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July 30, 2006

The WSJ's Big-Bucks "Mall Artists"

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Know of any below-the-salt artists who live well?

The Wall Street Journal's 14 July Weekend section front-paged Kelly Crow's article "Shopping-Mall Masters" to help answer that question.

The "Shopping-Mall" term in the title isn't strictly true, but the artists featured in the article tended to have modest starts and make a lot of their money from reproductions rather than from sales of original works.

I'm pleased that the Journal published the piece because there is a "hidden" art market out there -- a market "hidden" to those who get their art news from the likes of The New York Times or art magazines that focus on the big-city gallery scene.

One thing I don't know is how the artists mentioned in the article were selected. It might have been by the writer alone. Or perhaps the writer sounded out some art dealers.

Despite the theme of the piece, there is a fairly wide range of top prices commanded (see captions below). Although lower top-prices supposedly are somwhat balanced by high sales of reproductions, annual sales totals from all sources aren't included in the article.

As it happens, I don't care for much of the work by the artists presented in the article. Nor do I care much for the art that's considered "hot" in New York, London and San Francisco. Remember the 80-20 rule which, for painting, could be more like 95-5 -- 5 being the percent that's even halfway okay.

Nevertheless, where seriously large (to me, anyway) numbers of dollars are being spent on art, attention should be paid. No, I'm not saying that attention should be paid because the art is good. My meaning is that it would be worth our while to think about

  • Who is buying that art.

  • Why they are buying that art. (And, perhaps, not buying other kinds of art.)

  • The subject-matter of the art.

  • The techniques used to create the art.

  • The "meaning" of the art (if any).

  • And so forth.

In other words, we might learn something, though I can't predict what in any given case.

Here are examples of art from the artists featured in the article along with reported top prices for their work.


Howard Behrens example.jpg
Howard Behrens
Top price: $50,000.

Paul Brent example.jpg
Peter Brent
Top price: $5,000.

Christian Riese Lassen example.jpg
Christian Riese Lassen
Top price: $300,000.
I saw some of his stuff in Honolulu last December. The images were large and had striking colors, so visual impact was high. But I don't care much for his subject-matter and for hard-edge realism in general, so I'd probably never buy any of Lassen's work for hanging on a wall of my house.

Bill Mack example.jpg
Bill Mack
Top price: $75,000.

Thomas McKnight example.jpg
Thomas McKnight
Top price: $45,000.

Steven Meyers example.jpg
Steven Meyers
Top price: A $30,000 order for 23 prints, or just over $1,300 per item.
Meyers' does print images based on X-ray (and perhaps other) technology.

Diane Romanello example.jpg
Diane Romanello
Top price: $11,500.


Other artists cited in the WSJ article were Thomas Kinkade (top price: $4 million for a house "inspired" by a painting) who I wrote about here, and Pino (top price: $35,000) discussed by me here.

All the artists mentioned above can be classed as naturalistic, though some, especially Lassen, put this to use in imaginative or even surrealistic settings. They tend toward hard-edge style, though Kinkade's paintings usually have a semi-impressionist dabbed look while Pino's background painting is a blend of post-impressionism and abstract-expressionist brushwork. Behrens' paintings are soft-edge impressionistic like Kinkade's, though the subject matter and effects are different. The exceptions are Meyers, who does not actually draw or paint images, and Mack, who mostly sculpts.

These artists are professionals, as best I can tell; they paint or sculpt to put bread on the table. This means they are market-driven and tend to pursue a recognizable style (that might slowly evolve) that allows buyers to own a painting that friends and relatives might readily identify as a Pino, Kinkade, etc.

Is their art "good" or likely to be acknowledged by art historians of the 22nd century? Hard to tell, but the answer is likely to be "no" in most cases. (I think the answer will be "no" for many of today's hot NYC gallery artists too. Sometime I should show samples of their work so that we can have a discussion about this.) I happen to like Pino's work best and think his sheer ability might make him at least worthy of a footnote in 2106. Kinkade will also rate a footnote, simply because of his commercial success.

