Photo by Garik Gyurjyan
“I feel like I’m picking up the people that have fallen off the creative cycle, with the more intangibles of artmaking, and painting in particular — jumping into that fear of failure.” John Kilduff is getting prepared to shoot back-to-back episodes of his cable-access show Let’s Paint TV in Adelphia’s tiny, less than state-of-the-art studio in an industrial neighborhood in Eagle Rock. There’s not much to setting up — he spreads a dropcloth, dumps out his paints in a big pile, puts up a blank canvasboard and positions the little white cake that will be the subject of today’s painting. Dressed in his trademark crumpled and paint-stained Brooks Brothers suit, Kilduff — a gangly, balding, charismatic 30-something — seems only slightly wired in spite of the fact that his program is unscripted and unrehearsed. But after 150 episodes, it’s not surprising that there’s a bit of matter-of-fact routine even to the most improvisational of TV shows.
Of course, that’s not such a rarity in the world of cable access, home of the insane rant and the sprawling, self-indulgent variety show. When I first saw Let’s Paint TV, I was almost certain that this was a clever parody of the Bob Ross tradition of painting programs, perpetrated by some CalArts performance or video graduate who had never touched a brush in his life. Kilduff’s tone is slippery and a little sarcastic, and he was doing a portrait of some kind of rowdy street freak (probably another cable-access host), using what appeared to be an enormous house-painting brush. Later shows introduced a very peculiar array of models and still-life objects — 99-cent-store toy insects, a clown dressed as Uncle Sam on stilts (who chased the artiste around the studio), a thrift-store ceramic bust of JFK and, for four entire episodes, a potty-mouthed Saddam Hussein brought in to experience the rehabilitative power of painting practice. It all smacked of prankish subversion. The problem was, Kilduff was too good. In spite of the zany antics and rough-hewn, possibly naive expressionism of the images, you could tell this guy had pushed some paint around.
And the more I saw, the less frivolous it seemed. I also experienced the unusual sensation of agreeing with most of what Kilduff had to say about painting. At least I’m pretty sure I agree with it — Kilduff’s stream-of-consciousness play-by-play can become seriously fragmented, studded with malapropisms, mixed metaphors, and shaggy dog stories that trail off into the ether. Yet underlying this lurching banter is a cheerful determination to entertain and inform and get to the other side of the 28 and a half minutes. “Just throw down the paint!” is his mantra. “Block it in. Squint. Use a rag. And try to have fun. We at Let’s Paint TV want to encourage you.” This gives his performance the same kind of improv buoyancy that makes his paintings so authentic.
As it turns out, this confidence comes from having painted most of his life and now finding himself in the unusual position of supporting himself with his artwork. Raised in Oakland, Kilduff took art classes throughout his childhood and migrated south to attend Otis in the mid-’80s. There, in spite of studying with postmodern artists such as Mike Kelley, Roy Dowell and Carol Caroompas, Kilduff perversely insisted on pursuing his interest in the quintessentially early-Modernist practice of plein-air, on-location painting — a practice that, despite its pivotal role in freeing the Impressionist painters from academic strictures, has become an invisible substratum, an embarrassment to the mainstream contemporary art world.
But plein air embodies a category of artmaking (alongside the still lifes and posed models that make up Let’s Paint TV’s repertoire) that isn’t available anywhere else — a complex improvisational relationship among the painter, the subject and the canvas, enacted in real time, unscripted and deeply rooted in the human body. And it has its adherents — thousands and thousands of them, particularly in California, whose landscape-painting tradition continues to support a vital and lucrative parallel art universe with its own galleries, collectors, magazines and art fairs. These fairs have allowed Kilduff to avoid a real job. This year he’ll be peddling his wares (including his elaborate shaped canvases with three-dimensional elements — an approach he’s tired of but that’s a hit with art-fair regulars) at 15 such venues, including this weekend’s 52nd annual Sausalito Art Festival, ranked the No. 1 art fest in the country.
The ins and outs of such lesser-known suburbs of contemporary artmaking are fascinating, as are the idiosyncratic paths followed by artists who actually have their own ideas about how and why they make art. But Kilduff’s claim to fame, such as it is, derives from his inspired combination of his own art practice with the most powerful of contemporary creative media — broadcast television. Painting and TV seem unlikely bedmates, but in fact the very first commercial television broadcast — beamed from the Empire State Building on May 16, 1946 — included a live drawing lesson by the father of televised art instruction, Jon Gnagy. Enormously popular, Gnagy was an important influence on young Andy Warhol, among millions of other budding artists. His show stayed on the air until 1970, inspiring many imitators and establishing an entire field of collateral marketing opportunities with drawing kits and instructional books. William Alexander followed with his trademarked “Wet-on-Wet Technique” (known in previous centuries as alla prima), and in the early ’80s anointed a soft-spoken, frizzy-haired ex–Air Force man named Bob Ross as his heir apparent. Ross’ hypnotic delivery and litany of “happy little trees” have made him one of the most recognizable American art figures of the 21st century — in spite of the fact that he died in 1995.
Right around that time, Kilduff started getting involved in the strange world of public-access cable television, a remarkable and underappreciated forum for free expression mandated by the FCC in the late ’60s. Anyone who can sit through a free training session can have his own TV show, and some of the finest video art of the last quarter-century has resulted. Locally, cable access has produced underground stars like Francine Dancer, Dr. Susan Block and Zuma Dogg. As depicted in the recent documentary Public Access Hollywood (which will screen at the Century City Film Festival in late October), the cable-access community is sort of a non-hierarchical version of Warhol’s Factory, and one of its late-’90s superstars was one Jim Berry, a.k.a. John Kilduff.
After a couple of years spoofing talk shows and the Home Shopping Network, Kilduff realized that if he combined his first calling as a painter with the ramshackle seat-of-your-pants inventiveness of cable access, he’d produce something new — a mutant strain of instructional art television. And he was right. Boisterous, irreverent and surreal, Let’s Paint TV is nevertheless utterly sincere in its espousal of painting as a path of creative liberation. If anything, it jettisons the inverse snobbery of the Bob Ross tradition, assuming a sophisticated audience informed by the inescapable influence of Modernism and the indeterminate sincerity of post–Saturday Night Live television. It turns out Let’s Paint TV is indeed a clever parody of Bob Ross and company, but — like so much parody, from Don Quixote to the novelty music of Spike Jones — this one turns out to be better art than that at which it pokes fun. Poised between the mainstream and plein-air art worlds, the instructional art television tradition and cable-access madness, Kilduff somehow delivers a painting primer as good as any I’ve seen in art school and better than any other I’ve seen on TV. And you get Saddam Hussein.
LET’S PAINT TV | Adelphia Public Access Channel, September 15 & 22, 8:30 p.m | www.letspainttv.com