Crossing Bridges of Hope and Taking Leaps of Faith with the Painter of Light

Inside Thomas Kinkade's blinding gazebo

The Good Shepherd is an ordinary painting of a charming cottage situated in a pasture. Rendered in oddly luminescent oils, the cottage's eaves and flourishes glow like urine under a black light. Blinding beams of gold and ochre pour forth from the quaint arched windows. A flock of sheep trots obediently toward the cottage and, unlike actual farm animals, none of them stray, bray, or blithely drop a deuce. At the cottage entrance, the titular shepherd greets his woolly flock.

Jesus has a summer cottage? According to painter Thomas Kinkade, he sure as heck does. The Good Shepherd is perhaps the artist's most overtly religious work, but even Kinkade's secular landscapes offer shout-outs to J.C. by way of their titles. A painting of a stone bridge is called Bridge of Faith. A sunset? Hour of Prayer. Even a relatively humble flight of garden steps is dubbed Stairway to Paradise in what probably isn't a pledge of fealty to Led Zeppelin.

Kinkade doesn't hint at his Christian perspective; he bludgeons the viewer with it. And though the initial collector hysteria has cooled in the past few years, his devout fans still queue up at galleries like those soft-focus sheep. Kinkade, according to countless press releases and publicity materials, is the most collected artist in America today. His ethereal, optimistic renderings of Christian and patriotic scenes have brought the formerly cloistered world of high-end art acquisition to the masses. Where once fans of inspirational art were content with a print of Daily Bread to hang over the supper table, now the faithful clamor for that rare Kinkade repro worth thousands. There are five Kinkade galleries in the Twin Cities area alone and hundreds nationwide. Licensed Kinkade products, including nativity scenes, calendars, teddy bears, and embroidered pillows, are affordable alternatives to a gallery piece, though the paintings sell briskly.

Kinkade's official title is "Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light." If his predecessors had shared such a flair for self-promotion, we might have had "Claude Monet, Painter of Hay," or "Vincent Van Gogh, Painter of Syphilitic Whores." However, Kinkade's title has a dual meaning; not only does he render "light" in the figurative, biblical sense, but he's known for the glowing pigments daubed on his sentimental renderings of churches and cities. In fact, every building in a Kinkade painting blazes from within like a jack-o'-lantern, lending the scenes an ominous Backdraft vibe.

"Kinkade is a luminist," the salesman at the Mall of America Kinkade Gallery informs me patiently. The gallery, softly lit and scented with potpourri, is actually a rather charming oasis in the MOA madhouse. I'm checking out a series of Kinkade reproductions, as his original paintings are rarely available for display. There are "SOLD" tags affixed to many of the title cards, which means lots of people are willing to shell out $1,500 or more for a Kinkade repro of their very own.

"Is this all just oil paint?" I ask, gazing at The Good Shepherd. "It looks like he must have used some kind of special paint to make it look like this."

My query is far from innocent--I've heard (unsubstantiated) rumors that Kinkade does, in fact, use photo-luminescent paint--rather than classic luminist technique--to create that unearthly glow. (It is, however, confirmed that Kinkade employs a series of "master highlighters" to add dimension to his canvases. These highlighters even tour Kinkade galleries and do public demonstrations.)

"You'd be surprised how many people ask that," the salesman says. "He uses regular oil paint, nothing else. Let me show you something great." He leads me into a small alcove and dims the lights until we're standing in darkness, facing a large reproduction of Bridge of Hope (not to be confused with Bridge of Faith or Petals of Hope). Weirdly, the painting appears to glow in the dark, not unlike the trippy mushroom poster in my basement. The effect is more lurid than peaceful, more foreboding than sentimental.

"They all do that," the salesman says, pleased.

If satire is a form of flattery, then Kinkade has triumphed on that front as well. There are numerous Kinkade parodies on the web, including a site called "Reuben Kinkade, Painter of Stuff," and in 2002, artist Jos Sances caused a stir by painting Kinkade-esque compositions with the unlikely addition of homeless people and Nazis. But perhaps the strangest testament to Kinkade thus far was the establishment of a "themed community" near San Francisco called The Village at Hiddenbrooke. This Kinkade-themed housing development was conceived in an attempt to make the nostalgic, soft-focus world of the paintings a reality for fans. (Borrow a cup of sugar from your neighbor and you might find yourself embroiled in an argument about whether pretty bridges are aesthetically superior to pretty cottages.)

Arguably, admiring Kinkade's ethereal landscapes is no different than enjoying the artistic output of Norman Rockwell--both artists convey visions of a slightly precious America, a place that's not quite real, but familiar enough to pine for. Kinkade himself names Rockwell as a major influence and clearly fancies himself a like-minded preservationist and populist. Rockwell, however, was a slice-of-life painter; his images, while undoubtedly luminous and often sentimental, were at least human. Kinkade? He's invented his own genre: slice-of-afterlife. The images are like postcards from the cotton-candy heaven of a child's Bible, or, in the case of some of his bridge and gazebo paintings, a page torn from an upscale home-and-garden glossy. And yet, it's hard to deny the magic-hour charm of a Kinkade, the oddly reassuring effect his canvases can have on a frayed psyche. They're neither offensive nor kitschy, just soothing and banal. You can snicker at Kinkade's treacly vision all you want, but those tranquil bridges and garden stairways are undeniably more inviting than reality.

 
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