APRIL 11, 2012 5:17PM

Sailor Beware - Understanding Kinkade

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Flash by Sailor Jerry
To get a sense of the Painter of Light™, a good place to start is Susan Orlean's  October 15, 2001 New Yorker profile piece titled, Art for Everybody
"One recent sultry afternoon, inside the Bridgewater Commons mall, in central New Jersey, across from The Limited, down the hall from a Starbucks, next door to the Colorado Pen Company, and just below Everything Yogurt, a woman named Glenda Parker was making a priceless family heirloom for a young couple and their kid. This was taking place in the Thomas Kinkade Signature Gallery, a plush anerd flatteringly illuminated, independently owned, branded distribution channel for the art-based products of America's most profitable artist, Thomas Kinkade."
Orlean article eviserates Kinkade by systematically and dispassionately examinating his art in the context of his business model.

I prefer to start with an individual that is as close to his inverse as imaginable. Tattoo artist Ed Hardy, whose life is depicted in the documentry, Tattoo the World, is the anti-Kinkade -- one for whom love kills rather than redeems.  
Ed Hardy graduated from  the San Fransisco Art Institute and was accepted in Yale's MFA  program.
Instead, he became a tattoo artist -- a protogee of Sailor Jerry, who created a number of iconic tattoo designs during his career in Hawaii.
 This particular tattoo builds on Sailor Jerry's original, but adds  more contemporary vices -- represented by the hypodermic needle, pills, and a single edge razor bladeto prepare coke or another snortable substance.  
Matt submitted this tattoo on the web site, ratemyink.com, along with the comment that he "...just got this on my ribs, and all of these elements were my downfalll."
If Kinkade is the painter of light, then Hardy is the illustrator of the dark side.
Kinkade aspired to be dignified, uplifting and comfortable. Hardy is vulgar and edgy.  
Kinkade's core argument is that his work is accessable to ordinary people, both for its straight forward themes and its commercial availibility. Kinkade disdained critical acclaim in favor of affirmation by markets and the emotional response of his customers.
Susan Orlean describes a transaction in the New Jersey mall:
"Is this your first Kinkade?" Glenda asked the young woman. They were sitting in front of a large easel, on which the couple's picture had been propped. Beside Glenda was a digital kitchen timer, which she had set for the highlighting time limit of fifteen minutes, and a Lucite palette heaped with small blobs of oil paint.

"Yes," the woman said. "It's our first."

"Well, congratulations," Glenda said. She smiled warmly.

"My grandmother just passed away," the young woman said. "The money she left for me -- it wasn't quite enough to invest, but I didn't want it to just disappear. My sister also inherited money from my grandmother, and she bought a Kinkade, too."

"Well, that's wonderful," Glenda said. "You picked a great one."

Purchasing an image to commerate a life event isn't unlike getting a tattoo.  Any casual viewer of LA Ink or similar reality television will recognize that the motivation for a tattoo is frequently to commerate a life event.  A birth, a death, heartbreak, sobriety or, on occasion, despair (ie. Born to Lose). 
Which is perhaps the most obvious similarity between these two very different Californians.
They both had formal art training at recognized undergraduate schools. Kinkade the Pasadena Art School College of Design and Hardy the San Francisco Art Institute.
They were both raised by mothers in the absense of a father in the home. They are both boomers, with the elder Hardy and the younger Kinkade bracketing the age cohert.
After art school, they both pursued more populist and less academic careers.
Both dealt with straightforward themes. Their work featured symbolism that didn't require a lot of heavy thought and is rooted in sentimentality and nostalgia. 
Their appeal was emotional rather than intellectual. Hardy's art was drawn on a canvas of flesh and blood -- Kinkade's higher priced products contain a gold, machine etched signature on the front of the canvas which contains his DNA (or on the master editions, his thumbprint on the back). 
Hardy's work was secular and focused on the falibility of man and pesimistic regarding the human condition,  while Kinkade aspired to portray a sacred vision which optimistically focused on the potential for redemption.
They were both products of their time. Profoundly anti-establishment. It is obvious in Hardy's work, but Kinkade catered to Evangelical Christians who rebelled against  traditional Protestant religious institutions. 

