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Painted into a corner?

A curated exhibition asks whether Thomas Kinkade, the people's artist, can find respect in today's art world.

April 04, 2004|Hunter Drohojowska-Philp | Special to The Times

Jeffrey VALLANCE, a respected contemporary artist with a teaching position at UCLA and 2004 Guggenheim Fellowship, smiles broadly as he explains how he happened to organize an exhibition of work by commercial artist Thomas Kinkade, the self-described "Painter of Light." "I got intrigued by the idea that there are different art worlds," Vallance says. "The fine-art world does not want to touch Kinkade. They see what he does as not art. That was why the show intrigued me: to do something that has never been done before. It is a loaded topic too, because so far the two worlds don't get along. It was like the last show you really should do, in a way, but I'm always up for a challenge."

Vallance has a curriculum vitae weighted with past challenges, including his 1991 creation of "The Nixon Museum" at Rosamund Felsen Gallery in Los Angeles, an exhibition devoted entirely to images and objects bearing the likeness or name of the late president. He employs a faux-naif style to make drawings, paintings, objects and performances that are usually based in an aspect of the larger culture that has captured his imagination. In 1995, he organized exhibitions on Liberace and Debbie Reynolds, each held in Las Vegas. For decades he has conducted cultural exchanges with the king of Tonga, an eccentric dedication that the South Pacific country recognized by awarding him the title of honorary noble.

He first gained notoriety in 1979 for his book "Blinky," the story of a chicken that he purchased at the grocery store and for which he imagined life, death and an elaborate funeral.

Even by the flexible standards of contemporary art, Vallance's world view is, shall we say, askew. Nonetheless, "Thomas Kinkade: Heaven on Earth" promises to be one of his most controversial enterprises. It opened Saturday at the Main Art Gallery of Cal State Fullerton and the Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana.

For anyone who has not been to the mall lately, reproductions of Kinkade's original paintings -- bucolic scenes of quaint villages, country chapels and Christmas celebrations -- are sold through a franchise of eponymous galleries dedicated to his work. He is thought to be the most financially successful living artist, reportedly earning more than $100 million last year from his art and from licensing his imagery to companies ranging from La-Z-Boy furniture to Lenox china. His work thrives in an art world unconnected to that which supports artists like Vallance.

Kinkade's work is not shown in contemporary art museums, so he built his own museum in Monterey. A housing development in Vallejo, Calif., is based on the nostalgic aesthetic of his paintings. But all the money in his Thomas Kinkade Foundation could not buy him the one thing possessed by Vallance: respect. Yearning for respect, or at least some acknowledgment from the exclusionary realm of contemporary art, may have led Kinkade to open the vault. He loaned the show some 30 original paintings, as well as examples of every single item bearing his licensed imagery.

. Asked why, at this stage of his extremely successful career, he would get involved in this enterprise, Kinkade says, "It is flattering to think the paintings have cultural relevance at a level where critics might take it seriously." He calls himself a "populist artist ... and what I do does drive commerce, but I see what I create as fulfilling a needed cultural function, a need for an iconography of meaning.

"I've had so much positive reaction and emotional fulfillment from the creation of my art and sharing it with everyday people that I never paid too much attention to the opinion of critics," Kinkade says from Charleston, S.C., where he is involved in painting demonstrations to raise money for charity. "I do think Vallance is a brilliant curator and taking the next step to identify an emerging form of conceptual art, as it were. The real message behind my work is that the artist has, for the first time in many years, been able to utilize popular culture as his canvas. That is my true creative space, the sense of being able to broadly affect culture in a way that artists typically haven't in recent generations."

Kinkade, 46, grew up in a trailer in Placerville, Calif., the town he often renders in his art as an idyllic community of friendly citizens. Even as a child, he had a talent for drawing and went on to study illustration at Pasadena's Art Center College of Design. He worked in movies as a background painter for animators but quit to do his own art, which he showed at the Biltmore Gallery in the downtown L.A. hotel. After hitting upon the formula for inspirational landscapes and village scenes, he and his wife put their modest savings into publishing the first reproductions of his paintings in 1984. They sold 1,000 copies for $35 each and never looked back.

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