Mitchell Johnson: "Are You Going With Me?"

Mitchell Johnson at his easel, Postojna, Slovenia, April 2012
Painter Mitchell Johnson has worked for years in two distinct but related styles: one abstract, the other representational. Johnson has been painting in different geographic zones as well; his studio is in the San Francisco Bay area, but he often travels to Europe where he finds continuing inspiration in local zones of color. In his upcoming show at Oakland's Res Ipsa Gallery: "Are You Going With Me?" Johnson's worlds and his stylistic approaches have converged with striking results. Mitchell thinks of his work as being "driven" by shape and color, and he seems to have found a highly original way of letting the two converse.

 I recently spoke with Johnson about the influences and ideas that have come together in his newest paintings. After our dialogue, you will find a 2009 video dialogue between Mitchell and art historian Peter Selz that will tell you more.

Mitchell Johnson, "Are You Going With Me," 16 x 26 inches, oil on linen
Copyright 2012 Mitchell Johnson. Photo courtesy of Res Ipsa
JS: Mitchell, your painting seems to be rooted in the practice of plein-air painting. Do you start by painting what you see outdoors and then move towards abstraction when you are back inside?

 MJ: At this point, I primarily paint in the studio using photos, memory and drawings. I'm interested in color and shape and how paintings get put together. Twice a year I paint small paintings outside in Europe using an old French easel I've had stored in France or Italy for over twenty years. I simultaneously work on small and very large paintings, just as I work on both abstract and representational paintings. It's all about investigating color and how it always fools us. I never plan series or bodies of work or think about style and content.

Mitchell Johnson, "Garda," 20 x 32 inches, oil on linen
Copyright 2012 Mitchell Johnson. Photo courtesy of Res Ipsa
JS: Italy seems to be important to you in many ways; I know for example that you love the paintings of Giorgio Morandi.  

MJ: To talk about Italy we have to start in France. I lived outside of Aix-en-Provence off and on in the early 90s. I had little more than an easel, some clothes, art supplies and a cheap room with a kitchen that doubled as a tiny studio. I painted landscapes outdoors in the wind and blazing sun and then back in the kitchen made little abstractions using the colors I had mixed outside. I rarely retouched my landscapes when I was inside, but the abstractions were a way of continuing what had started in situ.

Then I began to paint in Tuscany, south of Siena, in 1993, and my interest in light became an obsession with color. The Italian colors, the clay earth, the buildings, the vast quilts of man-made fields really overwhelmed me. I was clueless as to how to make the shiny saturated colors coming out of my tubes comment on the experiences I was having discovering a new world. Eventually I found a direction in my painting thanks to Corot and Morandi; there's something of Fairfield Porter and of course Vuillard that I pulled from too. But Morandi was the most important. Color in Italy is almost always referencing gray or earth hues and Morandi's work helped me grasp that.

Mitchell Johnson, "Hungary," 16 x 22 inches, oil on linen
Copyright 2012 Mitchell Johnson. Photo courtesy of Res Ipsa
JS: When did you begin to let your works go abstract? Did it happen suddenly?

 MJ: The abstraction was always happening, in many ways all of my paintings are the same because they are about how do you get the color to work, which shapes have meaning. The most significant shift in my work was around 2004 when the shapes and areas of color in my paintings became larger as if I had zoomed in on pieces of my earlier paintings to draw attention to the color and the compositional choices. It seemed people were missing out on the physical and formal aspects of what was driving me. These changes followed trips to the Danish island, Bornholm, and a chance viewing of the Josef Albers exhibit at the Museo Morandi in Bologna in 2005.

Mitchell Johnson, "Skagen," 17 x 21 inches, oil on linen
Copyright 2012 Mitchell Johnson. Photo courtesy of Res Ipsa
JS: You have a very lyric, personal approach to color. How has your color sense evolved over time?  

