Out of the Temple

Thomas Kinkade could buy and sell the million-selling Wyland like he was a Moldavian sex slave smuggled up from Mexico. And yet it's safe to say that everybody in the world (except for the one in 20 Americans who've bought his paintings) despises the Painter of Light™. You might think Kinkade was Jesse Helms for how he lights artists' heads on fire.

At Saturday's public opening of "Thomas Kinkade: Heaven on Earth" at Cal State Fullerton's Santa Ana adjunct, the Grand Central Art Center, there was a charming dissonance between the bad kids snickering and saying "fuck" and the thin lips of the nice old Christian ladies trying to ignore them. There were also Jamie Wilson(of Square Blue Gallery) and Jeff Gillette, who had separately come up with small protests of the man each called the Painter of Blight™. Poor things were practically wearing the same evening gown to the CHOC Follies! (Gillette, I'm afraid, was the clear winner, having painted his trademark slums and shacks in Kinkadian gardens; he even remembered to make it look—just like Kinkade!—as if all the buildings were ablaze inside, having been torched for the insurance money, while Wilson just wrote an essay. Unfortunately for Gillette, whose works really were gorgeous, he's already flooded the market by selling his small collages for years for $10 to $20 each, and everybody already owns, like, all of them.)

I was there on Saturday because all my friends wanted to make the scene, but the real deal had gone down the night before, with the "private" opening for select important people (like moi!) and 300 or so of Kinkade's closest fans, who had a nice group prayer. That's when I saw a bunch of people on the Grand Central board discreetly gathering in an artist's studio to be addressed by the Master himself, and so, for you, I crashed the party. As everyone stood around, smiling and nodding politely, an old man I'm told was dean of Cal State Fullerton's art departmentbeamed and thanked Kinkade for showing artists how to be financially self-sufficient. Then he spoke joyously of a gal who had found a niche as a Painter of Fish™. It seems when a sports fisherman catches a really wonderful bass and wants to commemorate it, he calls this gal! And she's making a living! Painting fish! The smiles got tighter, and Kinkade took over. He thanked the board for the lovely installation of his work—it's the first time he's been shown at a respectable institution—and approvingly mentioned the exhibit's "subtle irony" so we'd know that he knew that we knew and that it wasn't like he didn't know.

But then, having inculcated in us a shred of grudging respect and having used terms like hyperromanticity so we'd remember he went to ArtCenter, he started in with the Bushian straw men. And those straw men went a little something like this: "Tax dollars, tax dollars, death art, tax dollars, rotting flesh and tax dollars." But everyone knows Damien Hirst is British; he gets tax pounds.

We smiled and nodded, but finally someone on the board grew some balls and, smilingly, asked Kinkade, "When you say 'tax dollars,' what exactly do you mean?" (That was John Gunnin, and he's our new and full-scrotumed hero.) "Well, the NEA," grumped Kinkade, who actually had a very smug and loveless face for a Jesus freak (Jesus freaks are supposed to beam with the Light™ of the Lord), and then it was my turn to have a sac full of swimmers, as I (smilingly) reminded him that the NEA hasn't granted individual artists since, well, Jesse Helms. Kinkade didn't have much to say to that. Ha, ha!I win!

Jeffrey Vallance, who's been interested in commercial branding at least since he began his own Nixon Museum in 1991, is poker-faced when he shows me the opulent installations he curated. He seems to glory in the Kinkadiana, and there's a lot of it. The dozens of Light™-themed paintings are reproduced on cups and plates and calendars and La-Z-Boy recliners, on Beanie Babies and books and MBNA Visa cards. But anyone can do that, sort of. How many artists can sell out an entire village of real homes based on their cozy paintings?

Grand Central reproduces a living room bedecked with Kinkade furniture and throw rugs and a sweet, tulip-filled window box. (A real, live bricklayer came in to mortar the real, live fireplace.) It re-creates his English gardens. It has built a chapel—a real, live chapel—lined with Kinkade's devotional works. On Cal State Fullerton's campus proper, the Main Art Gallery has been installed with Kinkade's Christmas land (I'm pretty sure he's got Christmas trademarked) and a bedroom awash in Kinkade bedroom accessories. I was unable to see it, but Vallance confirmed my suspicion/supposition that it wasn't the least bit sexy. Family values apparently preclude married couples from enjoying all that dirty sex. (Since I can't bring myself to mock marriage as sexless and joyless, you'll have to insert your own tired gay-wedding joke here.) On the walls are Kinkade's priceless original paintings; he hasn't sold an original in decades, managing to reap a (Christ-) killing from reproductions. Some canvases are sweet for their explosive, candy-colored gardens (they could have been fertilized with whatever radioactive agent grew Godzilla) on peaceful streams. Others are likeable for their craggy-mountained backgrounds; they all seem set in the Canadian Rockies, which is a fine place to be. But none is more than passably pretty—not one is remarkably so—and I'm not even a critic who thinks pretty is code for trite. The flowers and streams do not explain Kinkade's status as probably the world's most collected painter.

It's the Jesus, stupid.

I find it disagreeable, intolerant and boorish when people sneer at and disparage "Christians" as monolithically disagreeable, intolerant and boorish. But at the same time, it's not the atheists who've declared a Culture War. In the same week that we here in OC have both the Westminster and Santa Ana school boards raising their Morals like sandbags against the swelling decadent culture, Kinkade, whose flock is interchangeable with Paul and Jan's or Jim and Tammy Faye's, comes to town. At least when Kinkade's flock sends money, they get a nice calendar or coffee cup in exchange. But whether he tithes (and we assume he does), it's just unseemly to make that much money off Jesus. It's all very confused: after close to a bottle of wine, a person could say, with only a bit of editorial hyperbole, that Kinkade rapes his Christian faith for hard cash and that Jesus would throw him out of the temple.

It was Norman Rockwell and the Guggenheim, of course, who pioneered the art of sticking one's thumb into the eye of the art world way back in 1991. But Rockwell was modest and good-humored. Stick some brass Jesus hands on there, and the galling trademark symbol that seems to negate art wherever it's found, and maybe a small Messiah Complex, and you've got your Culture War in a bottle.

Bottoms up!



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