Was Thomas Kinkade, who passed away on April 6, a great American artist à la Norman Rockwell and Currier and Ives, or just one more banal genre artist among many? What is it about his ready-to-hang living room oils that people find so attractive or repulsive?
Besides paintings and lithographs, the self-named Painter of Light™ has left behind a shockingly polarized reputation – shocking, that is, for an artist who specialized in such seemingly innocuous imagery, like cottages and bucolic villages, often bathed in the pink glow of sunset. In short, you either love him or hate him.
“A lot of people felt very passionately about him, and I think that that in the art world, if a lot of people like you there immediately becomes this sort of backlash effect,” said Alexis L. Boylan, an art history professor and editor of an anthology of wrtings on Thomas Kinkade. “I think he also spoke very eloquently and powerfully to a lot of things that people don’t want to hear about art and commercialism.”
Kinkade claimed to be the country’s most collected artist, with paintings in one out of every twenty United States homes, although most major art institutions refused to touch him. His works have been licensed many times for anything from greeting cards to Kinkade-branded floral arrangements.
“He was very clear about wanting to get his work into a lot of people’s hands and a lot of people’s homes and that sort of set off some people,” said Boylan. “In addition to that some people just didn’t like his work. They think his work is banal, think his work is too easy.”
Kinkade didn’t seem to care about this reputation, and for good reason. By some estimates, Kinkade’s business model, which combined factory reproductions with original pieces, brought in $100 million a year.
Taking issue with the process
One aspect of Kinkade art that many people find off-putting is the factory-like method that he employed when creating prints of his pieces. Much like artists Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, Kinkade employed a number of studio assistants to help create multiple prints of his famous oils.
“Most major artists who are producing numerous works for patrons and museums at this point have to have studio assistants,” said Boylan. “Those studio assistants do all kinds of work, and some artists are very clear about what they exactly are producing and not producing and some are not.”
Writer Laura Miller of Salon.com puts it eloquently when she describes Kinkade’s production method as, “a semi-industrial process in which low-level apprentices embellish a prefab base provided by Kinkade.” In other words, Kinkade designed and painted all of his works, but the ones you’re likely to own were printed factory-like and touched up with manual brush strokes from someone other than Kinkade.
“Kinkade designed and painted all of his works and then they were moved into the next stage of process into prints,” said Boylan. “He did have a hand in most of the original, conceptual work that he produced.”
Still, despite this mass-produced nature of Kinkade’s work, he remains a cultural icon. In the days after his death, Kinkade’s website and stores continue to be flooded with fans looking to purchase his art, despite media sites like “The Street” putting his works on its list of “Completely Worthless Collectibles.”
Whether you’re a business or an individual, if you’re online, you’re using images. But who owns the images and how carefully are people paying attention to copyright? Recent reports estimate that 70% of all Facebook activities – from “liking” to commenting – revolve around photos, and Pinterest, the newest name in the online image game with over 16 million monthly users, is bringing copyright issues to the fore.
Pinterest users set up digital “bulletin boards” and populate these boards with images they find online by “pinning” (or copying) them, and not always with permission from the image owners. While clicking on many of these images will often link you back to the original website and most Pinterest users are careful to credit photographers and artists, the practice has left many content producers upset, arguing that it is now possible to violate copyright with the click of a button. For its part, Pinterest has created a code that websites can install if they want to ensure their photos can’t be “pinned,” but most of these websites feel the onus should be on Pinterest to more clearly communicate about copyright with its users.
While the dust has (mostly) settled on early blogosphere squabbling about unauthorized reposting of written content, are we in for a new era of arguments about image permissions? Have you ever considered that you might not have the right to repost that image of those wedding dresses you love? Join Patt as she susses out who loses and who wins when it comes to the image wars.
If you’re young and female, I hope you’re introduced to a positive mentor early enough to build a strong sense of self-worth, because in 2012, American society still refuses to make it easy for you to maintain one. Looking at the last few months, women’s rights seem to be in retrograde, with the obvious example being the tone of the Republican campaign. But if you need more proof: so far this decade we have seen Hillary Clinton and a female aide photoshopped out of situation room documentation of the moment Osama Bin Laden’s death was announced, Fox News’ Greta van Susteren’s decision to ask Sarah Palin on-air whether she’d gotten breast implants, and an attack ad against Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Hahn comparing – even conflating – Hahn with a pole dancer.