MJ: Even when I was a child, I had the desire to paint my models or toys as a way of exploring how color continually shifts, changes and deceives us. I'm not saying that I was precocious or that I could articulate what I was doing or even that I knew I would become an artist, but the motivation to paint and investigate color phenomena has always been there. The beauty of sticking with a singular pursuit is that once you get a toe-hold on an area of understanding, other people's lessons and knowledge become more accessible. Hopefully, my color sense is always evolving. I visit museums and look at other people's work to help peel another layer of the onion. When you see the range of painted color as a fixed gamut, you can enjoy the profoundness of everything from primitive Italian painting to Chardin to Albers.

Mitchell Johnson, "Gammel Skagen," 24 x 40 inches, oil on linen
Copyright 2012 Mitchell Johnson. Photo courtesy of Res Ipsa
JS: Tell me about your schooling. What teachers influenced you?  

MJ: I studied painting and drawing at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia and Ray Berry first showed me images of Chardin and Morandi. Ray took a group of us to see the huge Impressionist exhibit at the National Gallery in 1986. I wouldn't have made it to Parsons in New York without the help of Jo Weiss at the Washington Studio School in DC where I went after R-MC. Then at Parsons, Paul Resika, Leland Bell and Robert De Niro, Sr. helped me start the path I'm still traveling. I've been very lucky.

Mitchell Johnson, "Tyrol (Confetti)," 16 x 26 inches, oil on linen
Copyright 2012 Mitchell Johnson. Photo courtesy of Res Ipsa
JS: Tell me about the connections between your current show and music.

 MJ: My mother was a piano teacher and I tried many instruments when I was young and couldn't keep with it. There was always music in our house. I usually have music playing when I'm in the studio but it's a very broad range - there are currently Fritz Kreisler CDs stacked next to Joy Division, Aimee Mann and the Beastie Boys. The music motivates me and keeps me company, but it also helps with the problem of how do you keep reaching for new ground and new insight. I have no interest in style, but I'm very determined to keep growing because that is the source of freedom. The new paintings are pretty strong flavored, but they are also full of subtlety. I'm hoping that the awareness of how important music and color are to me, helps viewers to appreciate that this work is about much more than style. Knowing that the paintings are connected to music provides some context.

Mitchell Johnson, "Truro Doorway," 15 x 22 inches, oil on linen
Copyright 2012 Mitchell Johnson. Photo courtesy of Res Ipsa
JS: I know you were recently in New York City. Did you get to see many exhibits? What's your feeling about how painting is now perceived?

 MJ: I don't think painting ever went away, but it is definitely everywhere in the art world at the moment and there's such an amazing range represented. In New York I saw the complicated William Bailey show at Betty Cunningham, Adolph Gottlieb at Pace and the unusual Hofmann show at Ameringer Yohe. When I went to see Susanna Coffey's exhibit at Steven Harvey's gallery, there was a small Gandy Brodie painting, Apple Blossoms, in the back room and this is the piece I can't stop thinking about. Brodie's painting was an important reminder of what painting can do. Painting is this fantastic antidote to the instantaneous quality of our new internet/GPS world. It is problematic and uncompromising and it demands time and energy in a way that much of our activities no longer do. I believe that is why its quite in vogue again - because like great songs, we need paintings in our lives to remind us about what really matters.

Mitchell Johnson: "Are You Going With Me?"
455 17th Street, Suite 301
Oakland, CA 94612
Opening Reception: Friday May 4, 6 to 9 PM
Artist Talk: Saturday, May 12 at 1:30

Bruce Cohen: A Hint of Something Else

Untitled (Poppies Against a Storm), 2011
oil on canvas
30 x 30 inches
© Bruce Cohen, Courtesy of Louis Stern Fine Arts
In Bruce Cohen's "Untitled (Poppies Against a Storm)" a thin marble ledge is the only vestige of architecture intervening between a glass bottle holding three long stemmed poppies and a glowering sky. The poppies, two white and one red, don't seem to be affected by the change in weather -- at least not yet -- although one flower appears to be responding to an implied breeze and swiveling to the right. The picture doesn't come across as something literally observed; it has just the slightest air of improbability about it. Perhaps something is about to happen: or maybe it just did...

"Bruce's pictures have this other sense," explains his older brother Larry, a gifted landscape painter who has been Bruce's best critic since they decided at the same moment to become painters. "They are a little bit strange."

