ArtInfo: "Showing is Proving and Proving is Nothing But Fear": A Q&A With Rocker and Painter John Mellencamp
05.18.2012 - By Chloe Wymal
Musician and working class hero John Mellencamp is the quintessence of
homespun, blue-collar Heartland Rock. It might come as a surprise that
Mellencamp ó who ditched the ďCougarĒ moniker in 1990 ó is also a painter, and a
prolific one at that. The Tennessee State Museum's current survey, titled
"Nothing Like I Planned: The Art of John Mellencamp" showcases a selection of 48
paintings spanning four decades of output. Taking cues from sources as varied as
Chaim Soutine, Otto Dix, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, Mellencampís paintings range
from tempered portraiture to violent gestural compositions incorporating text
and graffiti. Mellencamp says his art and music are interrelated. Sure enough,
elements of Rust Belt populism appear in his paintings. See, for instance, ďMLKĒ
(2005) where croweded, black figure vies for dominance in a crowded picture
plane crowded with crosses and graffiti scrawl reading, ďMartin Luther King had
a dream and this ainít it.Ē Other works are introspective self-portraits and
pictures of friends.
Before he became the rock star behind jukebox staples like ďJack and DianeĒ
and ďPink Houses,Ē the Indiana native came New York to pursue creative
endeavors. Unable to afford tuition, he was forced to put his art aspirations
put on hold. In 1988, he returned to the Art Studentís League with multiple
charting albums and some preliminary instruction from painter Joan Royce under
his belt. He took classes and private lessons with portrait painter David Leffel,
who taught him Rembrandtís painting techniques.
Mellencamp and I were supposed to talk about his art show, but we ended up
covering a lot more than that. The straight-talking and gravelly-voiced artist
led me on a meandering conversational path, littered with F-bombs and
extemporaneous nuggets of wisdom. I spoke with Mellencamp about art, life, and
the crucial importance of Marlon Brando.
You studied painting at the Art Students League in New York ó
Hereís the way this goes. I went to New York in 1974, to either try to get a
record deal, get into the New York Art Student League, or be a dancer. [Laughs]
So that was my plan. Some plan. And I had no money.
What kind of dancer?
A Broadway dancer. And I had no plan. So the first place I went was the art
student league and, well, that plan was dashed because I didnít have any money.
Then I found out that all I had to do was submit a tape of me singing, I could
afford that. And then I got nowhere in the dancing field. But I have to admit, I
Just as folk music is the foundation of your songs, German
Expressionism is the foundation for your painting. Youíve said, ďdiscovering Max
Beckmann was like discovering Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan.Ē Is there an affinity
between these styles? What draws you to them?
I would say so; because the thing about Beckmannís paintings was that he was
painting a Germany that Hilter didnít want to see. Woody Guthrie was singing
songs that America didnít want to hear. Woody Guthrie wrote, ďThis Land is Your
LandĒ in response to ďGod Bless America.Ē
You didnít know that. Donít go, ďyeah.Ē
I did know that. [Laughs]
You did not. No! [Laughs]
Do you like Guthrieís drawings?
Yeah, theyíre like his songs. Itís like he drew them with a piece of barbed
wire. I like his drawings because they are honest depictions of who Woody
Guthrie was. And thatís an important thing.
Your paintings are sometimes political. Can you tell me a little bit
about your Martin Luther King portrait?
Well, thatís not so much a portrait as a feeling, isnít it? Thereís no
attempt to make it look like King, but the message eclipses the physical
likeness. A painting has to be beautiful. Even in its grotesqueness. That
painting is grotesque but I think itís still beautiful. There are a lot of songs
that are that way. That are like, ďoh fuck, I donít really want to hear this."
But Iíve got to. Itís beautiful for that reason. I think that that painting
falls into that category.
It resembles a Basquiat in some ways. Was he reference for you as an
Yes, but even more than that. I travel all the time, and I see all this
street art. And, you know, I use a lot of stuff from street art. I mean, sure,
you have to pay attention to him because he was the greatest street artist of
that time. So you have into include him in the mix. But I wouldnít include him
in the mix with Beckman or anybody of that nature. Otto Dix or somebody like
that. You know Basquiat; his paintings all fall into that category, grotesque
When did you discover street art?
I was in New York in the '70's. Before you were born! You would not believe
what that fucking place looked like, particularly if you saw a subway train. It
was a joke. You couldnít even see the train! I mean the train was entirely
covered with graffiti. You have no idea what New York looked like in the
seventies. Time Square was dangerous. It was a dangerous place to be. But, I
have to say; I liked New York better in the '70's. But I was a kid in the '70's.
Times Square is like a big outdoor mall now.
Yeah, well thatís probably what it should be for todayís society. But you
went down there and it was one pornography place after another, graffiti
everywhere, nothing worked.
Where did you used to hang out in New York?
I donít hang out. Iíve never hung out. Hanging out is a waste of time. The
only time I would hang out was when I was a kid, I would hang out in the
streets. But once I started making records, I stopped hanging out. If Iím
painting, I paint every day. Iíll be up in the studio from 8:00 in the morning
to 8:00 at night.
Are you currently painting?
Yes. I havenít painted today, though. Iím trying to get my kid on the
football team at Duke, so Iím kind of busy with that.
Recently, youíve moved away from your crowded, text-heavy pictures. Paintings
like ďSavannahĒ and ďMMEAEHĒ seem to revisit to the austerity of your early
portraiture. Why the change?
I just got tired of painting that way. Those paintings were cumbersome and
there was a lot of math involved in those paintings.
What kind of math?
