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April 3 - May 22, 2004 at CSU Fullerton Art Gallery and
April 3 - June 20, 2004 at CSUF Grand Center Art Center, both Orange County6

by Peter Clothier

It was by pure accident--honest!--that I came upon this Thomas Kinkade exhibition at Cal State Fullerton’s Santa Ana satellite. I had driven over for the opening of a group show at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art (OCCCA)--a spirited enterprise that offers its space to the work of deserving, mostly local artists. The current exhibit there includes a crop of serious and thoughtful painters [Previewed in the April, 2004 issue of ArtScene--Ed.]. I should be writing about them. But here I am, writing about “Thomas Kinkade: Heaven on Earth.” Some will be outraged.

Some were steamed about it at the OCCCA opening. I was handed an essay written by a reputable dealer in the Orange County area, who makes a serious effort to present good art to this conservative community in her gallery. She was outraged not only that CSUF was sponsoring an exhibition of such crass commercialism, but that the catalogue essay by Jeffrey Vallance, the artist responsible for curating it, should mention Kinkade in the same breath as Andy Warhol. I read both pieces of writing over dinner, and decided that I had to see this for myself. Next stop, the Thomas Kinkade show.

Well, not really the Thomas Kinkade show. More, I decided, the Jeffrey Vallance show. Vallance has made a substantial contemporary art career with events, activities and installations that showcase the work--or lives--of others. His deadpan, cool-eyed investigations into social and cultural phenomena have explored subjects as diverse as President Richard M. Nixon, Liberace and Debbie Reynolds--not to mention the King of Tonga and Blinky the frozen chicken. Those familiar with Vallance’s work will recognize that he is no ironist: he does not mock. If he is subversive, it is by allowing his subjects, without apparent malice, to be subversive of themselves.

For those few not aware of the Kinkade oeuvre, this Art Center graduate has become the most successful artist in America--that is, if you happen to apply the financial yardstick alone (the Kinkade corporate venture brought in a reported $100 million last year alone). His pictures ooze with nostalgia for a bygone Hallmark card past that never was: a world of idyllic country lanes and sweet cottages, blazing hearths, idealized landscapes, flowered gardens--along with a deeply sentimentalized iconography of fundamentalist Christian fervor. Franchised in nationwide vanity galleries and mass-reproduced for the mall market are everything from Kinkade tea sets to Kinkade calendars, patriotic tracts, bed linens, La-Z-Boy furniture--and enough domestic decor to make Martha Stewart’s head spin. His images, in a word, have been multiplied and commercialized beyond anything Warhol ever dared to dream.

"Bridge," installation view
from CSU Fullerton Art Gallery.
Photo: M.O. Quinn

Thomas Kinkade custom
VISA credit card.

"Christmas," installation view
from CSU Fullerton Art Gallery.
Photo: M.O. Quinn

"Livingroom," installation view
from CSUF Grand Central Art Center.
Photo: M.O. Quinn

Vallance offers us an encyclopedic view of the Kinkade opus: original paintings, porcelain dishes and wall plaques, furniture, inspirational books and cards, bridal accessories, teddy bears with Kinkade umbrellas installed in Kinkade display cases and sensaround Kinkade environments: a bedroom, a sitting room with faux fireplace and chintzy furniture, a chapel with pews and pulpit--inviting us to immerse ourselves in this Kinkade “Heaven on Earth.” For those who have finely developed expectations about what we’ll find in the hallowed space of a contemporary gallery, the display is nothing short of a nightmare.

Kinkade’s art is truly awful stuff. It’s cliché’d, sentimental, trite, complacently commercial, glaringly dishonest, self-righteous, falsely pious. . .and there is a mass audience that eats it up. They are persuaded that this is the true art of our time and that Kinkade, the self-proclaimed “painter of light,” is the voice crying in the wilderness to counter those who are deluded into worshipping the false idols of an elitist art world that despises the common aspirations of ordinary folk. They are those whom Matthew Arnold derided as the “philistines.”

So why would I step forward to contextualize this curious and obviously controversial exhibition in the galleries of an educational institution? Because the exhibition, seen as a whole and in the context established for it by Vallance, does what the best art has always done: no matter how little we may like what we see, it shows us some important truth about ourselves.

Vallance’s peculiar talent as an artist has been to hold a mirror up to the cultural values our society holds dear, view them from the center and from the margins, and provide us the opportunity to look at them in the critical context of a space we have chosen to hallow in our own way: the exhibition space. Wince, if we must. Or rage. Laugh, or mock, if that’s our reaction to what he invites us to contemplate. But in the case of Kinkade, if we look around us honestly, we can hardly help but notice that what most truthfully characterizes the cultural values of our society is not what we find in our comfortable contemporary museums and galleries. There, we find only the reassuring validation of what remarkably few of us have conspired to call “art.” The truth about our collective cultural values is much larger--and a whole lot less comforting.

Insofar as the Kinkade enterprise plays to these values with a vengance, it also reminds us of the strong polar reactions they evoke. I for one happen to be very angry about those values at the moment. I happen to be angry at the way we have come to permit the corporate world to manipulate every aspect of our lives, and this exhibition lays bare the process of corporate manipulation. One particular display case, given prominence in its isolation, is set aside for a single, gleaming object: a Kincade Visa card--also highlighted on the first page of the catalog. Its installation invites us to question the whole notion of “credit,” not to mention our willingness to use it to purchase anything, no matter how tawdry and useless, provided it is marketed to us in an appealing way. This is the epitome of mall culture. It’s also the beating heart that drives our television culture. It was even offered by President Bush as the primary healing measure after the nightmare of 9/11: go out and buy.

I am angry, too, about the shoddy, barely disguised, and cynical effort to promote this kind of commercialism around the world under the guise of “democracy.” By brute force, it appears, if necessary. I am angry about commerce’s perverse appropriation of Christian values and the arrogant assertion of moral superiority on the part of its many advocates. I am angry at the self-righteousness that promotes international relations based on black-and-white perceptions of right and wrong, good and evil--as though this country had the exclusive benefit of such wisdom. I am angry that we, as a nation, seem ready to surrender to those who cloak their cause in religiosity, and use it as a weapon to control the lives of others.

So much for my personal anger. There’s a good deal more of it, but enough for the time being. But what does it have to do with the exhibition in question? And what about the anger of those who believe that the Kinkade exhibition will validate shoddy aesthetic values amongst the uninitiated? What of the idea that it lends the imprimatur of academic and art world approval to schlock art? I see their point. But for me an unpleasant reality is worth confronting, even at the risk that some will inevitably position it to their benefit. To show such work in an art world environment is to lend a critical context which otherwise, in the self affirming sphere of its own vanity galleries, it manages to sidestep. And in this different context, it is bound to reveal itself more fully for what it is, not to mention reveal who we are as we react to it. Art world folk reveal nothing but our own weakness and isolation if we recoil at inviting the philistine into our territory so that we can look him in the eye.

Oh, and lest we get too holier-than-thou, who’s to say that our own little corner of the cultural world--with its $80 million Van Goghs, its blockbuster museum shows, its quasi-corporate, hierarchical gallery system, its bankable, no-risk artists and investor-collectors, and its rigged auctions, not to mention its sophisticated promotion schemes--is unaffected by commercial and corporate exigencies? Are we so pure? An honest look at Vallance’s Kinkade exhibition holds our faces up to the mirror. Absolut Vodka, anyone?