Monday, October 20, 2008

Writer of Light

Went to the mall on Saturday night.

It's been a long time since I was in a legitimate, good ol' Main Street USA-busting shopping complex.

The last time was in around 1994 in Southern Ontario on a quest for Orange Julius. By that time the mall was far below retail capacity and had even leased it top floor to one of those colleges that advertises during Gilligan's Island reruns.

I had imagined that America's malls had experienced a steady decline since then, that by now they practically suburban Thunderdomes with parking lot moats.

What I hadn't counted on was Thomas Kinkade.

Prior to this weekend I had never actually seen any of Kinkade's work. Sure I read all about him -trademarked "painter of light", QVC record setter.

I had even defended him- forming an opinion based solely on the arguments surrounding his work. The stuff is fluff, sure, but so it Snow White, everything touched by Chuck Jones and practically anything I've ever worked on -those things are given pedestals and academic credibility (at least Disney and Bugs Bunny, anyway).

By many reports, he's a hilarious drunk -a prerequisite for art school idols. And, man, he's come up with a gimmick to bilk Christians out of their dough that rivals the efficacy of Focus on the Family.

On top of that I love baseball, I'm eating apple pie for breakfast right now and have a less than strained relationship with my mother. Me and Kinkade- we're like ideological twins!

To tie into the animation business, my theoretical appreciation expanded when I read an interview with Ralph Bakshi commenting on Kinkade's work as a background painter for Fire and Ice
and praising his skills and unparalleled salesmanship.

Naysayers, I figured, were feasting on sour grapes -sorry they didn't come up with a scheme to become a famous millionaire artist themselves.

Maybe they are, but that doesn't change the fact the this is some pretty mediocre work.
As a guy who has been to at least 500 baseball games (only one a Yankee Stadium) I can say there are few paintings which capture the feeling of a ballgame worse than this. Is it supposed to be a chilly afternoon game in early April? Shouldn't the "painter of light" understand the effect the shadow across the infield has not only on the game but the experience of the crowd. The encroaching shadow creates an ominous mood which is distinctly un-baseball like.

The kitsch factor isn't what degrades the work -its the failure to capture the spirit of the image being represented. We're given no insight into the scene, the sport, the fans, nothing. These are the things that separate Norman Rockwell -who was most clearly "just an illustrator". Rockwell creates scenes and gives them a certain edge, he offers opinion and insight.

Rockwell didn't have the technical chops, that's for sure. He was even open about his technique -everything was traced, he worked large so that it would "reduce" better (painting something at 4 feet by 3 feet which would get shrunk down to 12 inchs in a magazine).

Is the glaze technique kitsch when employed by Frederich Church or Bierstadt? These guys "painted light" too. They hid their brush strokes. They were landscape painters of Americana.

(above) Fredric Church's "Morning in the Tropics". Click for the full screen.

There are so many things to say about this; the sun fighting through the clouds and burning an otherworldly, yet real, pink onto the lagoon, the popped highlight of the hanging leave that draws the eye to the red bird perched there, the jungle shadows which hint at teeming life, the foggy shape in the distance -fellow traveler, angry native, branch adrift in the current?

It is a landscape, but it is full of life.


(above) Albert Bierstadt's "Storm in the Rocky Mountains"

This is one of those "holy cow" paintings (to borrow a baseball catchphrase). The color, the shadow, the blackness playing against the clouds and the craggy mountain. Holy freaking cow.


(above) This painting was in the mall, too.

I guess what bugs me is the dishonesty of it all. Disneyland doesn't look like that, it doesn't feel like that and in essence it's just a kiddie park. Further, the technique is nothing after looking at any Hudson River School artist. It's OK, but nothing special.

Growing up I was always a little repulsed by jigsaw puzzle art -the romantic landscapes of Thomas Cole, et c. At this point in my life I appreciate and enjoy it. In another 30 years will I regard the paintings which revived the American mall with same appreciation?

I hope so, its better to like everything than to constantly find things to gripe about. In this spirit, I will officially re-brand myself as the "Writer of Light".

1 comment:

Liesje Kraai said...

Hmm... maybe that's what why the Galleria Mall up near me is falling into decline. They need some of that Kinkade magic.