Thursday, September 8, 2011

Thomas Kinkade, or Why I like Paintings of Houses

"Clearing Storms by Thomas Kinkade"

I've read a couple of well-written essays on Thomas Kinkade by Catholic writers recently in First Things and NCRegister.

People got kind of angry at Simcha Fisher, particularly when she said Kinkade was "anti-incarnational" because his prettied up houses and landscapes lack the mess of reality.

First, I would say that Kinkade is attempting, in his work,to be transfigurational. Whether or not he succeeds is another matter! I will just say that I think this is a fine goal for an artist to have, and that the Transfiguration is also an important feast in the Church calendar.

Second, I would say that I think most of Kinkade's paintings are kind of ugly and garish. However, some of them are well-composed and restrained. The one up top is one of the few I like. There is a nearly perfect circle formed from the clouds and rocks that leads the eye through the painting, while the lighthouse & house are the clear focus. The dark rocks and sea contrast with the brighter colors, and the lights are appropriately bright. Lighthouses are classically picturesque, possibly overdone, but they truly are beautiful. They were designed to be pretty as well as functional, and I'm just sorry we stopped bothering. If air-traffic control towers looked as nice, maybe traveling would be less of a chore. This is a pretty, charming painting with a bit of drama, and I like it.

Third, I would say that critiques of his paintings that focus on the choice of subject matter are probably what is most irritating to fans and indifferent bystanders alike. Neither of the two essays I linked to make that mistake, but I've heard it before.

I have heard criticism of him because he leaves people out of his paintings, because his paintings are too bucolic, because his paintings are of country houses rather than people/cities/slums/something else. These critiques make my hackles rise because they are missing out on a major portion of art, art history, and the human experience. They also fail to understand what it is about Kinkade's paintings that has made him so popular -- he has been able to capture feelings that people have already felt, but didn't know how to visualize.

When I used to go on long road trips with my family, I loved driving down a dark highway and seeing far-off houses with their lights on. It was both a lonely and comforting feeling. It was comforting to know that there was someone else in the world, and lonely to know we would never meet. I got the same feeling when I would look outside my childhood bedroom window and see houses miles away from my mountain view. These lights are alienating while at the same time reminding us of a common humanity. A lit house is mysterious and is a great subject for paintings. I wish there were loads more of them. The people who complain that the viewer of a Kinkade painting is shut out of the family life of the people in the house have entirely missed the romance of that very feeling. You are shut out, looking in, wondering.

When I saw a Kinkade for the first time, I was a college freshman. I thought "At last! Someone who knows how I feel about houses!" Then I noticed the mawkish coloring and I didn't like it as much. I think the Kinkade fans have latched onto that feeling and that recognition of kinship. When Kinkade is criticized, particularly when he is criticized for the subject matter instead of execution, they feel criticized too.

The most tone-deaf criticism, of course, is that of someone complaining that the scenes are too country. Great, thanks, pal. I grew up in the country. Our houses don't really look like that, but if they did, they would totally sell at high prices. That's another thing I want to say. Kinkade isn't selling to a nostalgia, he's selling to a market whose architecture is generally void of beauty. The pre-fab homes, bland stuccoed developments, and strip malls in most American cities are drab chunks of ugly. Or you can get a lovely brick building from the 1910's that's falling down around your ears. Boo. A Kinkade cottage is unique, it is made of serious things like rocks, not plastic siding, and it looks like it could last more than a decade *please to ignore improbably architecture*. If it's shown with other cottages nearby, they don't all look the same. The gardens are lush and overgrown; no neighborhood authorities to tell you to trim your dang bushes or force you to mow the lawn around the edges. It's a dream house, but not like any dream-house you can actually buy. For a few million, you could get a McMansion, but you can't get a house made of rocks. I want a house made of rocks. Always have.

But remember, I said I didn't actually like most of Kinkade's cottage paintings. So I looked up ten paintings of houses that I like better.

Number 10
House by Edward Jones" This a painting found in an auction, and was done by a high school student. I love the color scheme and style, but the compositional issues typical of young artists take a lot away from it. The house is too big for the canvas, and it ends up looking scrunched. The trees are too small as well; they may have been that size in real life, but the artist would have done better if he'd made them a bit larger. They end up getting lost.