Bruce Cohen: photo by Gene Fama
A consistent painter who has been working with the imagery of still lives in interior settings for over 30 years -- "It's not like he ever took two years off and did portraits," notes his brother -- Bruce Cohen has a probing, restless mind and an attraction to the metaphysical. Although his paintings have the burnished clarity of Old Master paintings, they aren't about observation: they are put together, not observed. Cohen's fluent hybrid style, with its rich narrative suggestions, is the product of a lifetime of study, absorption and practice.

 At age 15 Cohen received a summer scholarship to study life drawing at the Otis Art Institute. Later, at the College of Creative Studies of UC Santa Barbara, his brother Larry introduced him to Paul Wonner, who became a mentor to both young men. "Wonner was somewhat against the grain; a representational painter." Larry recalls. "For 35 or more years he helped us out, and that had a huge effect." Bruce agrees, adding that he found in Wonner's work sense of "poetic magic that can really move you."

After studying at UC Berkeley Cohen settled in Los Angeles. He earned extra cash painting houses, and also began to exhibit successfully; he had one man shows at Asher/Faure Gallery in Los Angeles in 1981 and 1983, then a 1985 Bay Area debut at San Francisco's prestigious John Berggruen Gallery. Now 58, he has gone through a long evolution, but not, according to the artist, a conscious one.

 Cohen first absorbed the influence of Renaissance and Surrealist paintings as a young man, then studied 17th century Dutch interiors and domestic scenes. Bay Area Figurative paintings -- in particular the works of Wonner and Diebenkorn -- made their impression next. Nabi Bonnard and Vuillard are there in Cohen's mature work, and so is an affection for Indian miniatures, which have provided ideas about how observed nature can be manipulated. The still life paintings of Giorgio Morandi, rich in poesia, have also had their effect.

Untitled (Still Life with Raspberries), 2010
oil on canvas
28 x 21 inches
© Bruce Cohen, Courtesy of Louis Stern Fine Arts
When asked how he starts a painting, Cohen responded that he often begins with light; "It gives me an initial motivation, and then other things start to develop." Cohen's subject matter evolves over time in what he calls an "observation collage process." Although Cohen certainly looks at the things he intends to paint, he prefers to "ultimately not be confronted with those things." As a result, his images come from drawings, from photos, and from the imagination. His colors tend to be invented; "...they are not plein air," Cohen notes.

 The results are somewhat surreal and mesmerizingly theatrical. Cohen struggles quite a bit as his paintings coalesce, and wipes out quite a bit along the way. Still, he wants the finished result to be opaque, and carefully edits any hints of process that may remain. Cohen's paintings don't literally include the human figure, but their presence is somehow implied. "I feel sometimes that I am looking at a place where some tremendous, mystical event has just taken place," wrote Paul Wonner. "The people concerned have just moved on out of sight, but there remains on the scene the residue of a magic moment."

Untitled (Yellow Tulips, Departing Storm), 2011
oil on canvas
32 x 32inches
© Bruce Cohen, Courtesy of Louis Stern Fine Arts
In "Untitled (Yellow Tulips, Departing Storm," waxy tulips hang heavily against a bank of clouds that has just began clearing after a storm. They are tired, but still beautiful, reacting to forces that are both present and implied. How long has the window been opened, you have to wonder? What just happened?

The image is crystal clear, but the events surrounding it are not. "There is a hint of something else," says Larry Cohen of his brother's pictures. He has been watching Bruce's art develop for 40 years, and even he can't say exactly what that something is.

Remembering William Theophilus Brown (1919-2012)

At the age of 11 William "Theophilus" Brown shook the hand of the artist Grant Wood, the creator of "American Gothic," who was awarding him third prize in a juried art competition. "He (Wood) was amazed to see this kid walking up the aisle," Brown later recalled. In the long and richly artistic life that followed Brown racked up interesting life experiences, meeting many more "gods and idols" along the way.

