On an overcast afternoon in the tony New Jersey enclave of Short Hills, dozens of patrons have packed into the Wentworth Gallery to celebrate an art opening. Glasses of chilled chardonnay are served in the white-walled space as a battalion of gallery assistants respond to customer queries about abstract works in shades of blush and marigold. But make no mistake: this is not your average academic art exhibit. A quick scan of the attendees reveals lots of big hair, tight jeans and hints of rocker-girl décolletage. The sound system throbs with the refrain "Lick it up, lick it up." And perched behind a velvet stanchion, in an unbuttoned silk shirt that reveals just the right amount of furry, well-carved chest, is the artist: Kiss guitarist and front man Paul Stanley. (See pictures of the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame's 2009 nominees.)
Over the past half-dozen years, the platform-booted mastermind of lyrics like "You pull the trigger of my love gun" has been cultivating a financially rewarding following as a painter and sculptor. It may seem an unlikely pursuit for a musician responsible for an entire industry's worth of action figures and lunch boxes. But the Kiss Army has grown up, has children and is now ready to buy art. And Stanley, 57, indulges them with brightly hued paintings that lean toward the abstract. (Think circles, squares and geometric patterns, reminiscent of an electric Madras plaid.) He does figurative work as well, namely the individual portraits he creates of his bandmates in full Kabuki regalia against a backdrop of sherbety colors. Jim Waitts, of Montville, N.J., is a three-decade-long Kiss fan who started collecting Stanley's work in 2007 and now owns more than a dozen paintings. "It strikes a chord in me," he says of the art. "It's the use of colors that appeal to me, the overall effect that it achieves."
The pieces don't come cheap. Stanley's multiple-edition giclées (i.e., prints on canvas) start in the vicinity of $1,600, while original acrylic paintings such as his self-portrait in makeup with a studded leather collar can go for as much as $50,000. Last year alone, he did an enviable $3 million in sales. (Take that, Yale MFAs.) But it's a somewhat ironic turn, given that Stanley failed his art classes when he was at the High School of Music and Art in New York City in the 1960s. "I'm a very hard worker," he says softly, surveying a long line of excited, Kiss-gear-clad fans and buyers. "But it has to be on my own terms." (See the 100 best albums of all time.)
Though his work is overlooked by critics, Stanley's terms suit the Kiss Army just fine: on Feb. 28, dozens of them turned up at Wentworth, inside the swank Mall at Short Hills, to buy art, meet Stanley and stick out their tongues as much as possible. As well-coiffed ladies scrutinized $2,000 totes at the austere Fendi boutique across the way, Stanley mingled with fans and clients, signing autographs, chatting amiably about color palette and pulling swooning women to his fuzzy chest for photo ops. "I met him once at a box-set signing, but this is so much better because you really get to talk to him," says Carolyn Klotz, a die-hard fan who drove more than two hours from upstate New York to attend the opening. She and her partner Pete White, who have followed the band since the '70s, will be hanging their newly framed giclée Stanley's self-portrait, titled Love Gun in "the Kiss wing," the special room in their Putnam County home devoted to three decades' worth of band memorabilia. (Read an interview with Kiss bassist Gene Simmons.)
For the gallery, which also sells pieces by a highly unlikely mix of artists ranging from Pablo Picasso to Rosie O'Donnell, Stanley's presence was a boon. By the time the show closed on Saturday evening, roughly three dozen works of art had sold, including a $10,000 bronze sculpture to a longtime Wentworth client who had never before acquired a piece by the artist formerly known as Starchild. Despite prevailing concerns about the flaccid economy, it had been a very good day. Stanley, however, says the rewards are more than monetary. "I like the idea that the snobbism is taken out of it here," he observes, as shaggy-haired guys in rhinestone-encrusted Kiss shirts sip wine and gaze at paintings. "I'm exposing people to art who have never been in a gallery." And they were doing something you don't often see people do at a highbrow art exhibit: they were having an incredible time.