Since we're dealing with opinion here, what's yours? Is this art really worthy of our attention? How might it be evaluated in 100 years? Do you like/hate/whatever any of it?



posted by Donald at July 30, 2006


I don't know. I'm just trying to figure out why GOD didn't think of this first


Posted by: onetwothree on July 30, 2006 7:47 PM

that thing by Lassen strikes me as stricly amateur level painting, very forgettable. That could be one of those velvets college kids hang in their dorm rooms. The one by McKnight is interesting. I suppose the odds of being remembered beyond your own generation are pretty long in any of the arts.

Posted by: pat on July 30, 2006 11:18 PM

I'd say there were several forces at work:

People's "eye" have been more educated by movies than by previous art.

And also by what the movies think is "art" and puts on walls, etc. in sets. (A certain kind of person is always assuring artists that if they can just hang the work on sets, they'll make big bucks.)

Some folks see art as a good capitalist "investment" and the media talks up stuff like sharks in formaldehyde. (The latter 8 million dollar installation is disintegrating -- turns out alcohol would have been a better preservative but the artist says he will replace the shark. It's the CONCEPT, man, the CONCEPT!!)

Other folks take the advice to "buy what they really like," and that really IS what they like. Who are we to say they're lowbrow?

But where do they get that much money? I dunno. How can they afford a house? (Maybe the prices are less authentic than the paintings.) But "the long tail" idea applies -- much more money to be made from many relatively inexpensive prints than from one big painting.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on July 30, 2006 11:32 PM

Lassen's work is the sort of eco-kitsch I actively dislike. Meyers appeals to me a bit, based on the sample you show, and I'm indifferent to the others.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on July 31, 2006 12:20 AM


None of this stuff is really good at all. Its too bad that some really great painters today aren't involved in this mall poster shop scene. If they were, they probably wouldn't have to struggle so much or for so long.

One of the things you should note is that the paintings you posted were all very bland and had no people in them. The stuff is just made to fill up a wall with bland, albeit coloful, posters. Curious, isn't it, that so little of this stuff would be truly interested in people? Or any kind of idea whatsoever? This goes also for abstract paintings, which seem to hang in large office builldings and other prominent places.

Compare this to the Renaissance, when the paintings were all about people, their relationships to God and good and evil, and covered the full range of human experiences.

One thing it does conclusively show is that the vast majority of people like realistic images, stylized or not. And they are willling to spend their money on it, which bodes well for realistic painters of today. Kinkade may be a schlock, but he has learned how to market. If some savvy people figured out a way to make a decent appeal to the large "educated class", we really could see a change. Unfortunately, it seems to much to ask that someone be an incredibly talented painter and expect them to also be marketing whizzes. Almost no great artists of the past were. And I don't consider a lot of post 1950's modern art "icons" to be a part of that talented painter cadre.

Posted by: btm on July 31, 2006 12:28 AM

Personally, I find merit in the images by Mack (naked person!) and Meyer (sexy flowers!), and that's it. The others just seem dull. Well, the McKnight is somewhat engaging with its "where's Waldo" detail, but ultimately it evokes absolutely nothing in me. Those seem to be, as btm points out, meant for office buildings - just something to match the furniture. Yuck, and yawn.

Posted by: dente on July 31, 2006 11:12 AM

Thomas Kincade's mom:
"Tommy, you go right back upstairs and turn off all those lights. Honestly, do you think we own stock in the electric company?"

Posted by: Mitch on July 31, 2006 11:28 AM

I can't believe it! Have art buyers become totally blind? It's all slick s**t!!

Posted by: ricpic on July 31, 2006 11:56 AM

I think the visual arts have gone the same direction as poetry and literary fiction. It's a matter of what an out-of-touch academia declares "real" art as opposed to what public at large likes. Michael's recent post on "Literary Fiction" covers the same contentious ground, re fiction. (

Those in academia feel that since they've studied a field, they are then the expert on that field, and should be able to make the call on what's "real" or "good" or not. However, they often don't take into account that the very study that made them an expert often also makes them someone with overly rarified and qualified tastes. They can tend to focus on minutia that either doesn't matter, or makes their view of things are now so bizarre, they are irrelevant. (Add in the current unfortunate meme in academia that politics suffuses everything, and it's even worse. And please forgive, like a Marxist interpretation of the latest "King Kong" incarnation.)