And then last week there was that little Rush Limbaugh thing. You know, where he repeatedly attacked, on air, a woman that he first identified as “Susan Fluke.” Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown law student, had argued in front of Congress that private health insurers such as her own should be required to make birth control available at affordable rates. Fluke collected the stories of friends and fellow students, ultimately testifying that women rely on birth control not just for contraception, but in their treatment of other health issues, like ovarian cysts. For her trouble, Limbaugh called Fluke a slut and a prostitute, demanded that she put her sex videos online, and even suggested that by forcing insurers to provide this option, the taxpayer would take on the role of pimp.
Unfortunately for Limbaugh, Fluke turned out to be nothing like his stereotypes – he had her pegged as a ditzy undergraduate, not the articulate and thoughtful speaker that she is. Fluke met Limbaugh’s comments with a press tour of her own, putting her remarks (and his) into context and reshaping the narrative that Limbaugh had twisted, so much so that Limbaugh eventually offered a limp apology.
Despite this apology and reports of sponsors fleeing Limbaugh’s franchise, however, when it comes to talking about women and sex, the reality is that American society remains in a rut – a rut reflected not just by Limbaugh but men like Foster Friess, or even Bill Maher, whose “whoops, there’s a dick in me” segment about Bristol Palin might just be the most hateful of the three. And most women aren’t helping – take Sarah Palin’s goofy-grin-cum-struggle-to-maintain-composure after Greta dropped her implant bomb. Why not have a conversation right then and there about the inappropriate nature of the question, instead of replying, “Greta, we love you for not being afraid of asking the question,” which is the course that Palin chose. More extreme would be Whitney Houston’s flabbergasted, speechless, but round-mouthed response to Serge Gainsbourg’s explicitly statement that he wanted to f@#% her on a French morning show.
What is disheartening is that we – women, feminists, whatever we call ourselves – have already fought this fight. To take our cue from art history, we spent centuries moving beyond being the coy and quiet female Venuses of Titian and Giorgione, and now we’re back in 1865, the year Édouard Manet showed one of the most controversial paintings of the 19th-century: Olympia.
Based on Titian’s Venus of Urbino, itself thought to be based on the Sleeping Venus of Giorgione, the painting shows a nude woman, reclining yet still upright, her left leg crossed over her right, the palm of her left hand placed firmly across her genitalia so her fingers rest against her right upper thigh. She looks toward the viewer of the painting, perhaps a little downward, but only a little. Her backless, heeled slippers are sumptuous, and her gold bracelet weighty. Around her neck is a dainty black ribbon, tied in a bow, the line of which is echoed by the heavily-shadowed outer contour of the left side of her body, the darkness of which is picked up again by the skin tones of a maid (who brings a suitor or client’s flowers) and a black cat, both of which fade into the shadows of the rooms behind them.
Titian had also shocked his audiences with his painting, which, although it did tell the story of a goddess, did so in uncharacteristically sensual terms for the period. This Venus also met her viewer’s gaze head on, rather than playing at ignorance and coyness – perhaps this is what attracted Manet in the first place. Olympia shocked not for its nudity, but for its crudeness: Manet had painted a courtesan or prostitute, and not a goddess; he stepped away from finished allegories rendered in exquisite detail and allowed three nameless figures the center stage; he dared to give his Olympia a look and posture that did not invite, one in which she guards her sex instead of ambiguously fondling it for a voyeur; and, lastly, Manet had left his own hand visible, with brush strokes that (in places) fell apart under the lightest of scrutiny.
Recognizing the irony of what I’m about to say, there is a piece of Olympia, Manet’s courtesan, in Sandra Fluke. Both figures emit strength and the determination to meet detractors head on, as well as a refusal to let those detractors drive the narrative. But there is something missing, in art and in our cultural discourse on being woman and the balance of sexual power between men and women. I believe we saw it last in the 60s and the 70s with women like Angela Davis, as well as artists like Lynn Hershman Leeson and Lynda Benglis. Whatever it is, I hope we find it again fast.