Thereís math in everything. Iíll explain it to you like this, if I came into
your apartment, Iím sure I would redecorate it. Because Iím sure you donít have
the math right. Letís take your living room and take all the furniture and shove
it towards the street. Letís just show all of it. Wow, we got a lot of room
We got a lot of room, but itís not very fucking attractive is it? Looks like
hell. Letís start over, letís place this here. This area takes up this much of
the cubic space. So itís all a math problem. So ifthis chair is this big and you
set it here, then it occupies this much area. Then something has to offset that
chair space over in this area to occupy that space. And a canvas is exactly the
same; lyrics in a song are the same. You canít put 9,000 words in four measures.
You canít put 9,000 drumbeats in four measures. You canít put 9,000 base licks
in four measures. You canít put 9,000 pieces of furniture in your living room
because it gets all crowded and the math gets all fucked up. Everything is math.
Were you involved in hanging the show?
I went down with Renee [curator Renee White] and spent an afternoon. We kinda
set the show up together. Iím like you. Iíve never seen the paintings hung.
You werenít excited to go to your own opening?
No. I have no interest in shaking anybodyís hand, or hanging on anybodyís
cross. Iím not trying to make a point. Iím not trying to draw any lines in the
sand. All Iím doing is painting. Itís my hobby. And thatís that.
It seems like youíre not very interested in self-promotion. How did this show
Iím friends with Bob Dylan and Bob was at my house, and he said, ďWhat are
you going to do with all this shit?Ē and I said, ďI donít know.Ē He said, ďWell
why donít you sell it?Ē I said, ďTo who? Who am I going to sell it to?Ē And he
said, ďWell, why donít you at least show it?Ē and I said, ďWell, ok.Ē Bobís also
a painter, and he said, "Well I know a guy who knows this guy." And so we called
this guy and this guy came out and looked at my stuff and said, well, "maybe we
can do this." And I said, "Yeah, I know that, being a musician, people are going
to go, ďoh fuck.Ē I get that. I could probably paint the fucking Mona Lisa ó any
musician could probably paint the Mona Lisa ó but it wouldnít be viewed as the
Mona Lisa. Itís like, ďAh! This guyís a fucking singer.Ē And I understand that.
There are a lot of actors who try to get records made and try to make record
deals, and everybody goes, ďUgh.Ē It used to be expected in the entertainment
business. I mean look at Sinatra, Bing Crosby. All these guys stared out as
But they were always pretty much playing themselves.
Yeah, but we liked him. When did Jimmy Stewart not play Jimmy Stewart? When
did John Wayne not play John Wayne? But thatís what we like about them. When you
talk about acting, you really have to respond to somebodyís personality. If you
like the personality and the image that theyíre projecting, that doesnít mean
that thatís how they really are. Look at Henry Fonda, for example, everybody
loved Henry Fonda but, if you talked to his kids, they didnít love him! They
didnít love him so much. Itís whatever they project, you know. Marlon Brando is
the same thing. Fucking Brando, everybody loved Brando. But I donít think his
kids loved him very much. You need to know the twisting and turning of the
greatest actor that weíll ever see in our lifetimes. There are a couple of
really good books on Brando. If you donít want to read a book, there are a
couple of really good videos that have been made about him. Have you ever seen
Ok, well, hereís my advice to you: Tonight. Or this weekend, if you donít
have anything to do, go rent ďA Streetcar Named DesireĒ and watch it. And youíll
go, ďOh My God, Iíve just seen the greatest actor in the greatest play of my
life.Ē And that shouldnít be hard to do at 22.
I liked him in ďLast Tango.Ē
Me too. But is ďLast TangoĒ his best work? No. Itís an odd, quirky movie.
But, watch ďStreetcarĒ or watch ďThe Fugitive Kind,Ē and youíll go ďOh Fuck.Ē
Thatís as good as it gets.
Do you collect art?
Yes I do.
What artists do you collect?
Do you want people breaking into my house? [laughs].
What styles or genres are you attracted to?
Some of the people that youíve named.
Whatís youíre favorite place to see art?
Any place. Iíve seen beautiful art on the sides of buildings. Iíve seen
beautiful art in museums. Iíve been beautiful art in galleries. Beautiful art is
everywhere. Fucking look out the window, man! If you canít see something to
paint or to write about just looking out your window, they maybe you better
consider a different vocation. There is so much to write about, there is so much
the paint. The job is never done. Itís never going to be done. Thereís already
enough songs in the world. We donít need any more songs; we donít need any more
paintings. Thereís so much right now we canít even look at it and comprehend
whatís there. We donít really need it ó but itís nice to have it.
Youíve made hundred and hundreds of paintings. Do you have any
Not really. There were some paintings in the '80's and I have given away or
sold. I wish I hadnít have done that. At the time, they were just taking up
space and I was like, ďget this shit out of here.Ē So I would just give it to
people or just sell it for practically nothing, just to get it out of my studio.
At one point there were 500 paintings stacked up in there. And then I paint over
stuff all the time, which drives my girlfriend crazy.
Your girlfriend asked you if you were proud about having an art show.
And you said, ďNo, not really.Ē
Well, itís nice if people like it [my art]. Iím successful as a painter
because Iíve done it. Itís the act of doing. Thatís the success. If youíre going
something just to be famous, youíre going to be very disappointed. And in this
culture today, people will do anything to be famous. They will get on TV and
show their ass, you know. I am against that. I am at complete odds with that.
Quite honestly, they had to break my arm to do this interview. I donít like to
really talk about myself. Iím 60 years old. Iíve been making records since I was
21 years old. After a while, itís like, I donít want to talk about myself. John
Mellencamp is just not that important.
You donít have anything to prove.
Showing is proving and proving is nothing but fear.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with me.
Youíre so welcome. And whatís the one important thing that we talked about?
You got it!
"Nothing Like I Planned: The Art of John Mellencamp" runs through June 10 at
the Tennessee State Museum