Let's take a cheeseburger for example. Say you have average joe/jane who likes burgers and basically if they're cooked to the right level of doneness and have the proper additions and condiments, they're gonna like the burger. Say you have a food critic who also likes burgers, but by having to eat a burger in every freakin' restaurant that puts on hairnets and opens their door to the public, they get to explore the range of what a burger can be. After about 5 years, they've probably gotten a bit sick of burgers, and have happed upon a couple things that still spark their now overexposed palate, and tend to favor those. So, now they like a medium-rare burger with jalapeno jack cheese and no salt. You feed that to average joe/jane, and they may say, yeah, it's ok, but let's have some salt and next time slap a slice of cheddar on that, k?

The people who really are the current poets, such as Bono of U2, Bruce Springsteen, Sarah McLachlan, Sting, Eminem (if you believe his fans, which I'm not), Rickie Lee Jones, aren't paid attention to. People who are writing open verse with 23 1/2 literary allusions and in-jokes per stanza (see T.S. Eliot) are the ones academia likes, because their tastes have been skewed that way, and they like the fact that they get the in-jokes without having to read the footnotes (and are probably the ones who will write those footnotes).

The visual arts are in a worse state. What most art schools crank out as "the great new stuff" is largely monochromatic "found" art (read a bunch of garbage glued together with some pigment smeared on some of it), or it's a political statement and/or is so offensive that your children can't come to the gallery with you. (Or it's a corpse suffused with plastic so the cadaver can be skinned and posed as if it's playing tennis.)

So, the art that people like and buy is this so-called "mall art" (any one of those you show in our post) when they're shopping for the latest in good poetry (make that U2's "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb"), while over at the college gallery they're admiring a transaxle from a pickup with plastic babydolls glued to it, splashed with red to look like blood whilst carrying around the latest tome of verse from a woman who shaves her head and managed to conjugate "vagina" for 43 odd pages.

I think the mall art and U2 are going to be the ones remembered, myself.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on July 31, 2006 12:18 PM

123 & Pat & Derek -- Jes' for the benefit of everyone, maybe I should have posted a more typical Lassen painting. (I didn't because most of what was available didn't fit the 2B byte budget or else was too small.) Anyhow, Lassen likes to have leaping dolphins and other critters plus all that water, etc. This means the lucky print buyer gets high-impact hard-edge art plus politically-correct subject-matter. Shrewd guy, that ex-surfer.

Mary -- This investment thing makes it hard to analyze the art market from an aesthetic/quality standpoint. Is the market telling us something about merit or about predicting future prices? Probably both. I ought to lift this problem you've been talking about in comments to the status of a posting.

btm -- Pino does concentrate on humans, and is quite skilled at it: check the link I provided. He favors luscious wimmin, and keeps things from being totally bland by introducing a subtle psychological edge to most of his stuff. I don't know if this will be enough to impress 2106 art historians, but it's enough to make his work stand out from most of the crowd, in my opinion.

dente -- Try Googling on McKnight while in "images" mode. You will see similar paintings with interiors, a window and a different scene outside the window. So the Mykonos background in the pic I posted is only one variant on a theme that seems to make money for him. (The Mykonos background one, if in reproduction, probably appeals to folks who have visited the island. Smart marketing, once again!)

Mitch -- Tee hee. Maybe Kinkade owns an electric company by now.

ricpic -- Yep. And the same goes (moreso?) for the junk one sees at the fancy NYC/SFO/etc. galleries.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on July 31, 2006 12:47 PM

"None of this stuff is really good at all. Its too bad that some really great painters today aren't involved in this mall poster shop scene. If they were, they probably wouldn't have to struggle so much or for so long."

The thing is that when they do they lose credibility -- look at Frederick Hart (sculptor) selling in a mall immediately gives the impression art is commodified.

on the other hand, places like and the internet in general are doing an end run around the 'taste makers' in the New York Times and other cultural gatekeepers..

They have control of the grant money, most of the schools, ect but they are holding onto a dying system.