If all went according to plan this Saturday morning, the L.A. County Museum of Art received its newest and largest acquisition: a 340-ton granite boulder, which will sit on top of a 456-foot-long concrete slot – walkable by museum visitors – in LACMA’s north lawn. Known as “Levitated Mass,” it’s the result of over 40 years of work by artist Michael Heizer and a slow, eleven-day journey winding along dozens of Greater LA surface streets. But where did it come from? And why that rock?
“They claim we went to the moon, but they didn’t have to go through thirteen, fourteen cities in Southern California to get there. That’s the only reason they made it.”
So says Danny Johnston, a retired rock salesman and project coordinator for Paul Hubbs Construction, which operated Riverside’s Stone Valley Quarry at the time that artist Michael Heizer found the boulder. Heizer started as an artist in the 1960s as part of the land art movement, using earth and stone as his medium. Most of his work can’t be seen in a museum but in remote parts of the Nevada and California desert.
Heizer first visited the Stone Valley Quarry early last decade. According to Johnston, Heizer started “small,” selecting 8- to 10-ton rocks, and then moved on to 60-and 70-ton rocks, which he relocated to Nevada.
“And as time went on he told me about this one deal he’d always been looking for a big enough rock to do…” Heizer had originally sketched out “Levitated Mass” in 1968, but failed to find the backing. And his vision hadn’t gotten smaller – with memories of trips to ancient Egyptian and Mexican ruins with his father, an anthropological archeologist, Heizer “was wanting a 1000-ton rock.”
And then one day in 2005, after a mostly routine blast in the quarry, the rock appeared.
“Well, it kind of reminded me of a big chocolate kiss, you know, the little ones? The shape is similar to that, it sat right down on the bottom of the big part and went up pretty much to a point, you know. I thought it was a neat-looking rock because it had different faces, you know, it wasn’t square or round – it looked like a cut stone, almost.”
Johnston immediately called Heizer.
“And sure enough, as soon as he seen it, he knew which one I was talking about.” The next thing Johnston said? “I told ‘em, I said the thing is, Mike – it’s huge. You can’t move it, it’s too big. There’s no way that one’s going to go.”
They auditioned company after company for the job.
“We had a guy, and I won’t mention any names, but they had two D-11’s and a 992, that’s the largest Caterpillar loader and the two largest dozers; all three of them hooked to that, trying to pull it away from the face, so it wouldn’t be damaged, and they moved it six inches. All day long. Five hours on it. That’s how massive and heavy this rock is.”
Four years later, LACMA finally found a suitor for the rock in Emmert International. Emmert employee Rick Albrecht supervised the move. Albrecht said the company had to design a trailer specifically for the job—one of the largest of its kind.
“What we built is a carrier beam trailer. The main frame is 132 foot long, or 27 foot wide. The piece is suspended inside the carrier, and it’s holding the weight of the rock and stabilizing it, and this is what we’ll use to transport down the road. Our overall length will be 274 feet from bumper to bumper, from pull truck to push truck, and we basically will just roll down the road and we’ll get there in 10 days.”
Michael Govan is the director of LACMA and a longtime friend of Heizer’s. Part of his vision for LACMA is to anchor the museum with large-scale sculptures like “Levitated Mass.”
“There’s something very magical about a large stone – so many ancient cultures made large-scale architectonic sculptures because it has such emotional power. I think that’s what the sculpture is intended to inspire in the viewer.”
Govan added, “I know the press has given a lot of attention to this 340-ton megalith, but the sculpture is the marriage and the contrast of two forms: a found object in nature – the rock, which is incredibly beautiful California granite – and the supergeometric, crystalline, modern-looking slot. One is very long, one is concentrated in weight. One is sort of human – made of concrete – one is nature-made. One is sleek and geometric, one is rough. One is very empty (the slot) and one is very weighty (the rock).”
We asked, “Was the title always “Levitated Mass?”
“Yes, Levitated Mass, because – it’s what art is, is to levitate the weight of something of our culture, of history. You levitate something so it can be seen, so it can be light.”
The arrival of rock at LACMA is just the beginning for “Levitated Mass”—the museum has to place and secure the rock, as well as finish landscaping the area around the slot. LACMA says they’re shooting for early summer.
