Turns out that Thomas Kinkade’s life was every bit as lurid as his art. The unexpected death of the self-styled “Painter of Light” last week has shed new light on what went on behind the easel of America’s most popular and certainly most profitable artist.
In either case, it wasn’t pretty.
(Kinkade died at 54 of what the family says were natural causes, although an official cause of death could take weeks to release.)
If you haven’t heard the name, Kinkade — Thom to his friends — became famous and made millions churning out ghastly pastiches of Disney characters, stonewalled cottages in the woods, various U.S. landmarks, religious scenes and the like. His sentimentality, wrapped in a shroud of born-again evangelism, went well beyond the usual limits of cloyingness, kitsch and shame. Kinkade’s was truly an art so monumentally and unabashedly awful, so appalling in its every detail, so conceptually crass, it reads more like parody, self or otherwise, than piety.
Now we discover that behind the enterprise was a man whose exploits including groping strange women’s breasts, heckling during performances, drunken driving, urinating in hotel lobbies and binge drinking, the sort of stuff normally associated with tortured artists. Not that this one lived in a garret, more like a gated community in suburban California.
Still, it seems somehow unsurprising to find so much darkness behind the “light.” But then, look a little closer at Kinkade’s pictures and you’ll notice the light shining from the windows of his peopleless buildings burns with an almost worrisome intensity, as if they’re on fire.
Not even that explains the appeal of a work such as Bambi’s First Year, a Kinkadian masterpiece and audience fave. This nightmare vision of a cartoon landscape includes everything and its opposite: lightning and bright sunshine, summer and fall, mountains and valleys, even a rainbow.
The artist painted an original on canvas and reproduced it on paper as demand required; that’s where the money is. Thousands of copies were run off. Kinkade’s flooding of the market reached biblical proportions. As much as anything, that is why the many purchasers are unlikely to find their “heirlooms” make worthy investments, despite Associated Press reports that the value of his paintings has increased monumentally since his death.
Naturally, the serious art world had nothing but contempt for Kinkade, and the countless others like him. (In Canada, they include Trisha Romance, James Lumbers and a gaggle of animal painters.) The utter lack of self-awareness, let alone irony, pretty well eliminated Kinkade from contention.
Still, one can’t help but wonder whether the art world hasn’t missed the point; actually, awfulness is exactly what makes the work so grimly fascinating. Intentionally or not, Kinkade has taken our love of landscape, a phenomenon that has been observed, measured and described, and revealed it for the lie it has become.
The fact that not a single aspect of Kinkade’s work has any connection to the natural — real — world says much about the state of culture in America. The landscape here is invented and emotional; it is populated not by real animals and places, but by their cartoon equivalents. Kinkade’s wildlife comes by way of Walt Disney, not Robert Bateman.
Despite his apparent dedication to nature, Kinkade’s real interest was the cultural landscape of Middle America, the religious right and, with his love of patriotism, the Tea Party types. One imagines Republican presidential candidates vying to outdo one another with the number of Kinkades on their mantelpieces. Appropriately, George Bush loved him.
As much as anything, the work seems to have been conceived to function as a series of illustrations and proclamations of faith. In that case, their banality should not be seen as an obstacle but as the very point of the exercise. The important thing is that the experience is shared and by the largest possible number, the lowest common denominator.
Each image thus becomes a signal, a not-so-secret handshake between believers. For the rest of us, who lack the faith needed to look beyond the image, what you see is what you get. It’s that bad.