Part of Brown's success in life seems to have stemmed from always know just what to do or say. One day in Europe, for example, he recognized the man knocking at a friend's studio door as Alberto Giacometti, and immediately set up an easel and invited Giacometti to draw the model with them. A few years later Brown challenged a young Richard Diebenkorn one day -- "I'll bet you can't paint a portrait," he teased -- and in short order Diebenkorn painted the first of many portraits.

Brown died on February 8th after an oyster dinner with his friend Matt Gonzalez. Among other things, Bill Brown has remembered as "everyone's favorite dinner companion," but there is much more to be said, many more stories to be told. I asked his friend and dealer Thomas Reynolds, who has organized a memorial exhibition, to tell me more about him.

John Seed Interviews Thomas Reynolds:

JS: How did you meet and come to know Bill Brown?

TR: When I moved to San Francisco 25 years ago, I soon became fascinated by California art -- from the early grand landscape painters, through the Tonalists and Impressionists, the Arts & Crafts movement, the Society of Six and the Bay Area figurative painters. It seemed a terrific way to learn about the state's artistic history. And so much of it took place right here in San Francisco, where I was fortunate to establish a gallery in 1994. It was a real treat to learn a few years later that two of the great painters from the figurative movement -- Paul Wonner and Theophilus Brown -- lived just a few blocks down Pine Street from my gallery.


Theophilus Brown, Self Portrait, 2001

JS: What were Brown's characteristic subjects and styles?

TR: Theophilus always said his favorite subjects were horses and dicks -- but then he never could resist a clever quip or a bawdy joke. Much of his work has a surrealist or allegorical edge. Animals often appear in his paintings, especially horses and birds. And always the figure, usually nude, whether cavorting on an idyllic beach, or by the river, or in the studio. And if there was nobody else around, he'd paint or draw self portraits. He did many of those over the years.

During the 80s, his work took a sharp turn toward more realistic, almost precisionist, industrial paintings. And in his final decade, he did abstract collages. He'd sometimes recall that "Dick Diebenkorn told me I'd never be an abstract painter. But he was wrong."

Often people would ask him what his paintings were about. "What does it mean?" He steadfastly refused to answer, sometimes throwing his hands up in the air and saying, "Who knows?"

Of one of his large paintings of bathers, he commented, "That's a very unusual picture of mine because it has only one penis in it."

JS: How would you describe Brown's social and artistic connections?

TR: He knew everybody in the world of 20th century art, it sometimes seemed, and had a story about most of them, from Picasso and Giacometti in France, Rothko and de Kooning in New York, Diebenkorn and Park and all the other great figurative painters in California.

And he was kind and encouraging to many younger painters -- some of whom he taught in the classroom, even more that he taught by example of what an artistic life could be.

He's known as an artist, but he was an equally accomplished musician. He was a music major at Yale and played the piano with great skill and dedication, often accompanied by a violinist. He even recorded some of his original compositions. And he was still at the piano the day before he died.

Incidentally, he donated his piano to the San Francisco Towers, the retirement home where he and Paul Wonner lived in the last decade of their lives, and endowed an annual recital to encourage young musicians.

JS: How will you remember him?

TR: He lived surrounded by art and music -- and laughter. Our memorial exhibition is drawn entirely from the paintings and drawings and collages he had hanging in his apartment and studio at the time of his death -- his work, and a few special things he'd kept from Paul Wonner. We'll have a piano recital beforehand, on his beloved Steinway, and a single-malt Scotch tasting at the opening reception: another of his favorite things. And I'm sure there will be lots of laughter and loving stories told.

Theophilus Brown: A Celebration

The Thomas Reynolds Gallery

2291 Pine Street (at Fillmore)

San Francisco, CA

April 21-May 26

Opening Reception: April 21 5-7PM

Robert Neffson: "The City Reflects Us"

Robert Neffson, whose views of New York City, London, Paris, and Venice are on exhibit at Bernarducci Meisel Gallery through April 28th, is considered a Photo-Realist. However, that particular stylistic label doesn't quite describe the full range of his aesthetic ambitions. Neffson's richly detailed canvasses are meant to go beyond realism and connect each viewer with a range of perceptual and intellectual experiences. He characterizes his work as being "... about how my body, mind and memory move around and inhabit the spaces I love."