Posted by: a reader on July 31, 2006 1:03 PM

None of this stuff overwhelms me, although I like the Behrens because of its escapist appeal. One can look at it and think, "Yes, that's the kind of Mediterranean villa I wish I were living in." I disliked Kinkade before disliking Kinkade was cool; I just found his stuff over-ripe and what some wag called the "'My Little Pony' colors" of the foliage a bit treacly. Neverthless, some friends of mine with decent taste have a couple of Kinkade originals and they aren't bad. They're a little more austere (by Kinkade standards) than that poster-and-calendar schlock his vase Christian audience laps up, and I suspect they may be early works before he hit on a formula and decided to milk it for all it's worth. I've also become fond of some of his Christmas art. The snow forces him to mute the My Little Pony colors and they have a nice benevolent sentiment about them, fitting for the Christmas season.

Posted by: Bilwick on July 31, 2006 1:36 PM

I'm with Yahmdallah on this one. My expertise is in music so the examples I would choose would be, say, Pierre Boulez vs Lennon and McCartney. I have no real doubt that a hundred years from now we will still be listening to Yesterday and Strawberry Fields and NOT be listening to pli selon pli.

In the 19th century, when the concept of 'avant-garde' art began to emerge, Art had the interesting function of being one of the conduits through which the middle class absorbed the culture (and prestige) of the aristocracy. This was a by-product of the decline of the latter. Now, Art no longer really serves this function and each desperate gasp of the modernists, post-modernists and uber-hyper-modernists seems to have less and less relevance to anything.

So, the 'popular' or 'low' arts are now where the creative energy (and money) tends to flow. I admit that hip-hop and rap have me in a state of despair, though...

Posted by: Bryan on July 31, 2006 1:44 PM

The "avante-garde" or whatever it is attempts new things, the art-school crowd oohs and ahhs over them, the more mainstream artists take a few of those new things and adds them to their art, the mainstream audience comes to accept those, the innovators are hailed as such and people claim to have liked them from the beginning, progress is made, everyone wins. It's a symbiotic relationship. That is my very uninformed take on art. Thank you.

Posted by: the patriarch on July 31, 2006 2:36 PM

Most of the stuff Donald posted is truly bad. I think one of the issues here is that our visual range of experience has been narrowed and is increasingly focused on processed images (in movies with CGI, videos, most television) or processed environments (the mall). I am really disappointed with most "realist" popular art because it doesn't capture, generally makes no attempt to capture, what I find truly interesting and complex about actual landscapes or natural scenes. Same with portrayals of human faces.

Part of this is that photography has taken over the terrain of representing the actual beauty and complexity of reality. I am actually somewhat mystified by the lack of coverage of photography on this blog. Not because you guys are under any obligation to be exhaustive, but simply because if you are searching for representational art that does the things you folks say you want from art you would be much better off searching in the world of photography than painting.

Some random examples from Nan Goldin:

Both of these images are representational as can be, but have both real emotional depth and also abstract symbolic complexity if one looks closely (e.g. the photograph within the photograph, on the wall behind the bed, in the second image).

Posted by: MQ on July 31, 2006 3:01 PM

A Reader is right on the button. If you were to look at the prices that so-called "academic" art (French Salon favorites) are fetching now, as opposed to thirty years ago, the increase is phenomenal. Realism is making a strong comeback. Of course, the process will take time, as many people seem to have "invested" in the junk-pile of modernism. But already, many lesser-known modernists have seen their prices drop at auction, and this in a go-go art market.

The days of the junk-pile are dwindling. At first, it seemed so new and appealing, and intellectually engaging to boot. But as the journey down the road continued, things just got worse and worse. People are tired of it now. They see the destruction of so many of their traditions that they want the good stuff back. The empty realism of the mall posters is just an indication that abstract painting never really took hold in the middle class. All art forms, if they are to survive, need the approval and support of the middle or upper-middle classes, what I call the "educated class" of college graduates (not to say they are all so sophisticated, but at least they are interested). Without them to attend symphonies, museums, buy books and posters and calendars, or even original paintings, you really have nothing--it just disappears.

Posted by: btm on July 31, 2006 5:35 PM

Is the top price for a Pino $35,000? I went on a cruise to Alaska a few weeks ago and they were trying to sell a Pino for $94,000. (no-one bought it) I'm just curious about the discrepancy.