In the last decade,  Hardy retired from tattooing as he became a brand. Not only Has Hardy moved toward a modern marketing entity, but Sailor Jerry -- or more specifically his estate since he died in 1973 -- has become a brand
Aside from content, Kinkade and Hardy's paths diverged as Kinkade found a way to scale his work for mass distribution.  Tattooing is inherently bespoke. You can't fully automate it and you can't outsource it to India or China. 
As Kinkade's business model faltered due to over expansion and the housing bust (the average new house has 40 new walls), Hardy began his transformation  to design, severing the connection of his images from their flesh and blood canvas.  Hardy became fully scalable. 
It is as if their paths were mirror images -- crossing at the beginning (prestigous traditional art schools) and the end (contemporary marketing and commerce). Light, Dark, Light. And their personal lives seem to have crossed, as Hardy becomes a celebrity and Kinkade withdraws from the public.
What are shadows without light?  And vice versa.
Sailor Beware.
Man's Ruin. 
 Bonus track

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My second shot at making sense of the phenomenon of Thomas Kinkade.
Kinkade's art reminds me of Hummel figures; I don't get the appeal of them. Tattoes, well that's another story I don't understand.
They have some similarities to outsider art. The boundaries of which is constantly shifting.
The top pic was my sailor son's iPhone screen background, before he passed it down (or up?) to me. Kinkade you say.. eh
Smart kid.

Try it out on your iPhone background before carving it in your shoulder.
No ink on me mayn!
Eli's grandpa (RIP) was in the Navy during Viet Nam... no ink on him either. Couldn't understand, he said, why his kids (including Eli's mom) wanted to get permanent 'cartoons' burned into their flesh
Once again, with Kincade's death I feel I must comment. Normally when a famous contemporary artist dies I mourn their death whether or not I responded to their art or not. Someone did and that was enough for me. The Masturbator Of Light scammed hundred of people out of their life savings by manipulation and falsehoods. It doesn't bother me that some people collected his "hand embellished giclees". It didn't bother me that these works of art were hand embellished by minimum wage workers that were unschooled in the arts and would have made just as much working at McDonalds. I am happy that they were able to hopefully make a living. But Mr. Kinkade lied and cheated people out of their retirement savings and much more. THAT is what pisses me off. Kinkade's images are on Glade candles. How much more money did he need! I'm sorry for his family but maybe a little divine intervention was in order. Okay, that's a bit harsh, but it pains me to think of the people who are still hurting because of him.
Susan Orleans New Yorker profile is an eviscerating critique of Kinkade's business practices.

I found nothing to add.

But it didn't really address his popularity. Nor the degree to which public response is polarized.

Which is what I was trying to get at here.
Very interesting post. I always become acquainted with things I am entirely unfamiliar with when I read your pieces. I'd have to favor the dark tattoo artist, but that's just me.
I prefer the work of Hardy over Kinkade's even though I do not approve of tattoos.
I have two tats one of a crown and the other the character for angel. Neither is a piece of art, but they mean something to me. External to represent the internal and that is all art has to be.
Wow, she's a keeper! Love it
This is fascinating. I knew very little about Thomas Kinkade and even less about Ed Hardy. In fact, the only things I knew about Kinkade were peripherally; I'd see his work advertised in magazines, similar to the Bradford Exchange and Franklin Mint. I could see the mass appeal; I only knew anything about him after he died and I started reading about him on OS. Didn't know anything about his businesses practices either. The parallels between him and Ed Hardy are striking and your piece makes me wonder: how do so called "serious" artists view those few who've attained commercial success like these two. It's probably like any other field; there are purists who'd sneer at them and then there are wannabes and probably lots in-between. Do you suppose they think of themselves as true artists, or more like skilled craftsmen? And it also brings up the question (to me): what is inherently wrong with art that has broad commercial appeal? Is it less worthy of being called art?
Margaret ... glad you liked it. The degree of hatred toward Kinkade, as well as ridicule directed toward his customers can't be better expressed than the Susan Orleans piece referenced above. And to extend the analysis, Hardy has now become derided because of his commercialization.

Your questions about art are astute, have been debated in depth, and there are no clear answers.

There is a large element of conservatism and elitism in the conventional art world, and collecting originals of officially sanctioned museum quality art has always been fashionable. Collecting for the masses requires objects that are mass produced and is always considered at best an eccentricity and more likely tacky.

Kinkade thumbed his nose and flaunted his success at his critics from the traditional world. And Hardy didn't worry about what other people thought he did. My guess is that most artists are engrossed in their work and don't worry about whether they are artists.

As far as your question about art with broad commercial appeal -- a good example is Norman Rockwell. During his life, despite his popularity, he was exclusively referred to as an illustrator. Now, his work is being re-evaluated and is becoming museum worthy. Dickens was considered popular but not a serious writer until he became serious decades later.

I don't see anything wrong with art with broad commercial appeal. Although it is easier to simply avoid the question of whether it is really art.

Thanks for reading my piece.
I missed this I guess.
I Nick Carraway siting... like the elusive bird or butterfly.. Hello my friend!!
A siting that would be...
Caraway? Listening to the track .. rated but it went negative, so re-rated.