Rolling Stone: John Mellencamp: 'I Write About the Human Condition, I Paint About the Human Condition'
05.19.2012 - By Adam Gold -
John Mellencamp may have made his name cutting heartland hits like "Jack and
Diane" and "Pink Houses," but he also turns to painting to express himself.
"It's my hobby," Mellencamp tells Rolling Stone on Thursday at a gallery
reception in Nashville, where Nothing Like I Planned: The Art of John Mellencamp
— a 49-painting, four-decade-spanning exhibition of his brushwork — runs through
June 10th at the Tennessee State Museum.
The themes of populism, social injustice, small-town struggle and fractured
relationships that reappear in the singer-songwriter's sprawling discography
are, not surprisingly, also spread across his canvases. "I write about the human
condition, I paint about the human condition," he says. Many of Mellencamp's
somewhat surrealist works are autobiographical, depicting his children, past
wives and past selves. Some are pensive character portraits depicting defeated
party-goers, marginalized farmers and depressed musicians, while other pieces
are harsher, more visually chaotic commentaries on racism, Hurricane Katrina,
the fatal plight of smokers, censorship and religion. The work is dark and
difficult – far removed from the Indiana dive bars where young, wide-eyed Jacks
and Dianes still dance the night away.
The title of the exhibit, Mellencamp explains, was meant to reflect the creative
process of his painting. "I'm always surprised," he says. "I always have a vague
notion of what I think it's gonna be, and so many times it doesn't turn out
anything like I thought it would." Lyrical imagery in songs doesn't develop so
easily for him: "You can't just throw any ol' words on there and think it's
gonna work," he explains.
Painting has also become a way for Mellencamp to avoid stereotype; as he sang in
his 1989 hit "Pop Singer," chart success comes with artistic pitfalls. "Pop
music has always been necessary," he says, "but I ran into problems; I had too
many hit records. You can have too many hit records. It's not a very nice path
to go down. You have a hit, you have a hit, you have a hit and then it's like,
all of the sudden, that's all people think that you're good for." His artwork
has proven more modest. "[I] write a song and then, generally, I've gotta take
it to the next step of puttin' a band with it, recording it — there's a lot of
people involved in that process," he notes. "In this process, it's just me."
As Mellencamp's handlers, family members, friends and current flame Meg Ryan
mill about the gallery, the famously mercurial musician declines to address the
crowd and makes a hasty exit. As he jokes before departing, "Everyone seems to
like me better when I'm painting. I don't know why."