A true rock-and-roll icon, John Mellencamp is best known for his nostalgic ballads that capture the working class struggles of those who live in America’s heartland. A lesser known fact is that the musician is also an accomplished painter.
Treading new ground, John Mellencamp paintings evoke hints of Neo- and German Expressionism, combining portraits of everyday Americans with a cast of universally recognized symbols such as hearts, guitars, targets, and crowns. The critic Doug McClemont noted:
Mellencamp paints handsomely grotesque portraits in oil that are as solemn and stirring as his hit songs are catchy and inspirational -- depicting existential scenes and human beings ridden with the angst of the everyday.
His latest body of work will soon be on view at ACA Galleries in New York, an institution that has been supporting artists in diverse disciplines with singular points of view for over 80 years. Titled John Mellencamp: Life, Death, Love, Freedom, the exhibition will bring together two bodies of work: Mellencamp’s sculptural assemblages and series of portraits. This will be his second solo exhibition with the gallery.
John Mellencamp is one of the true Renaissance men of popular music. The creative spirit often finds multiple expressions and such is the case with Mellencamp. Known primarily as a legendary musician and long-time social justice activist, he has seriously pursued painting for more than 35 years.
This interest in painting dates back to before he struck his first record deal. Raised in Indiana, Mellencamp was influenced by his mother who painted in the family home throughout his childhood. He fell in love with both art and music at an early age. "I started messing around with oil paints when I was about ten but, you know, without instruction", he remembers.
In the mid-1970s, he came to New York with the intention of studying painting and pursuing music-career aspirations. However, his first formal training was at the Art Students League in 1988, studying with the portrait painter David Leffel who taught him the technique of painting dark to light in the manner of old masters. After discovering the work of early-20th-century modernists such as Chaim Soutine, Walt Kuhn and particularly the German Expressionists Otto Dix and Max Beckmann, he started turning towards portraiture and developing a singular vision he is today acclaimed for.
German painting remains the basic foundation for what I do same as folk music is the foundation of my songs. Discovering Beckmann to me was like discovering Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan.
Mellencamp’s kinship with the Expressionist artists, whose work spoke to his deep feelings about social justice, served as the foundation for the development of his own oeuvre. However, his work is decidedly American, infusing his painting with brash and snappy visual rhythms of streets, people and their lives, politics, angers and passions.
Therefore, his imagery takes the same sources as his music – the oppressive authority and social struggles of the working class. He carefully composes his canvases through the structural requirements of harmony, rhythm and order.
His handsomely grotesque portraits depict existential scenes and human beings ridden with the angst of the everyday. Emotional and progressive, his pieces range from the brazenly political to the intimately personal. His canvases are inhabited by an array of subjects including sad clowns, ex-girlfriends, creative heroes, imagines outliers, cultural icons and Hillbilly singers, always depicted with deadpan, proud stares.
The exhibition John Mellencamp: Life, Death, Love Freedom will bring together sculptural assemblages and series of portraits created over the past two years. An exhibition highlight is A Bed of Nails from 2017, a dimly-rendered portrait of actor James Dean. The canvas is embedded with a grid of nails with a line of wire surrounding the nails to frame the subject’s face. Born in Indiana just like Mellencamp, Dean is credited with influencing the development of rock and roll and remains an iconic counter-cultural figure.
Another highlight is Jack of Hearts from 2017, a large-scale assemblage depicting the Marlboro Man. A common figure in the late 20th-century advertising campaigns, the Marlboro Man was synonymous with America's image of itself - tough, self-sufficient, hard-working. Often rendered as a rugged but handsome cowboy smoking cigarettes, he became an iconic representation of masculinity, but also remained an important trope within art history.
Above the brim of the figure’s cowboy hat, which is suggested by a thick shadow, Mellencamp has placed four packs of American Spirit cases, as well as the LIFE Magazine logo. In the bottom corner of the painting, the artist has painted a jack of hearts from a deck of playing cards.
Living and working in Bloomington, Indiana, John Mellencamp has exhibited his work in major galleries and museums across the United States, including The Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio, the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville, The Museum of Art – Deland in Florida, and the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Georgia.
The exhibition John Mellencamp: Life, Death, Love, Freedom will be on view at ACA Galleries in New York from April 26th until June 2nd, 2018.
With Mellencamp's exhibition, ACA Galleries continue to break new ground, upholding the mission of supporting artists from around the world in their commitment to make significant and brace contributions to the field.
Editors’ Tip: Mellencamp: Paintings and Reflections by John Mellencamp
Mellencamp began pursuing oil painting in 1988 as a means of further artistic exploration. His first subjects were friends, family, and landscapes reminiscent of the French impressionists, which have since evolved into a personal style of portraiture. He believes in art as a means of self-exploration and as an incentive to make people more curious about the world. He has exhibited extensively in the Midwest and the South, and most of his paintings have been purchased for private collections. With seventy-five full-color representations of the artist's favorite paintings, twenty-five black-and-white photographs taken from his personal collection, and an introduction by Billboard magazine's editor-in-chief, Timothy White, this is the perfect gift for any fan or anyone who appreciates fine art.
Featured images: John Mellencamp - A Drawer Full of Bullets, 2017; Left: A Bed of Nails, 2017 / Right: Jack of Hearts, 2017; Sweet Bird of Youth, 2017; Salome, 2017; Monstrosity, 2017; I'm Trouble and I Don't No Why, 2017. All images courtesy of ACA Galleries.