Thomas Kinkade, Conceptual Genius. For Real.


TWO WEEKS AGO painter Thomas Kinkade died, and while everyone else says his work is kitsch – and it is, no doubt about it – all those obits got it wrong. He was the best conceptual artist. Ever. The superlative. He might look like Ricky Gervais but his work could rival Damien Hirst or Takashi Murakami and Jeff Koons.

To be sure his work is hideous, paintings of saccharine scenes with craggy snow-topped mountains, dramatic skies at sunset or sunrise, a lone cottage. Or, even worse: imaginary scenes from Disney. His “Bambi’s First Year” manages to have all of the above, plus a stream, waterfall, lightening, a rainbow and bald eagles. His palette favors sickening pastels: stomach-medicine pink, salmon, lavender and baby blue. They’re the insidious shades more commonly seen on seven year-old girls and Barbies. His paintings always provoke in me a sense foreboding. Maybe that’s because I look at too much contemporary art, but something that saccharine has to be dark and twisted. And, those cottages with all the lights on? They look like the sort of place a crime has just been committed. They make me think of the performance artist and sculptor Paul McCarthy. He too has taken that same mawkish Disney/ Americana thing and made psychosexual art from it – sculptures that resemble a twisted theme park and fairy tales that show rape is really at their heart. I’m convinced the two artists are if not one and the same, at least close colleagues.

Thomas Kinkade, "Bambi's First Year."

Then there’s how Kinkade sells his work: in malls. He’s the only artist traded on the New York Stock Exchange, and he’s developed a gated community with houses modeled on the twee Hansel-and-Gretel cottages in his paintings. He worked with La-Z-Boy (the kind of partnership companies like Nike or Adidas do with street artists to gain traction with hipster culture). His paintings are not really paintings, in that there’s no real paint involved, but prints on textured, stretched canvas. His work is then finished, highlighted, by a legion of assistants. You pay more for the finishing. A “special assistant’s” affects cost more than a “master highlighter’s,” and one hand-finished by Kinkade himself? That’s the most expensive of all. If that sounds like a con to you – and it does to me – it’s the stuff of contemporary conceptual art.

There’s a certain meta quality to conceptual art that can make it feel like the joke’s on you, particularly since the work is designed as a commentary on the means of production and value. Can anyone seriously look at Jeff Koons’ sex pieces with Ciccolina and not think the guy is having a laugh on us? Combining hardcore sex with super-cute puppies and flowers and bows, the series’ kitsch is not out of place with Kinkade. Nor are Hirst and his factory of dot paintings that have just been exhibited globally in all 11 Gagosian galleries from New York to Paris, Moscow to Hong Kong. If contemporary conceptual art is largely concerned with questioning value and how we ascribe it to art (aka examining the marketing behind it), well, Kinkade has nailed it.  It’s a theme that’s been going from Duchamp and his urinal up through the Eighties and Sherrie Levine’s re-photographing famous works as well as Koons’ turning a vacuum cleaner and basketball into art. Add to that how Kinkade takes on (and builds up) the myth of the artist through all those stores in shopping malls and he is a contemporary genius.

Those mawkish colors and saccharine scenes of his only appear reprobate and conservative. They’re actually radical. It’s as if he had a system for picking out the schlockiest details, as if he were setting out to catalogue the most sentimental of them. The paintings are meta, I tell you. Susan Orlean noted in The New Yorker when she visited his studio that it looked like he was copying a horse from a cigarette ad. Hello, Richard Prince. He just got sued last year for doing just this. (He lost). Still, Prince’s appropriations from cigarette ads play on the same Western paintings Kinkade borrows from. Meanwhile Murakami also undertakes factory style production and has made a life’s work studying the cute in Japanese vernacular art. So too has Tom Sachs with his obsession with Hello Kitty. All you have to do to see Kinkade as a conceptual artist is tilt the frame – and not far either. He just needs to be in a white-walled gallery. Please call his widow, Larry Gagosian. I know, Jeffrey Deitch, you’re now the head of LA’s MoCA, but Kinkade is due a show in a new context.

Richard Prince's "Untitled Cowboys #2"

His subject matter itself fits with other LA artists like Mike Kelley, who also died earlier this year, and used stuffed animals to question the cute and abject and McCarthy’s work. Grouping the three of them isn’t much of a stretch. Just start with Kinkade’s biography. He went to Berkeley and dropped out. The school was a hotbed of radicalism and post-structural theory (the foundation of conceptual art). Then he moved to L.A. for art school. He went to the Art Center in Passadena, and admittedly this exercise would be easier if he’d gone to Cal Arts or UCLA, which in the late Seventies championed radical art-making.

