Clown School

Mocking Thomas Kinkade is as challenging as shooting fish in a barrel. The hamfisted, self-styled "Painter of Light" is known for luridly rendered images loaded with hokey bucolia — cottages, bridges, churches and winding paths evoking an idyllic Christian yesteryear. Kinkade doesn't even sell the actual bad paintings, instead hawking cheap reproductions on paper or canvas, daubed with "highlights" by persons other than the artist and retailed into the thousands of dollars.

His work has a beanie-baby-esque, artificially created value and is likely sold to the same sort of customers who overpay for mass-produced stuffed animals. Meanwhile, Kinkade's licensing deals encompass everything from body lotion to tract homes. Adding to the comic fodder — and schadenfreude — Kinkade filed for bankruptcy last year after being sued by former gallery owners who said he fraudulently used his Christian faith to talk them into opening a money-losing Kinkade gallery. Topping it off, there was the DUI arrest, complete with bleary mug shot.

"Patricia Hernandez: Parody of Light" at DiverseWorks Art Space is an entire Kinkade-based installation. But in it, Hernandez isn't simply making fun of Kinkade — she's got an elaborate parody going on, featuring Kinkade paintings altered through the strategic insertion of clowns, as well as "official" "Parody of Light" products ranging from "Medicated Foot Powder" to motivational plaques to toilet paper. Her installation includes a gallery of works, a series of domestic spaces with "Parody of Light" artwork and products in situ, and a "mall" with a retail area and food court.

I saw Hernandez's first artistic encounter with Thomas Kinkade at a raucous one-night-only, clown-themed art event in 2001. There, Hernandez showed a page from a Thomas Kinkade calendar — some sort of garden scene — into which she had painted a clown hanging from a noose, deftly mimicking Kinkade's overwrought style. It was fabulous.

Ten years later, that painting would birth "Parody of Light." True to Kinkade form, none of the works in Hernandez's DiverseWorks show are originals. In fact, they started as "original" works in another Houston show at PG Contemporary, which opened the same weekend. Hernandez created the "original" images by painting on top of pictures of Kinkade paintings she tore out of a Thomas Kinkade book, slyly rendering orange-haired clowns in baggy red-and-white-striped suits in landscapes, seascapes and cityscapes. Turgid copy from Kinkade's book accompanied and described the images, made even more absurd by the addition of, for example, a dead clown.

For the DiverseWorks show, Hernandez had the altered book pages scanned and printed on canvas so they looked like paintings, presenting them in gaudy frames. Although the amusing text was cut off when the images were reproduced this way, Hernandez's clowns now blend in almost seamlessly. In spite of her use of reproductions in this show, Hernandez is a really good painter, as her earlier exhibitions will attest. [See "Shiny, Happy People," October 25, 2001.]

In DiverseWorks' Main Gallery, hunter-green walls display Hernandez's gold-framed "paintings." In Tenacious Clown, the sun breaks through cloudy skies over a white-capping sea. With a sailboat in the distance, the foreground shows a clown clinging to a tiny lifeboat, seemingly abandoned by the sailors racing away. In another work, a clown lies dead (or dead drunk) on a garden path, only his legs and clown shoes visible. And in a work entitled Over the Bridge of Faith, a clown skips rope over said bridge. The clown's face is never visible. Viewers can project whatever identity they want onto the character: Kinkade, Hernandez, even themselves.

In the back of the gallery is the "Parody of Light Mall," with food court and gift shop and a bare-bones bleakness that evokes crappy little small-town malls. Free hot dogs were dispensed at the opening as people sat down and ate at the plastic-covered tables. Plastic plants sprout from little half-walls dividing the spaces. Next to the food court is the retail area chock-full of motivational plaques decoupaged with images from Hernandez's paintings. There is an array of candles and flavored coffee, coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets and the like. Hernandez put a ridiculous amount of work into this show. Everything will be sold off at the show's closing to benefit a local arts nonprofit founded by Hernandez, Studio One Archive Resource. It sounds like a good cause, but after all this work, I kind of wish she'd just keep the money.

In between the gallery and the mall there's a series of dimly lit domestic spaces, filled with worn "grandma" furniture and fixtures. A 1980s shade of mauve covers most of the walls, and Hernandez has packed her series of rooms with "official" merchandise bearing images from her paintings. The dead clown painting appears on the label of a container of "medicated foot powder" in the installation's blue bathroom. In the living room, den and kitchen, ashtrays, commemorative plates, lamps, napkin holders, clocks and throw pillows have all been transformed into official merchandise. So has booze — there are "Parody of Light" schnapps, vodka, whiskey and rum bottles, so you can get to work on your own DUI, just like the "Painter of Light."

At the opening, the area felt festive, packed with people lounging on the furniture and chatting. When I returned during a weekday, the empty space felt tragic. Hernandez does a pretty good job of evoking the domicile of a certain stripe of Kinkade consumer — one who can't really afford a couple thousand dollars for a "painting" but instead fills her home with signature tchotchkes. The down-at-the-heel but tidy environments are extra-scroungy because the artist was obviously trying to pull together a bunch of stuff cheaply, but they do evoke that imaginary inhabitant. It's a person who longs for the cozy cottages, garden paths and luminous, wholesome Christian land of Kinkade's world, a world Hernandez subverts with her clowns.

All lifestyle brands try to sell the purchaser some vision of who they want to be and how they want to live. Kinkade's empire may be in decline and we may snicker at his work, his crass marketing and his personal hypocrisy, but it is estimated that one out of 20 American homes has something "Kinkade" within it. There has to be a reason why, and it's not just — er, not only — bad taste. Is a yearning for simpler times, for yesteryear, small-town community, what helped make Kinkade's imagery so appealing to his customers? (Strangely, the act of collecting it seems to create a sense of community in itself.)

Hernandez's show is ambitious and amusing, and she raises questions about art, originality, marketing and ethics. But at the heart of it, and at the heart of Kinkade's success, is an America longing for something sincere and authentic. And they're trying to buy it at the mall. 

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer