Nashville Scene: Rocker John Mellencamp's Paintings Capture The Same People And Places As His Songs
04.26.2012 - Rocker John Mellencamp's paintings capture the same people and places as his
Every Picture Tells a Story
by Joe Nolan -
Nothing Like I Planned: The Art of John Mellencamp
Through June 10 at the Tennessee State Museum
What do Joni Mitchell, Tony Bennett, Paul McCartney, John Lennon and John
Mellencamp have in common?
OK, besides music?
They're all painters. Many performing and recording artists take up visual
art, but typically, the popularity of the resulting work is usually a reflection
of the fame of its creator. Lennon's doodles are delightful, but they've become
iconic because, well, he's John Lennon. For most of these performers, art seems
to offer a hobbyist's respite from their celebrity day jobs.
But the painted portraits and narrative canvases of John Mellencamp —
currently on display in the exhibit Nothing Like I Planned at the Tennessee
State Museum, are different. Besides being quite accomplished, they seem
intimately connected to the snapshot imagery of his story-song lyrics.
Painted in 1990, Mellencamp's "Young Self" is a portrait of an artist in
transition. The release of 1991's Whenever We Wanted found the singer dropping
his "Cougar" pseudonym once and for all, and the painting shows Mellencamp
wearing a cocky grin, looking like he did in his video for the song "Get a Leg
Up." The video — and the Whenever album cover — both feature Mellencamp's
paintings. The song even offers a self-portrait of sort, with Mellencamp singing
"You know, I ain't that handsome / But you know I ain't shy..."
The "Leg" video co-stars Elaine Irwin, a supermodel who became Mellencamp's
third wife in 1992. Announcements of the couple's divorce in 2010 reported a
friendly split, but the painting "Temptation" pictures Mellencamp struggling to
resist a topless Irwin's seductive advances. She covers her breasts with her
hands as a cartoon snake frowns at her feet.
"Hud," a portrait of Mellencamp and Irwin's son, is the show's best piece.
While a number of the works in the exhibit are comparatively slapdash, this one
has been lovingly labored over. In the painting, a blond boy wears a black
cloak; his apple-red cheeks blossom against a background of intense electric
blue. The colors here are great, and Hud's troubled expression spotlights
Mellencamp's ability to capture real psychological depth when he finds his
In "Redemption," Mellencamp is kneeling as another figure stands above him —
abstract markings suggest the figure's extended hand resting on the artist's
head in a gesture of blessing. The figure has bloody fangs and wears a crown.
One of the most esoteric pieces in the show, the painting recalls the work of
In fact, Basquiat's influence can be seen throughout much of Nothing Like I
Planned. The crown was one of his signature motifs, and Mellencamp's show
features several crowned figures, including Stephen King. (The horror writer is
collaborating with Mellencamp and his producer, T Bone Burnett, on the
Americana-ghost-story-musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County.) Ironically,
shockmeister King is one of the only portrait subjects to flash a smile. The
skeletal figures that populate a number of the paintings are also similar to the
bone-bared subjects in Basquiat's work, and Mellencamp's expressionistic
mark-making and poetic fragments of text similarly recall the late artist's
Perhaps Basquiat's influence isn't so surprising. Mellencamp's music has
always pulled from R&B, and in 1985's "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A," the singer
name-checked Martha Reeves, James Brown and Jackie Wilson at the same time that
Basquiat was calling out Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis and Charlie Parker in his work.
The most telling signs of Mellencamp's debt to the artist are a few paintings
that hang on rough, primitive stretchers created with lashed-together lengths of
lumber. Basquiat made some of his most memorable paintings utilizing similar
homemade stretchers, just after Mellencamp's 1982 album American Fool brought
him mainstream success with the opening trifecta of "Hurts So Good," "Jack &
Diane" and "Hand to Hold on To."
The show's most memorable narratives take on the same populist themes
associated with Mellencamp's brand of heartland rock. "Strange Fruit" offers up
a bucolic scene of a white farming couple flanked by the bodies of two lynching
victims rotting at the ends of their hanging ropes. The piece takes its name
from the 1939 Billie Holiday classic about racially motivated lynchings. The
painting reaffirms Mellencamp's respect for African-American culture while also
highlighting his empathy for the hardships of rural life.
And the couple in the scene might be an alternate version of Jack and Diane.
I can still picture them sitting there outside of that Tastee Freez. It's like
looking at a painting.