At the time Los Angeles was still far removed from the center of the art world. The city was provincial, and artists there could often feel like no one cared about what they were doing. I often wonder if this sparked Kinkade’s spurning art as elitist? Was it anger? When he was in school, the city was incubating conceptual work, like Kinkade’s, inspired by Hollywood ala Ed Rushca, who even explored light in a similar way, or Bruce Nauman with his evil clowns. Then there are McCarthy and Kelley who were both in LA in school at the same time and taught by people like Chris Burden. He’d strapped himself crucifixion-like to a VW Beetle (somewhere here is also a place for a comment on the fact that Kinkade died on Good Friday) and shot himself in his arm for art. He embraced a total commitment to work, to going all the way for it, like you see in Kinkade where living the art is part of his strategy. There’s no other explanation for his wholesale dedication.

Then there’s the RITUAL PEEING. I have to put that in all caps. I want to scream it out loud. The LA Times reported on the painter’s penchant for “‘ritual territory marking,’ as he called it.” The paper quoted someone in the artist’s own organization (that NYSE-traded company) saying Kinkade announced: “‘This one’s for you, Walt,’” as he peed on Pooh outside the Disneyland Hotel. This is dizzying not just for the peeing on Pooh – something I want to say over and over. He didn’t simply pee on Pooh but on one of his heroes. For years Kinkade likened his work to Disney’s. Then he goes and urinates on him? That puts him square in the camp of Burden or Vito Acconci, who masturbated under the floor of the Sonnabend gallery for a performance piece in the Seventies.Paul McCarthy “Santa’s Chocolate Shop.”

Paul McCarthy "Santa's Chocolate Shop."

Kinkade’s peeing is thrilling. It’s transgressive, particularly for an artist who’s said, “People find hope and comfort in my paintings. I think showing people the ugliness of the world doesn’t help it.” The move is also in keeping with McCarthy’s sinister scatological performances.

Paul McCarthy, "White Snow."

Kinkade easily fits into an American canon as if bringing that canon back full circle. Looking at “Bambi’s First Year” or “Evening Majesty” it’s easy to think of paintings like Thomas Cole’s cycle from the 1840s The Voyage of Life or Bierstadt’s “Yosemite Valley.” Put his work up to American 19th century art from the Hudson River School to the giant landscape paintings with broad vistas and you can see a clear line. Many of those paintings were advertising not only American values but also literally the American West. They were part and parcel of Manifest Destiny and selling the pioneer spirit. That idea of paintings and art advertising American values doesn’t stop in the 19th century. Take Abstract Expressionism, full of ego and earnestness, and the notion of Truth in lionizing the mythic artist/creator/hero. Those works too were a bit of propaganda, certainly not as much “Truth” as they purported. They were co-opted by the CIA and shown abroad as part of exporting an American cultural agenda after the War. Come the Sixties Warhol came from advertising and made ads that were paintings or vice versa. Then, take Koons and Ciccolina and puppy dogs, so why not Kinkade? With his landscapes and Disney references he links us from Koons and Prince and McCarthy all the way back to the beginnings of American art.

Thomas Cole, "The Voyage of Life – Youth."

There’s just one small problem. He was a serious Christian who said he stopped wanting to work in the big-A art world when he became born again. His four daughters may be named for famous artists but they all have “Christian” as a middle name as if to make the point very clear. He was quoted in The New York Times saying he makes art for people with values: “People who put my paintings on their walls are putting their values on their walls: faith, family, home, a simpler way of living, the beauty of nature, quiet, tranquility, peace, joy, hope. They beckon you into this world that provides an alternative to your nightly news broadcast.”

That same month he told The New Yorker, he was “really the most controversial artist in the world” for those very same values. Turns out making sincere work is conceptually challenging. Indeed, what do you get when you add religion to conceptual art? Thomas Kinkade: Christian? Conceptual artist? Or both?


About Jennifer Kabat

A recent finalist for Notting Hill Editions’ Essay Prize, Jennifer Kabat (@jenkabat) is working on a book called Growing Up Modern, exploring art, ideology and the landscape from the modernist suburb where she grew up to the Western Catskills where she lives now. She’s been awarded a Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant for her criticism and teaches at NYU. She contributes to BOMB, The Believer and Frieze and was once an editor at the legendary style magazine The Face in London.
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