Number 9

Baba Yaga's House by Steve Dismukes

Any list of my top house paintings has to include a picture of Baba Yaga's house. When I first came across Russian folktales when I was 11 years old, she and her house took up residence in my imagination and never really left. The most entertaining and frightening witch of all time. A haunted house that lets you know immediately just how bad it really is, but it won't do you any good. By the time you see the chicken legs, Baba Yaga has got you already. I like this painting because of the contrast between the greyed-out landscape, the glowing, cheerful windows, and the small sinister details. I think the painting would have been stronger without the ring of skulls -- it would be better if the chicken legs were the only "off" detail in an otherwise charming scene. This artist is really into illustration and comic-style art, though, so he would want to put those extra details in.

Number 8
Burning House by Lois Dodd

This is not the first burning house you will see here! Simcha Fisher had joked that Kinkade's bright windows look like the house is on fire. If you just look at the bottom windows of this house, you will see a strong resemblance to the Kinkade windows. Hmm. I like this one for the strong colors and movement, especially in the top left flames. What really sells it for me is that stream of water from the firehose that looks like another jet of flame. The way it cuts across the painting is so interesting. I'm not so wild about the olive trees in the background. But ultimately, the contrast between the organic flames and the straight lines of the house and the water stream are gripping and powerful.

Number 7
"Country House by Vyacheslav Tsay

You ask for incarnational? I give you the Vyacheslav Tsay. So faithful to details of reality there is a satellite dish at the apex of the hill. I love this painting for its attention to detail and to the dizzying steepness of this village on a hill. He plays a lot with the disorientation one feels at night when the colors all fade into one blue/green mess punctuated by white. I really like the chaotic sweep of dark trees. I only wish he had left out a bit more -- after exploring all these details, the eye does not have somewhere to rest.

Number 6
House on Fire by Paul Keysar

Okay, forget all that stuff I said about the lonely mystery of seeing a lit window and just take in this drama. The triangles from the smoke and from the late afternoon sun in the foreground make a perfect composition. The ominous shadows in the forest set off the glowing white house about to be consumed. The balance -- or tension, however you want to see it -- of rough and smooth textures, peaceful nature and raging inferno in a gorgeous, stately house are so intelligent, and more importantly, true. September 11 happened on one of the most beautiful fall mornings I've ever seen. Heartbreak and beauty sometimes coincide.

Number 5
House at Essoyes by Renoir.

So whenever I seen Kinkades, I'm reminded of Renoir's use of speckled light and saturated color. We usually think of his crowd scenes, though, and I wanted to find out what he did when he wasn't painting people. Well, he's still got some people in there, but they're not recognizable, and they're great for giving the scale of this quite large house. More like a mansion. I'd love to see this one in person -- at this scale on my computer screen, I'm sure I'm missing out on the textures and subtleties I could see in the real thing. These hazy days do happen in France, and the softness of the trees captures that warm summer feeling that's just shy of oppressive. The light source is a little confusing, though based on the direction of the tree shadows, I'd say it's mostly coming from the upper right. The focus of the painting is so clear. The eye is immediately drawn to the glowing, creamy surface of the house tower, flanked by dark trees. It's a restful painting. I would love to be able to sit for a long while in front of this one. That's what happens when a painting is well-balanced; it has all the detail you might want to explore, but it is still enough to invite contemplation.

I have Renoir lower on my personal list because I think this is a bit too sweet for my taste. The die-hard Kinkade fans should check out Renoir. Good luck trying to buy an original, but affordable reproductions are fairly easy to find.

Number 4
"East End Sunlight by Cooper Dragonette
Here's a lovely painting by a Maine artist that does the opposite of the lit window -- the light in the room is all coming from a sunset. This was a small painting, 6x8", so it's just a little detail from a beautiful moment. He's caught some of the nice architectural details in an old house. I think it is well composed and an unusual close-up, but what I really love is how the warm rosy sunlight on the inside punctuates that dark room and that beige-yellow house. It takes something I generally dislike -- the dull colors of most houses I see, the coldness of blank glass -- and adds the warmth and vitality of sunlight. Nature here is softening and beautifying the manmade. It's simple, and I really do dislike that ugly beige color of paint that is everywhere, but I have this up high on the list because I think this is showing me something special. I like noticing those little moments that are easy to miss. A grace moment, when something we take for granted is made beautiful. It earns its number 4 spot because it challenged and excited me.

