They were like Precious Moments paintings that had been to hell and back.
In the 1960s and ’70s, everyone knew what a Keane painting was and either hated it or loved it. Everywhere you went you’d see big-eyed waifs for sale in supermarkets and drug stores.
They were paintings the world understood to be the work of Walter Keane, a charismatic huckster who set a precedent for marketing art. By mass-producing it to sell in supermarkets and gas stations, and giving originals to famous people and dignitaries for free, Keane put himself and his quiet wife, Margaret, on a crazy trajectory to fame and fortune.
He earned an appearance on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” and became a punchline to a scene in Woody Allen’s “Sleeper.” Natalie Wood and other celebrities bragged that they’d owned a Keane. The influential art critic at the New York Times, John Canaday, reviled them, but Andy Warhol famously said about Keane’s work, “It has to be good. If it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.”
Whether you agree with that or not, Walter Keane was one of the top-selling artists of the time. The only problem was that he didn’t paint any of the pictures. It turned out the real artist was Margaret, who drew from her personal sadness to paint the scrawny, pale, dopey-eyed children in secret at her studio in their home.
She eventually broke out of the marriage and fled to Honolulu, where she lived for nearly 30 years happily and religiously, quietly painting those kids with humongous, gaping eyes. In 1986, she sued Walter in a Honolulu court and, after legendary Judge Sam King had them settle the he-said-she-said debate with a paint-off, (movie spoiler ahead) Margaret emerged victorious and was finally awarded credit to her work.
Margaret’s story is the subject of Tim Burton’s newest film, “Big Eyes,” which was released Christmas Day. If you pay attention to this sort of thing, you might remember when crews filmed portions of the movie on location at the Royal Hawaiian hotel and the federal courthouse in 2013.
The film’s main message is about Margaret’s independence, but another subtext stood out to me (in regards to Honolulu, anyway): the question of questionable art.
Here, critical art is practically buried under a thick crust made of half-baked beach scenes and wave paintings. It’s no wonder. More people want to strike gold, rather than strike a cord. If an artwork or series or trend happens to work for people on a massive scale, critics be damned — that thing is probably going to make whoever painted it a hell of a lot of money.
It worked for Thomas Kinkade, the self-proclaimed “painter of light,” whose estate was worth $60 million when he died in 2008. Same goes for the personal photographer to Mother Nature herself, Peter Lik (who has two galleries in Hawaii and broke a record in December when somebody inexplicably spent $6.5 million for his photograph of dust).
And before them — for about 30 years or so — Hawaii provided Margaret Keane a place to continue making these paintings that, had she never met Walter, probably wouldn’t have become so phenomenal. Although Walter spent years blatantly taking credit for her work, Margaret later admitted that, at least, she owes him for the exposure.
If you look at the most financially successful and famous Hawaii artists today, you’ll see surf-art-and-iPhone-6-case-
It’s “find what works and keep doing that” art, instead of “how can we totally fuck up the system with our art?” art.
Unfortunately in Hawaii, it’s not the cream — but the weak sauce — that rises to the top.
That’s why you must know about SPF Projects before it closes next month. During its short life, the Kakaako gallery run by Drew Broderick brought a huge gulp of fresh, experimental air to the city when it opened in the summer of 2013. Show after show, Broderick’s juxtapositional curation mixed interesting international artists with interesting local artists to challenge everything: the artist, the art itself, the viewer.
In one show, for example, Broderick basically pitted Eric Yanagi’s traditional, black and white Waikiki street photography against the flamboyancy of Robert Reed’s nutty, air-inflated glitter party of blow up dolls and show tunes. For another show, Bradley Capello turned SPF into a gym that had apparently just survived an epic gay orgy.
“Every project has an end date,” Broderick once told me at the gallery’s opening. And during its time, SPF Projects helped redeem Honolulu from its average self. Its current show, featuring conceptual work by Marc Thomas, called “Work Space,” is SPF’s last (that show wraps on Jan. 18).
Go see the show. Support challenging art. Demand more of it, too. Give Drew a hug.
As for Keane, she’s 86 and still happily cranking out those big eyes in California.