Robert Neffson: Photo by Karin Neffson

A disciplined craftsman who takes 3 to 4 months to complete a painting, Neffson laments the general suspicion that often greets the work of Photo-realists: "My accuracy, preciseness, even 'labor' are sometimes viewed suspiciously, somehow not as art or people think there must be some trick." Neffson is a Humanist whose artistic heroes -- especially Canaletto and Richard Estes -- employed detailed city views as metaphorical maps of human ambition and experience. "A city is made up of people and the traces of their hands and minds," Neffson observes, "the city reflects us and we are a part of it."

To be a Photo-Realist in 2012 means going against the art world's current polarized notions of what a work of art should "feel" like: bracingly theoretical or obviously emotional. In the opinion of many critics, Photo-Realism can look like a an exercise. "...most of the Photo-Realism," commented art historian Peter Selz in his 1997 book 'Beyond the Mainstream,' is tour de force painting -- it shows what a painter can do by using photographs. But once you get over the fact -- 'my god, isn't it remarkable how he managed to do this' -- it isn't all that exciting."

For anyone who feels that his work is short on feeling, Neffson offers a rebuttal: "The art world is very confused right now and it romanticizes crudeness, awkwardness and ineptitude, which it mistakes for expressing 'real emotions.'" As his artistic rejoinder Neffson offers up paintings which are both panoramic and personal. In his vivid "Times Square" (2012) Neffson includes himself and his wife Karin walking through the painting's middle ground. "All art has an aspect of self-portraiture in it anyway," notes the artist, "why not literally include yourself in it?


Above: a detail of Neffson's "Times Square" shows the artist and his wife Karin.

When Neffson doesn't literally paint himself into a city scene, he finds other ways to make himself present. One way he does this is to make slight adjustments to each scene -- playing with weather and reflected lighting is one specialty -- and he also thinks through his paintings in myriad ways. "At times," he comments, I think like an architect, city planner, landscape and lighting designer, meteorologist, movie and theater director, psychiatrist, philosopher, novelist, poet and so on..."

Considering the artist's attentiveness and intellectual flexibility, it isn't surprising that a close inspection of his works results in the discovery of charming details. In "Vaporetto," a view of Venice as seen from a water taxi, the tiny reflection of Santa Maria Maggiore in the boat's windows, is one example. At the heart of "Times Square" a flock of visitors sit, chat and slouch amidst a small forest of Broadway posters. It is a gallery within a gallery, along the lines of Watteau's "Shop Sign of Gersaint."

Neffson's tendency is to hold up vignettes from the leading cities of the United States and Europe and show them as the places he wants to inhabit, while at the same time beckoning us to do the same. They are in the tradition of vedute; lovingly detailed travel pictures that touch on our pride in cities and their potential. I spoke to Robert Neffson about his artistic intentions and asked about his tendency to idealize his images.

John Seed Interviews Robert Neffson

JS: If someone were to criticize one of your paintings and say that it didn't have enough social reality how would you respond?

RN: My interests and gifts are aesthetic ones directed towards a search for the sublime or the beautiful. I also am open to the hard-edge truths of the city and they become a part of my vision. There are many painters who do social commentary but my work goes in a different direction, its about something else. So to criticize them as not having enough social reality would be to miss their intention.

JS: Is it fair to say that something you do as an artist is to idealize cities and show us their potential?

RN: The paintings are made with great respect to the ordinary and how everyday things look . They combine elements of reality in order to explore non verbal emotional states. The city becomes a metaphor and I use people, buildings and natural landscape to create a mood that corresponds to inner feelings I have. Through this process they reach for an ideal.

An artist's work is a reflection of his view of the world and who he is. In an indirect way, I try to show my own potential and that of the city. This happens naturally through my search for an image I can live in as I explore the structure of visual forms.

JS: In some way, does your work attempt to "heal" cities, and show them as more perfect than they actually are?

RN: I start out looking for a private "perfect moment" that will transcend just the personal. Its about a transformation of transient reality into something permanent , ordered and as expressive as possible. If along the way people can get a sense of another way of life and how things could be, I am greatly gratified.

