Painted into a corner?

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.

Within a few years, he started pricing the limited edition prints based on whether they were on canvas or on paper, with highlights added by him or his assistants. He stopped selling the originals, and after a print was sold out, the image was retired to hold or increase its value. The prints were offered only through his galleries, which led him directly to commercial success and away from the mercurial sales experienced by most contemporary artists.

"I've never been at odds with the world of contemporary artists," he says. "If there is any animosity, it's one-sided. Franz Kline and Robert Rauschenberg are among my favorites. I think there is a bending of definitions that Vallance is attempting that I find fascinating. Whenever an artist paints innocent, sentimental imagery and is described by the London Times as America's most controversial artist, in contradiction to artists who use as their medium human urine or shards of broken glass scattered on the floor, one would think the latter would be controversial, but the simplicity of what I do generates controversy among the more radical elements in the modernist art scene."

Kinkade as lifestyle

The walls of the art gallery at Cal State Fullerton are painted Kinkade green, the same foresty background used by his galleries to show his art. The campus location features paintings of Christmas scenes and an enormous lighted pine tree covered in Kinkade ornaments made of china and paper. A Kinkade electric train is posed under the tree along with Kinkade coasters, stockings, greeting cards, cocoa, coffee and toys. A dining table is set with a Kinkade table runner, candleholder, fruit bowl and salt and pepper shakers. A Kinkade spice rack hangs on the wall.

A diorama features small architectural models of Kinkade houses and buildings, electrified so that the windows glow. The bedroom includes a fireplace with the crackling artificial fire used in his galleries, a bed dressed in Kinkade-designed sheets, pillows and bedspread with matching recliner. Visitors enter the gallery over the flower-trellised "Bridge of Faith." Vallance, who considers the licensed objects to be "artifacts," observes, "Thomas himself has never seen all of this material together before."

Two of Kinkade's paintings are enlarged to 15 feet square and fronted with real trees and bushes. "You can have your picture taken like you are inside one of Kinkade's paintings," Vallance explains. "It's all about getting inside the painting, making it become real. That is the context I'm creating for the show. It's different from just having Kinkade paintings on the wall, more like 'Kinkadeland.' I'm taking ideas he already has and taking them to their logical conclusion."

The Grand Central Art Center, a renovated grocery store in a compound of older buildings in downtown Santa Ana, outfitted one gallery with Kinkade lighthouses in the form of statuettes, paintings and yet another La-Z-Boy recliner. According to Kinkade, the lighthouse, like all of the light sources in his art, is meant to "represent God's presence and influence."

One of his many books, "Lightposts for Living: The Art of Choosing a Joyful Life," rests on a side table. A library of such reading is available along with comfortable chairs and reading lamps. The theological underpinnings of his art are made manifest in the adjacent Kinkade chapel with oak pews, a Bible in an embroidered cover, stained-glass windows and paintings representing his Christian beliefs, including his well-known version of "The Prince of Peace." Kinkade says that he had a spiritual awakening while completing this painting and has dedicated himself to faith-based cultural service ever since.

The Rev. Ethan Acres, an artist who is critically acclaimed for his quasi-religious art and performances based on the traditions of Baptist preaching, was to dress in robes made of Kinkade fabric while giving a sermon in the chapel on the exhibition's opening night. When Acres' name is mentioned, Kinkade exclaims, "I love Ethan. Such exciting and bizarre art is being done today. It is amazing that contemporary artists want to vilify me when I'm their greatest cheerleader. I love all forms of art and hope the show will break down some barriers. It's all good."

Melding of the minds

When the idea for the exhibition came up a year ago in discussions by the board of the Grand Central Art Center, Stuart Spence, a board member and an art collector, argued that the only way to pull it off would be to have Vallance as curator. Coincidentally, Vallance had been thinking about doing a Kinkade show because his first-year students always mentioned the painter when asked to name a living artist.

It is a different story for the graduate students in the CSUF art department who are so upset they are threatening to protest the show. Andrea Harris, director of Grand Central, tells them that their angry response is the actual point of the exhibition. "Being surrounded by art in whatever format is significant," she says. "We wanted to create a dialogue between people who like Kinkade and people who do not, to talk about art, lifestyle and how we live. Why not break out of the box?"

The exhibition was funded by the university galleries and contributions from Last Gasp, Kinkade's publishing company, which helped cover the cost of the catalog. Harris makes a point of stating that "nothing in the show is for sale" apart from the Thomas Kinkade catalog for $29.95, where one of the first pages displays a Visa card embellished with a Kinkade painting. It should become an instant collectible, with essays by Vallance, Acres, director of the CSUF art gallery Mike McGee and well-known art critics Ralph Rugolf and Doug Harvey.

Harvey wonders about the contemporary art world's insularity. He writes, "Why should we believe that telling people 'Everything is all right because I am a clever, privileged manufacturer of contemporary cultural objects' is more convincing to some friendless, lactose-intolerant middlebrow who lives and works in a cubicle than 'Everything's all right because you can imagine you are walking down this preindustrial English country lane and a nice lady is making you lactose-free cocoa in that stone cottage.'?"

Kinkade asserts his art "provides an escape from the pressures of contemporary life and a gentle affirmation of such foundational values as home, family, faith, and simpler ways of living."

Vallance insists that the exhibition was never meant as a tongue-in-cheek commentary. "It wouldn't be a good show if you did it with irony," he says. "The thing that most intrigues me about Kinkade is the way he markets his objects and the way that he infiltrates himself into the lives of everyday people. He multiplies his images on everything. These are in millions of homes around the world. It is what Warhol wanted to do but Kinkade has done it even better." For some viewers, more problematic than the commercial nature of Kinkade's art is his forthright declaration of faith. His original paintings are signed with the Christian symbol of the fish.

"This is another area that the contemporary art world has a hard time with, that I find interesting," Vallance says. "He expresses what he believes and puts that in his art. That is not the trend in the high-art world at the moment, the idea that you can express things spiritually and be taken seriously. What I like to do in my art is to present ideas that are difficult. It is always difficult to present serious religious ideas in an art context. That is why I like Kinkade. It is a difficult thing to do.

"I'm not telling people what they should believe," Vallance adds. "I'm just assembling the work. I want people to come in and like it or not for their own reasons. People are divided. You have the true believers and then you have all the scoffers. For both of those groups, this will be the first time they can see the work and make their own judgments."

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'Thomas Kinkade: Heaven on Earth'

Where: Cal State Fullerton Grand Central Art Center, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana

When: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Ends: June 20

Contact: (714) 567-7233

Also:

Where: Main Art Gallery, Cal State Fullerton Visual Arts Center, 800 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton

When: Tuesdays to Fridays, noon to 4 p.m.; Saturdays, noon to 2 p.m.

Ends: May 13

Contact: (714) 278-3262

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