A private collection on show in a Swiss gallery has a ring of mystery about it: who is this shadowy benefactor, what is the collection’s provenance? This exhibition, however, holds few mysteries, consisting of reproduced paintings by American painter Thomas Kinkade purchased from online poster shops by curator Raphael Gygax. Complementing the jigsaws, print and tapestry is an array of information about the painter from his own website: how to purchase his works; how to purchase Kinkade accessories; how even to become a licensed dealer of his prints and paintings.
Kinkade creates kitsch on an industrial scale. His subjects are thatched cottages, winding avenues and streams, meadows abundant with flowers or snowy landscapes, not to mention famous landmarks and Disney characters. He has trademarked the appellation ‘Painter of Light’ (Turner no longer being around to challenge him) and light is indeed an identifying feature of his evening scenes, in which mock Victorian homes and cities glow with inferno-like cosiness. The saccharine power of the images is further bolstered by the painter’s testimony of a lifestyle founded on Christian faith and family values. He is ‘An American Artist’, a hard-working selfmade man whose opus has been validated by encounters with Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and Pope John Paul; honest-to-goodness Americans testify how selling his work makes them feel good. In this context where success is a virtue, it is fitting that the mechanics of canvas edition prices are explained in an ironyfree pyramid diagram, standard numbering at the base, master edition (‘hand-highlights, signature and Remarque by Thomas Kinkade… thumbprint and ME seal on verso‘) just below the original at the apex.
Gygax presents the show as a counterpoint to Christian Jankowski’s Kunstmarkt TV of 2008, where teleshopping moderators sold Koons, Nara and other expensive artists at Art Cologne. It was a joke at the expense of the presenters who, knowing little about their products, struggled to rationalise the values of the works to consumers, and at the expense of an art world that accepted inflated prices that were difficult to justify. In as much as Jankowski’s hired presenters were fish out of water at the art fair, so are these works at Freymond-Guth; the paintings are appalling and making them into tapestries does not improve matters.
But are we kidding ourselves by feeling superior? How unexpected is it that insiders in an elitist and frequently incomprehensible contemporary art milieu have the skills to critically damn a painter of unchallenging images for the hockey mom? One could say that (what we consider) good galleries support worthy artists and enable them to be seen by a greater audience, facilitating the non-commercial activities of museums and biennials. But in a recent essay, Andrea Phillips and Suhail Malik quash that illusion, arguing convincingly that ‘circuits of exhibition, distribution and sociality serve to give public legitimacy to the circuit of transnational capital investments upon which contemporary art depends’. So ours is a mucky business too, despite highfalutin’ ideals; those moral and aesthetic ideals could be just marketing puff. I would like to think that the pragmatic reality of contemporary art lies between the extremes of Kinkade and Phillips and Malik’s biennial conspiracy theory, but there’s a lesson to be learnt from the former—as long as I don’t have to live with his work.
Aoife Rosenmeyer is a writer and curator based in Zurich