Redefining Kinkade

War on Kinkade 02, by Jeff Bennett.

The late Thomas Kinkade took romanticism to absurd levels. His glowing highlights look like barn fires and his pastel peachy highlights are as hyper-saturated as a 1970s album cover. One generally shrinks from discussing him, because he was what he was—a painter of kitsch. There’s certainly no point in beating him up about it now that he’s dead.

War on Kinkade 02, by Jeff Bennett

To me, the maddening thing about Kinkade is how every building he ever painted appeared to be on fire. A cottage might be in an idyllic forest dell at midday, and yet every window is ablaze with light.
War on Kinkade 01, by Jeff Bennett
Enter one Jeff Bennett, who has just redefined Kinkade’s world into a cosmic battlefield. Suddenly, the lighting, the colors… it all makes sense. (You can see the rest of Bennett’s pastiches here.)
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Romanticizing the familiar

Niagara, 1857, by Frederic Edwin Church
Yesterday, I talked about the differences between what is actually present in a landscape and what an artist paints. This morning I thought I’d look at a subject I know intimately: Niagara Falls.
Distant View of Niagara Falls, 1830, Thomas Cole
Thomas Cole, the patriarch of the Hudson River School, was interested in celebrating the untamed American wilderness. In Distant View of Niagara Falls, he presses the forest up against the cataracts. Two noble savages observe the view; other figures are distantly present on the Canadian shore.
Although this picture was taken in 1858, it probably better represents what Niagara Falls looked like in 1830 than Cole’s painting does. It’s exactly contemporary with Church’s Niagara.
By 1830, Niagara Falls had been host to white settlement and exploration for almost two centuries. The cataracts themselves were surrounded by factories, thriving towns, and the hotels, shops and other businesses serving the tourist trade. A band of Tuscarora lived in a village on Goat Island (that bit between the cataracts), selling their handicrafts to tourists.
Niagara Falls, from the American Side, 1867, by Frederic Edwin Church. This view is so accurate to reality that it is no surprise to learn that he had a sepia photograph to use as reference.
In editing the real into the sublime, Cole made the forests and the sky his primary subject. He sets the viewer so far back from the Falls that the grandeur of the scene lies in its setting, not in the cataracts themselves.
Frederic Church’s most well-known canvas of Niagara takes an entirely different approach: he strips out the inconsequential, focusing on the rim of water. This corresponds so exactly to our psychological reaction that we locals think it’s triggering memory. In fact, a hundred thousand viewers flocked to see it in the first two weeks of its debut; most of them had probably never visited Niagara, but they all felt the roar of the Falls. From a strictly visual standpoint, however, it doesn’t reflect reality any more than Cole’s painting did, because Goat Island is much closer than he represented it to be. 
The view (approximately) which Church painted in 1857.
Both Cole and Church sought to eliminate man’s touch on the landscape; both succeeded. Niagara Falls has been painted so many times, by so many first-rate artists, and they almost all share that goal. Here is Bierstadt’s painting, and here is William Morris Hunt’s

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Painting a cold, dark land

Henry Raeburn’s The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch  (better known as The Skating Minister) manages to romanticize both the landscape and the Scottish character.
The rise of Romanticism meant that the Scots were no longer defined (by themselves or others) as a marginal, occupied people; they were now dramatic, rugged primitives. What then to do with their landscape, which might be considered by any objective person as intimidating, cold, dark and empty? Romanticize it, of course!
The Falls of Clyde (Corra Linn), by Jacob More (c. 1771)
The actual Corra Linn. Bears a remarkable resemblance to Letchworth, doesn’t it?
Alexander Nasmyth (1758-1840) is generally considered the founder of the Scottish romantic landscape tradition. Trained under Allen Ramsey as a portrait painter, he abandoned that genre entirely for landscape painting. The generation of landscape painters that followed popularized the romantic view of Scotland. These included Horatio McCulloch, William McTaggart, and Joseph Farquharson. McCullogh’s images of the Scottish highlands, in particular, were reproduced and displayed in homes throughout Great Britain.
Loch Lomond, Horatio McCulloch, 1861
The actual Loch Lomond.
When Queen Victoria acquired Balmoral Castle in 1848, she was operating within a growing fashion for things Scottish. A Scottish Grand Tour developed, with large numbers of English artists flocking to the Highlands to paint and draw. A whole series of seashore artists’ colonies developed in Scotland to cater to that new fad, plein airpainting.
There are obvious aesthetic similarities between the Scottish romantics and their Hudson River counterparts. There are also ideological parallels between the Scots, the Canadian Group of Seven and the Australian Heidelberg School. All three helped define and champion nationalist self-image and goals. And the gap between what was real and what they painted is well worth considering.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