It’s been said that over the course of four short years – from 1968 to 1972 – the Eugenia Butler Gallery set the bar for conceptual art in Southern California. Butler, whose own mother fled home to work as a Harvey Girl, left Bakersfield, CA, to serve in the United States Marines, eventually becoming a Master Sergeant. After the war, Butler married James Butler, a lawyer and military pilot who made a small fortune by conducting the first lawsuit against Thalidomide, a drug with known negative side effects, on pregnant women. Perhaps due to the fact that she did not need the gallery to turn a profit, or (more likely) due to her innovative tastes, Butler took chances on work that others couldn’t, and her roster of artists grew to include Allen Ruppersberg, William Leavitt, Eric Orr, John Baldessari, James Lee Byars, Ed Keinholz, Dieter Roth, and her own daughter, Eugenia P. Butler. Yet somehow Butler’s story has remained largely unwritten, with nary a Wikipedia entry to speed things along.
Thanks to the Los Angeles Nomadic Division (LAND), the Getty Center, and Pacific Standard Time, for the next three months, Butler’s influence will be on display in three West Hollywood exhibition spaces, at 8126 – 8132 Santa Monica Boulevard, just about a mile from the Eugenia Butler Gallery’s original location, 615 La Cienaga. Titled Perpetual Conceptual: Echoes of Eugenia Butler, the show is both a primer — with works from Paul Cotton, Lawrence Weiner, Ed Keinholz, et al — and an homage, with curatorial stylings that recall many of the makeshift exhibition spaces of EBG’s era. In short, LAND, “a public art initiative committed to curating site- and situation-specific contemporary art projects,” chooses exhibition locations based on specific projects rather than maintaining a single venue. Perpetual Conceptual‘s three venues are located one right after another on the edge of WeHo, in a small, unassuming strip mall, right next to a donut shop.
The bulk of the exhibition comes from Butler’s personal collection, now in the hands of her granddaughter. Joseph Kosuth’s photostat Nothing, 1967, is perhaps the most immediately familiar work: a deep-black square, in the center of which is written the definition of “nothing” in cream-colored font. There are also several pieces of typewritten and hand-drawn ephemera by Lawrence Weiner containing instructions for creating specific artworks, such as “One standard air force dye marker thrown into the sea.” There’s quite a bit of work on display, including both primary and secondary artifacts. William Wiley’s Movement to Black Ball Violence, 1968, a ball of black friction tape made in response to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death, remains poignant forty-four years later, even more so due to the letter of instruction Wiley typed to go along with the piece, which asks that anyone who wishes to blackball violence add 150 feet of tape to the ball.
Though this particular piece is “closed” (Wiley called an end to it in 1969), the genius of LAND’s exhibition strategy is that many pieces and artists will be reactivated or looked at in depth using the two other exhibition rooms that adjoin the group space. Currently, Eugenia P. Butler’s work is on display in the concept space, and there will be restagings of Dieter Roth’s Steeple Cheese, 1970 — Roth’s first exhibition in the United States in which he packed 37 suitcases full of cheese to rot, with one to be opened each day — and Ed Keinholz’s Watercolors, 1968, a bartering project. Keinholz painted a group of watercolor paper with “prices” (such as “Timex Electric Watch”) and invited people to trade him the object for the watercolor. This past weekend also saw the restaging of Eric Orr’s Wall Shadow, 1970, in the back parking lot, a performance piece in which Orr took a palette of cinderblock, built a wall, traced and painted its shadow with gray paint, and then dissassembled everything so that only the painted shadow was left. Like Wall Shadow and the Eugenia Butler Gallery itself, my bet is that Perpetual Conceptual will be brief in its physical existence but long in influence.
A few weeks ago, UK-based Waterstone’s Booksellers did something shocking: they dropped their apostrophe, claiming that there is no use for the tiny little mark in the digital age. More accurately, their managing director stated that “Waterstones” is just straight-up more versatile when it comes to a world full of html code, URLs, and email addresses. You may also have noticed that some of your favorite online websites fail to italicize, and instead use double quotes around things like book and movie title – also a product of the collision between punctuation and digital media.
Plenty has been said about the effects of texting and email on spelling and vocabulary, but where does punctuation stand in the 21st century? What should be preserved, what should stay, and how do we make the decisions – or are they already in process?