Posted by: SC on August 1, 2006 2:53 AM

The people who really are the current poets, such as Bono of U2, Bruce Springsteen, Sarah McLachlan, Sting, Eminem (if you believe his fans, which I'm not), Rickie Lee Jones, aren't paid attention to. People who are writing open verse with 23 1/2 literary allusions and in-jokes per stanza (see T.S. Eliot) are the ones academia likes...

Yahmdallah --

Yes, this is precisely what I mean by "New Yorker poetry", a big part of why I loathe that mag. Bashing Eliot doesn't seem particularly appropriate, though (although he may have helped to start this ball rolling), since he wrote truly great works without such pretentious faux-opacity ("Prufrock", "Gerontition", "The Hippopotamus") and even his very dense poems have both true wisdom and close attention to sound. He isn't writing for hoi polloi, but neither is he frantically filling a supposedly highbrow quota either like so much journal poetry today. I'll take Auden over Eliot any day of the week, though.

As for the songwriters: please forgive me for saying so, but, although everyone you mention has merit (and I'm also iffy on Eminem -- "Lose Yourself" is unquestionably a masterpiece, but his celebrity-needling and slur-slinging gets old very quickly), it strikes me as kind of a Top 40 training wheels sort of list. Aside from Sting at his best, as lyricists these guys don't really compare with Aimee Mann, Dar Williams, Paul Heaton (Housemartins/Beautiful South), Elvis Costello, Gillian Welch, or a lot of other brilliant poets who despite immense bodies of work have remained on the periphery of the music scene.

Not meaning to sound too snobbish or critical there. I enjoyed your comment.

Posted by: J. Goard on August 1, 2006 5:07 PM

• Who is buying that art.

• Why they are buying that art. (And, perhaps, not buying other kinds of art.)

• The subject-matter of the art.

• The techniques used to create the art.

• The "meaning" of the art (if any).

• And so forth.

Is this art really worthy of our attention? How might it be evaluated in 100 years? Do you like/hate/whatever any of it?


Ah, once more into the fray!

Let's cut to the chase. "Shopping Mall Art" pretty much defines itself as such. Its practicing artists have decided, for whatever personal, professional, financial and/or aesthetic reasons to primarily market reproductions to a (relatively speaking) mass market. Mall Art has its cliques and clichés, its stars and also-rans, its market winners and losers. So do many other subsets of (in some manner, way, shape, or form) art and artists. Fine Art (Painting Division) has its cliques and clichés, its stars and also-rans, its market winners and losers; certain trends and tastes are cyclic, others are inexplicable.

For reasons that can be blamed on public education, elitist art snobs, class rivalry, or yo' Momma many average citizens feel a deep-seated ambivalence at best about art as ART and therefore do not frequent art galleries. Nevertheless, responding to visual needs and desires, they stumble across an art object (e.g. a print) they respond to and so they buy it.

The Post-modernist, conceptually oriented, USSR trained, eighties art star team of Komar & Melamid have made a career out of examining the questions about what subject matter and techniques are most and least desired by country. Checking out their project is illuminating and amusing.


The bulk of Mall Artists will be, at best, very minor footnotes and/or esoteric specialty interests in a century, crowded out by the thousands of representational painters who are recognized, accepted, discussed, critiqued and collected within the "Official" Art World's Painting Division. [For examples check out a few established NYC gallery web sites such as Sherry French [] or O.K. Harris. []]

Maybe your budget and tastes lead you toward Francis Bacon or Odd Nerdrum, Jamie Wyeth or Gregory Gillespie. These names are the tiniest tip of a pretty hefty 'berg of choices that will resonate when you mention your most recent acquisition in rarified OAW company ... but not always resonate in a way you'll appreciate. In fact, if you've ever been in OAW company and there hasn't been an aesthetic difference of opinion, you must have been alone in a Chelsea elevator.

So ... what's the problem?

Posted by: Chris White on August 1, 2006 5:32 PM

I think mall art is as valid as "modern" art. I don't see how it is inferior. To me, its just as good. I think Kinkade is just as good as Fracis Bacon, and that guy who did the really bad wave crashing onto the shore is just as good as Andy Warhol. I mean, if its not about the technique, or even the idea, its just as good as anything else, right? Prove me wrong.