Number 3
Country House by Viktor Safronov
Okay, finally back on the topic of houses at night with a window lit. Here's another Russian artist, Viktor Safronov. Dang, Russia looks cold. This isn't even one of the coldest paintings of his work. That house is kind of shabby and probably leaks, but I'd rather be in there than out here in this chilly, muddy foreground. Maybe this theme is popular in cold places, where the only thing on your mind when you are outside is "How do I get back in???" The foreground shows why people built houses in the first place. I like the way the sky looks scratched up with paint, as if the artist was attacking the canvas. The twisted trees with their sharp branches, the murky colors, the interposition of the snow between the viewer and the warm house, the lit window in the very far edge of the painting, the way the house is set so you don't get to see a door, all add up to a feeling of homelessness and longing. This house, small as it is, is a true refuge from a hostile world.

Number 2
Tallinn at Night by Eva-Maria von Nerling.

This painting, wow. Check out the link, because what this German artist does with color is just mindblowing and so much fun. One of the defenses of Kinkade is that he is pretty and decorative, and why shouldn't people get to enjoy happy, pretty things instead of misery? Fair enough, but I say von Nerling does it better. Her art ranges from symbolic to abstract, and the vivacity and joy shines through better, I think, than most of Kinkade's ultimately placid paintings. She also does textile arts, and one can see the influence of quilting in her geometric work and willingness to mix bright colors. In this painting, we see a rainbow of colors that would fit in any gallery in the American Southwest. I have no idea if Tallinn really looks like this at night -- I rather doubt the trees are purple and blue -- but why shouldn't it in a painting? This is a point I will always defend for Kinkade fans: an artist's imagination should not be restricted. Fantasy need not be only dragons/unicorns/obvious surrealism. If you want to paint a purple tree next to a blue tree, even though trees look grey at night, go right ahead. In von Nerling's painting, the variety of color is prevented from chaos by the stark black night sky punctuated by tiny white stars and moon. Looking closer, I started to notice more detail -- the washes of paint on the houses blur in and out, and each house has a different set of windows and doors. The blurring effect is interesting, and I think it does a good job symbolizing the loss of color saturation at night while letting us still enjoy some serious color. The tiny purple house helps break the symmetry imposed by the four tall buildings, and along with the moon and trees, it gives a simple composition movement and life. It also gives the exact opposite feeling from the loneliness and longing I'd said I wanted from a painting of houses -- but I don't care. My list, my rules, my breaking of rules. It goes at Number 2. This artist could single-handedly destroy Germany's reputation for grey solemnity. I want her to come decorate my life, seriously.

Night, Blue House on Clydesdale" by Paul Keysar

Yes. Perfect. This tiny painting (5x7") is so simple but so well executed. This is finally showing what my heart has felt about other people's houses since I was a very small child. The austerity of the yard -- a few trees and a phone line -- makes the homeowners seem poorer, more isolated themselves. Maybe they are lonely too. The darkness, the glow in just two windows, one darker than the other, as if the light source is just in one room but bleeds over into the next, is oppressive and beautiful at once. The brushstrokes are gentle and varied. I appreciate the inclusion of telephone poles & lines, which could easily have been left out. The presence of poles in rural areas has always given me hope; someone else has cared enough to drag some metal and wood somewhere so people could have electricity and a connection to the rest of the country. Just like the lit window off in the distance, they let us know we are not alone. You will notice this is the 2nd Paul Keysar painting I've listed. I really like this guy. He's an artist in Charlotte, NC and has a whole series of night landscapes.

There is so much more to contemporary art than the shock-art we hear about in the news. There are fantastic, joyful, talented artists painting their vision of the world. Have fun checking out their work for yourself.