I grew up in a small quiet suburb outside the city. So seeing the disenfranchised and eccentrics in the inner city, I was slightly scared of the alienness but a little attracted to the strangeness and possibilities of other ways of being. When I was 6 my Mom's death changed the world for me and I turned toward art. My family had scientists and artists so I was interested in both disciplines. Art was a way of exploring reality and my place in the world. It always has a combination of realism and romantic idealism to me. I wanted to live in Manhattan, so I painted it and now I live here.

Part of my interest in art is to heal myself not the city but perhaps in some sense it comes out that way.

Mike Kelley (1954-2012) and Thomas Kinkade (1958-2012) Have Gone Home

"Experience has taught us that we have only one enduring weapon in our struggle against mental illness: the emotional discovery of the truth about the unique history of our childhood."

- Alice Miller in "The Drama of the Gifted Child"

Looking over Facebook this morning I saw a number of posts about the recently reported death of artist Thomas Kinkade at the age of 54. One post in particular, made by my friend Leonard Koscianski, stood out. It mentioned Kinkade's death alongside that of Mike Kelley, a Los Angeles artist who took his own life at the age of 58 earlier this year.

"First Mike Kelly, now Thomas Kinkade. Two California artists who were very popular in their respective milieu. I'm saddened by their deaths, but I disliked both of their work."

It was stimulating to read Leonard's comment, which I agreed with. I also disliked the work of both artists: they represented aesthetic extremes that I couldn't connect with. How odd to think of them connected in any way, even by early death. I first came across Mike Kelley when I saw him perform "The Sublime" -- an uncomfortable 2 hour recitation -- at MOCA's "Temporary Contemporary" in the Spring of 1984. A few years later I saw my first Thomas Kinkade billboard looming over the 10 freeway just west of Palm Springs. Both men were somehow of my world, and my generation, but from vastly different sections of it.

Kinkade was an extrovert whose mass produced faux-paintings -- actually giclée prints on canvas which paid assistants have often kicked up a notch with hand painted touches of impasto -- have the gleam and glitter of fairy-tales. He was the self-proclaimed "Painter of Light," an evangelical Christian, and a mass marketing genius. Thomas Kinkade was the Boomer Poet Laureate of kitsch Americana.

Kelley was an introvert saw repression as the enemy of sanity. He sought out and even embraced life's darkness; a Poet Apostate who criticized "normative" values, systems of authority and consumer culture. As critics have pointed out his early use of stuffed animals was intended to "drive a wedge between sentimentality and childhood." His savage critiques appealed to the jaded appetites of some of the art world's leading collectors.

Kinkade and Kelley were the yin and yang of American art, one favored by conservative "red" America, the other by "blue." Kinkade's work was sold in shopping malls, at the Disney Store and on eBay, while Kelley's was shown in elite galleries and contemporary art museums.

Yet, despite their differences, they both had a deep interest in the same subject matter: the revisiting of their childhood traumas as portrayed in the image of "home."

Mike Kelly's "Mobile Homeland"

Before his death by suicide in early February, Kelley was working on "Mobile Homeland," an installation that was intended to recreate his childhood home in Detroit. In his final interview Kelly told Tulsa Kinney of Artillery Magazine that the subject was ..." almost too fraught with psychology and dysfunction...things that could easily feel like an emotional burden."

Home, as seen through a child's eyes, was a subject that Kelley had dealt with before. In his 1995 installation "We Communicate" Kelly wrote texts for a set of children's paintings that commented on the psychological underpinnings of each image. One of his commentaries says quite a bit about what he thought a painted image of a house could communicate:

"The house is a crudely scrawled heap surrounded by dark messy slashes of color. The surrounding shading produces an atmosphere that screams with anxiety. No German Expressionist has depicted the black torture of the soul better. Although Elaine is obviously an unhappy child, she is, at least, able to express this state of mind openly and need not hide behind the mask of socialization. She need not pretend to be a 'good girl.' The adult world of rules and order, symbolized by the house, is sinking back into an infantile fecal mound that Elaine has the capacity to control."

