I thought of this recently after the death of Thomas Kinkade. Kinkade assigned himself the moniker “Painter of Light.” He repeated it in the same way that Jackson did and the obliging media acquiesced. True to form, his obits included the tagline albeit with quotations or added the words “self-described” as an artificial arch of the eyebrow.

A near perfect example of Kinkade Iconography.

Thomas Kinkade was a distinctly American fabrication. A successful artist who campaigned as an anti-artist. He wooed an adoring fan base with rhetoric that was both folksy and anti-establishment. He created a market out of thin air that was based on the democratization of the unique. And he veiled his pursuits, his monetary value and importance in distinctly religious terminology. He was America’s version of a Tea Party artist. To this end, his desire was to create art for the 99%, while building a marketing empire of licensing and reproduction that would squarely define him as a denizen of the 1%.

Kinkade’s business model had more in common with Madoff than Art Basel. His company declared bankruptcy in 2010. This was the same year that he left his wife of 30 years. Or maybe she left him.

The Fallen

Many in the art world were either completely unaware of him or dismissively disdainful. I have heard all manner of Schadenfreude at revelations of his recent infidelity and his descent into alcoholism. My disdain is reserved for those who should feel such Schadenfreude. Kinkade’s unraveling,  personal and professional, can be parsed and diagnosed but ultimately he believed his own PR. This is where Michael Jackson and Thomas Kinkade once again collide. America will always look for a hero to place their faith and trust in. In politics-John Edwards, in religion-Jimmy Swaggart, in music-Mr. Jackson, in finance-Bernie Madoff and in art-Thomas Kinkade. America has always loved their preachers and carneys. So the larger the pedestal erected, the farther the anointed risk falling. For those who believed in him, his descent is only further proof of his greatness. By their logic only the inspired are vilified. A slice of the passions raised from both his admirers and detractors can be handsomely witnessed in the seemingly unending comments after the article in the Los Gatos Patch. The vitriol-filled debate has been amazing to witness.

Kinkade’s achievements were in the art form of marketing and PR rather than painting or aesthetic discourse (I do write this never actually having seen an original painting in person. The work always struck me as being related to German Advent calendars. Note to the estate: another licensing deal awaits!) But his story, again distinctly American, falls squarely into the literary genre of Oedipus and tragedy. Contemporary temptations coupled with hubris.

On Kinkade’s art there’s no end of the discourse. My favorite exposure to both the artist and his art is a wonderful press conference (in two parts on YouTube) for an exhibition titled “Heaven on Earth,” at CalState Fullerton’s Grand Central Art Center, in Santa Ana, California, in 2004. The show was unironically curated by the intelligent and thoughtful artist and curator Jeffery Vallance. The more I see of Vallance, the more I appreciate and admire him, but I’m afraid that will have to be another post entirely. (Part Two of the Press conference is Linked Here. Part Two contains the charming bit where Kinkade likens himself to Monet and the Salon de Refuse!)

If Michael Jackson could become the King of Pop by means of press manipulation then maybe Bridget Riley should hire a PR firm and cement her reputation as the “Queen of Op.”

Mario M. Muller, April 28th, 2012, Los Angeles, CA

Below is a highly subjective sampling of links that I’ve encountered over that last 6 weeks since Kinkade’s passing. Each piece is linked. Enjoy!

Anyone not familiar with the Kinkade story should read Susan Orlean’s thorough article in the October 15th, 2001 New Yorker.

The New York Times Obit

A wonderful article by Kelly Klassmeyer on Kinkade himself and Patricia Hernandez’s Parody of Light series.

A musing from the Associated press via Artdaily

A sampling of the official Kinkade site bio. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, the website and the offering of time payment opportunities financed by Wells Fargo is truly illuminating.

Jerry Saltz weighs in pragmatically. Fairly fascinating comment stream on this one too.

Doug Harvey‘s informative and tart essay published in the catalogue that accompanied the Vallance curated exhibition in 2004.

  1. The saddest thing for me about the whole Kinkade shebang is that, when not succumbing to his genius for marketing (like Hirst) and Disneyfying nostalgia, the guy could actually paint.

    • Being able to paint, and knowing what to paint are two very different things though. By the end of his run, there was more photoshop involved in the fabrication of his pieces that turpentine.

      • By ‘paint’ I don’t mean the stuff he was churning out – that’s not ‘painting by anybody’s standards. I mean the other, impressionistic stuff, of which, unhappily, there is rather less.

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