The Yes Man

The artist at work…
November is NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, when a quarter million Americans sign up to write a novel in a month. This is my daughter’s maddest, gladdest time of the year. She is remarkably disciplined, setting herself a goal of around 1700 words a day and consistently meeting it. (She’s a third-year engineering major, but has been doing this since she was in middle school.)
This year she’s skewering Regency conventions. Occasionally she looks up from her nest on the couch to read a particularly funny passage aloud, and then dissolves into laughter.
Unlike Mary, I’m allergic to hard work. Here’s the synopsis of the novel I would have written if I weren’t such a slug:
The Yes Man is an Asian businessman whose English skills are non-existent. He’s very polite and agreeable; thus he’s the victim of every confidence man and siding salesman in town. His Dutiful Daughter spends countless hours canceling contracts and services on his behalf. Some are simple enough to get out of; some—like Dish TV—would try the patience of a saint.
One day, the Yes Man signs an insurance policy that offers to pay him $10,000 for the loss of a leg, $30,000 for the loss of both legs, and a similar indemnity for his arms. The policy has one of those ridiculous riders that pay several times the damages if the accident is caused by something extremely improbable: in this case it is elephants.
“Dad, this is so stupid!” rages Dutiful Daughter. “You’re in Rochester now! There are no elephants here. Have you ever seen an elephant here?” The Yes Man simply smiles and agrees with her.
Dutiful Daughter calls the agency and gets stuck in an endless phone queue. She never gets to speak to a human. Left messages are never returned.
The next day the Yes Man is walking to his restaurant at the same time as the Circus Train arrives at Clinton Street. The elephants line up trunk-to-tail for their traditional amble to the auditorium. And somehow, for the first time in history, they are spooked. The Yes Man ends up being trampled and loses both legs below the knees.
I love a happy ending. (Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.)

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Banksy, behind the curve

Banksy—as everyone in the world knows—was recently in New York. While there, he submitted the above screed to the New York Times (which, recognizing a publicity stunt, didn’t print it). Apparently Banksy never saw the late, lamented Twin Towers, or he’d know better than to call the new buildings an “eyesore.”
Since that ghastly day in 2001, the Twin Towers have achieved icon status. Before that they were pretty unloved: austere and unremarkable except for their size, which proved to be their Achilles heel. I had lunch with a friend on Sunday who mused, “They really weren’t so bad,” of his time working there. As an epitaph, it’s not exactly inspiring.
Like the former Sears Tower in Chicago, the so-called Twin Towers were conceived and built during the Cold War, when the rush to have the tallest building in the world still meant something to Americans.
It’ll be shiny and new, with a whiff of the desktop about it. Is that really so bad?
David Rockefeller called the impulse behind the Twin Towers “catalytic bigness,” by which he meant a project whose sheer size and impact would push further private development in Lower Manhattan. It helped that his big brother Nelson was the governor of New York at the time.
Hard to know what drove those Rockefeller men to projects of such gargantuan immensity, but they have a lot to answer for—first and foremost being the excrescence that is the Empire State Plaza in Albany. Walking on it makes you understand what it really means to be an inconsequential speck in the maw of government.
In addition to its soulless architecture and inhuman scale, the Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza acts like a wind tunnel, which is why it has an underground concourse. This, sadly, contains some of the worst examples of 1970s artwork. The acoustics in the Egg, however, are excellent.
Even though we’re totally broke now, the United States is indisputably the ruler of the world. The need to prove ourselves by building big buildings has passed. Superscrapers get built in places whose names we don’t even recognize, and we pause in the drinking of our coffee to say, “That’s nice,” and move on.
We’re on to other things, Banksy. We’re a busy people. But one more thing: I realize you’re now an icon of respectability (and maybe that’s your problem with the World Trade Center), but graffiti really is an awful intrusion. Go ahead and do it on carefully-selected buildings in Queens and Brooklyn, but by encouraging lesser talents to tag buildings, you’re just contributing to further urban blight.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!