Clearly, what Kelley had to say about the child's way of coping -- she was in control because she didn't repress or pretend -- is also an manifesto of his own social and personal ethos. "His subversive critique," wrote George Melrod after Kelley's death, "was not just aimed outward toward society at large, but seemingly inward at himself."

Thomas Kinkade "The Christmas Cottage"

By contrast, one of Kinkade's signature images, "The Christmas Cottage," is a sentimentalized image of the artist's childhood home; Kinkade reportedly launched his artistic career to save it after he learned that his mother could no longer afford the mortgage. It has been stated that one in twenty homes in America is decorated with some kind of Kinkade print. You have to wonder: how many homes had "The Christmas Cottage" hanging over the fireplace when Countrywide posted the foreclosure papers on the front door?

The cottage, which glows as if it had swallowed the Star of Bethlehem, exudes a luminescent fairy tale vibe that Kinkade used as his shield against his life's disappointments. By painting fairy tales, Kinkade was attempting to achieve what Bruno Bettelheim posited was a "...happy outcome, which the child cannot imagine on his own." Kelley would have called Kinkade's approach "denial." Indeed, Kinkade expertly sugar-coated the subject matter of every one of his mass-reproduced images. No wonder one critic called them "visual Prozac."

Kinkade reportedly died of "natural causes," which I assume is a sugar-coating of the actual factors. The artist's public outbursts -- he once reportedly urinated on a Winnie the Pooh figure at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim while saying "This one's for you, Walt." -- and his 2010 arrest for drunk driving suggest that the man's demons were doing everything they could to burst out.

Kelley, by taking his own life, was characteristically honest. His suicide was his admission of unhappiness, a problem that he had discussed openly in his key works. At the time of his death Kelley was reportedly depressed after a breakup with his girlfriend.

Mike Kelley died "critically acclaimed." Thomas Kinkade died "popular." As Leonard Koscianski pointed out on Facebook, they both had their constituencies. They both had considerable public and financial success.

"Mike Kelley," comments Leonard Koscianski, "made very high priced works that ridiculed middle class sentiment. His works were so expensive that they could never be owned by the middle class he disparaged." His hanging mixed-media installation, "Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites," sold at auction for just over $2.7 million dollars in 2006. Kelley, who had once addressed cultural consumerism with a fetishistic phallic candle display called "The Wages of Sin" was represented, at the time of his death, by the world's most powerful contemporary art dealer, Larry Gagosian.

Kinkade's art and the product line that grew from it was so successful that his art company was publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange, and at one point had a market capitalization of $350 million (the total value of the stock) based on annual sales of $250 million. Kinkade, who described the art world as "a very small pond...a very inbred pond," left behind a net worth that is in dispute. One source says "$70 million" another says the artist, who had faced lawsuits by the owners of Kinkade gallery franchises, died "piss-poor." At the time of his death, Kinkade and his wife Nanette had been separated for more than a year.

Kelley's bracingly strange and searchingly intellectual art appealed to America's 1%. Kinkade's hyper-sincerity, and his celebration of Christ, baseball, and glowing cottages made him the favorite artist of America's 99%. They were two American artists who, in their striking divergence, tell the story of a nation whose center seems ready to tear apart. Stress makes people look for extreme solutions, both in life and art.

Ultimately, both men seem to have suffered in catering to the almost schizophrenically divided tastes of American society. In public they both maintained powerful identities -- a bad boy and a good boy -- while in private each one got a bit lost trying to find his way "home" to private peace and reconciliation with his childhood experiences. It might be said -- in psychoanalytic terms -- that both Kelley and Kinkade ultimately failed to sublimate their impulses and idealizations into workable connections with the world.

Let's hope, for Kinkade's sake, that he is safely at home in Heaven. It would have to be a light-filled, cotton candy heaven where a compassionate Christ is present. In Kelley's case, it is tougher to speculate on where his final home might be and who might comfort him. When Tulsa Kinney asked Kelley, during his final interview, if he ever believed in Heaven and Hell, he responded plainly:

'No. I never believed in anything.'