Posted by: btm on August 1, 2006 11:35 PM

I like Derek's "eco-kitsch" label. I kind of like eco-kitsch myself.

Predicting the future -- love playing that game! I'm gonna venture two bets.

* I'm betting that in a hundred years no one's going to remember any of our contempo static and non-electronic visual art. Paint on canvas? Installations? Who cares? I think what's going to be recognized and in the history books will be websites, animations, movies, ads, fashion, rock videos ... But that's assuming anyone 100 years from now will be looking back at our art-era at all. Which leads to ...

* Prediction #2, which is that people 100 years from now won't in fact be looking back and ranking art in the same that some of us do this now. I bet that the whole study-of-art/art-market/ art-history thang will be kaput, or 99% kaput anyway. People will have (assuming Peak Oil doesn't crash everything) incredibly groovy computers and connections, and everyone will be file-swapping and YouTube-ing, and emailing videos, and mixing and matching little electronic experiences, and viewing them on tiny devices and wall-sized high-def ... They'll be too busy having a media ball in the Now to bother with the past, except maybe as something to raid occasionally for campy inspiration.

But paint on canvas? What did people ever see in that?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 2, 2006 1:00 AM

I think that 100 years from now what will be remembered artistically from 20th century America is pop music from about 1930-1970. Plus a few movies.

But people will still venerate the best paintings on canvas from the European tradition, they have what Walter Benjamin called an "aura".

Posted by: MQ on August 2, 2006 4:13 AM


You forget that fine paintings are not just entertainment, they are also valuable objects. The same goes for fine jewelry, furniture, and other stuff.

So yes, people will still be talking about it, but maybe just in universites.

BTW, the future you are describing is a nightmare--something focused on hedonistic entertainment, with no link to the immediate or distant past. I think I read somewhere a quote by Marshall Macluhan (correct?) media guru. Someone asked why he didn't either watch or have a TV in his house. He said something to the effect that TV separated people from reality, from the real environment we live in and people we live with. That stuck with me. People are creating for themselves an alternate mental world which may or may not have any basis in reality. Brave New World, here we come. I'm sure the nerds at GNXP will be the ones replicating their own genes as alphas. Another perversion of reality.

Also, hedonists are really more easily controlled and manipulated. You don't think a democracy can survive that, do you? Perhaps we should all e-mail our representatives and ask them. I'm sure that they care about those e-mails a lot.

Posted by: btm on August 2, 2006 9:02 AM

J. Goard, thanks, and I agree with your list, especially Aimee Mann and Elvis Costello. Mann's "Coming Up Close" still blows me away for the way it evokes being unexpectedly left behind.

Michael, I think paintings on canvas will survive for the same reason paper books will, they are simply superior to their digital rivals. The durability and not to mention the resolution in paintings will always keep them on our walls.

Donald, I hope my snarking about Marxism once again didn't tork you off too much, that's not my intent. If my blog had the traffic, and more importantly if I cared enough to become (re)versed in Marx enough to argue cogently about it so I could knock it down, I'd take on Marxism as a phenomenally flawed "philosophy" that should no longer get the time of day in academia, or anywhere. Though just on the surface it can be taken down for two obvious reasons: 1) Marx talked about idealized human beings, virtually ignoring actual demonstrated human behavior, and 2) he didn't outline what to do once the proletariat rose up and took over (this one provided by my wife, who does remember her Marx better).

Posted by: Yahmdallah on August 2, 2006 10:12 AM

BTM -- I ain't endorsing my vision of the future! And I agree with you and McLuhan about the mind-and-depth-sapping qualities of much electronic play. I just think the scenario I suggest is as likely to play out as any other.

Yahmdallah -- You're probably right. The reason I think painting-on-canvas will recede in importance (not that this pleases me) is kinda like the reason I think books-on-paper will recede in importance. We'll be breeding generations of people who don't have roots in either medium, who don't feel attached to either one, and who will grow up loving the twitchiness, brightness and possibilities for interactivity that electronics offer. I think it's likely they'll look at a trad painting and wonder what the point is. It doesn't glow, it doesn't move, and they can't click on any buttons. Same with books. A nice container for words and pix, but a poor substitute for an hour with a computer. Let's hope it doesn't play out that way!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 2, 2006 11:13 AM

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