Searching With Light: The Hunt For The Next Thomas Kinkade
by Drew Dernavich
As we discussed last month, the passing of the Painter of Light left a huge Thomas Kinkade-sized hole in the American cultural landscape. Was he merely an outlier, or is there another Kinkade out there ready to occupy the same territory? Who, if anyone, can we look to as a successor?
Now, there are plenty of artists who can give Kinkade a run for his money in the “hearth and home” department. Too many, really. Richard Burns’ impossibly idyllic cottages look as if they were sculpted out of sherbet. Sung Kim’s scenes tap into the primal human urge for scratch n’ sniff. But when you look at the catalogs of these and other artists, you realize that what is missing is not the talent, but the scope. Kinkade’s “magic” was in his mission. To him, the light from a lamppost was not just the woozy warmth of nostalgia. It was the glare from cannon fire into the gut of America’s wayward modernism.
Which brings us to Jon McNaughton. McNaughton, who lives in Utah, can certainly nail a Kinkadian sunset landscape, but his subject matter extends to historical Christian scenery and then plows full-speed into imagery from current American politics — often all in the same scene, naturally. Like Kinkade, he is an aggressively traditionalist painter who could only exist in modern times. But whereas Kinkade was set apart by marketing, with McNaughton it’s the manifestoes.
McNaughton has officially eschewed the “Tea Party Painter” label. But his work is intentionally and unmistakably conservative propaganda, in the purest sense of the word. He fulfills such obvious clichés about the American right that I sometimes wonder if he’s not the perfect punching-bag creation of the American left, even more so than Kinkade. There is intended symbolism stuffed into every inch of “The Forgotten Man,” “ Wake Up America,” and his latest work, “Obamanation” (shown above), and so that you don’t miss it, his website provides viewers with thoroughly annotated mouse-over versions. Seriously, look at all those annotations and try to find an element in these paintings that exists for artistic and non-political reasons. I was genuinely disappointed to move my cursor over the dirt in “Forgotten Man” and find that there was no ideological explanation for it. Something about sacred ground? Standing on rock-solid principles and not hippie idealism? Come on, Jon — you don’t want people trying to figure this stuff out for themselves!
Screeching partisanism aside, there actually isn’t a lot that’s new here. As David Morgan has pointed out, inserting current political figures into a religious paintings has long been a tradition in the West, with Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgment being perhaps the most well-known example. (By the way, if you want some mouse-over goodness, visit this Interactive Vermeer.)
And yet, regardless of passion or point of view, who wants to hang a legal brief or a campaign speech on their wall? I want to see how well you can paint with a brush, not a hammer. Like Kinkade’s paintings, McNaughton’s works fail on their own terms. Kinkade was so singularly obsessed with comfort that his work became creepy. McNaughton’s works miss because airtight arguments are not made in painted form. Take “One Nation Under God. The artist probably has a powerful point to make, but has instead chosen to flood this image with a massive firehose of symbols. One symbol may have archetypal power and several may have allegorical power, but a hundred symbols interacting with each other is chaos. Nothing has room to breathe.
This painting is executed with the confidence of a guy who appears to have everything figured out: here are the good guys, here are the bad guys, and here’s where they all belong. But when you dive into the annotations, you get a sense that McNaughton realizes he needs to make finer distinctions as well. His paintings, though, aren’t capable of doing that work. He has to rely on his notes to explain the contradictions and layers in what they’re seeing. How else are we supposed to ascertain the nature of this dialogue between the “woman with child with disability” and the pregnant woman without his online cheat sheet? How are we supposed to know that the pregnant woman is among the people “turning away from the Lord” who represents hope? Does Christa McAuliffe represent herself, or the space program, or just the members of the space program who aren’t humanists? And really, why aren’t the ‘left-wing people’ on the left? These would be stupid questions to ask of any other artist, but not for an artist who seems so committed to expunging all elements of mystery from his work.
And, as was observed here, McNaughton’s image of Obama holding a flaming Constitution can be interpreted in the exact opposite way as it was intended: It’s not clear whether he torched the document himself, or if he’s lamenting its destruction. If a title or an online screed is the only way I can comprehend your painting’s meaning, then why not just stick to the online screed? Sean Hannity allegedly shelled out $300,000 for this, and if it’s true, he’s a sucker: he bought a six-figure YouTube comment.
Are other people buying McNaughton’s work? Apparently so. Somewhere there is a fanatic who is thinking, “I really dig the casually angled placement of the symbolic ‘Marbury v. Madison’ court case document!” But it’s hard to imagine The Painter of Heat franchising his wares next to Cinnabon like the Painter of Light did. We will have to look elsewhere for an heir, and continue our search next month.
Previously: The Hunt Begins
Drew Dernavich is a cartoonist for the New Yorker magazine (not that cartoonist — the other one) and the co-creator of the cartoon improv show Fisticuffs! He is on Twitter.