WhiteHot Magazine: Out Of The Shadows A Discussion With John Mellencamp
06.04.2012 - By Jill Connor -
On May 17th I sat down with John Mellencamp to discuss the current exhibition
of his paintings at the Tennessee State Museum titled Nothing Like I Planned:
The Art of John Mellencamp. The figurative expressionist gestures, dark colors
and text seen throughout his work emerges out of an ongoing concern for the
mutation of America and its Midwest Dust Bowl region that ranges West to East
from the Rocky Mountains to Ohio, and North to South from Minnesota to Texas.
Prior to the Great Depression agrarian communities flourished but were later
replaced by corporate-run crops, produce and livestock that still erode rural
America today, where neighborhoods continue to be divided along racial and class
lines. Mellencampís paintings capture a very visceral response to these
Moreover, painting for John Mellencamp is a ritual of solitude as well as the
only part of his creative life that is completely uninhibited. He disappears for
days at a time in his studio, making himself completely unreachable to the
outside world. He plans to resume painting full-time this Winter. When we met,
Mellencamp revealed that he was born with spina bifida in 1951 and had luckily
survived an arcane surgical procedure that could have left him paralyzed for
life from the neck down.
Jill Conner: I said at lunch that what I really like about your work is the
tactile use of the medium. I feel like it pulls me in. I might not be thinking
what youíre thinking when youíre making it, but at least I feel like your work
draws me in Ė itís a moment where I donít just look at it for 30 seconds and
move on but instead, continue to look at each one for 2, 3, 4 minutes at a time,
which is longer than 30 seconds, I think.
John Mellencamp: Yea it is a minute and a half longer.
JC: So what do you feel are your paintings trying to bring out through your
formal approach? Formal meaning the method that you choose to work with. You
know sometimes you cut canvas and sometimes you paint over it.
JM: I only have one goal: that Iím enjoying what Iím doing. When I stop
enjoying it and it starts being a struggle I say, ďfuck itĒ and forget about it.
Iím done with this for a while. I mean Iíll either put the painting up till the
next day - and youíre right, I donít paint for anybody.
JC: Which is perfect.
JM: I donít need to paint for anybody, you know, as long as I look at it and
think I like it, then thatís good enough for me, because I have never really
intended to sell anything. Iíve only ever just given my paintings away. I think
Iíve sold a few here and there, but not more than a handful. And I always
figured that they were just music fans who wanted to have, you know, a little
something. So the idea of painting to please somebody is so foreign to me. Itís
like ďWhy?Ē I mean, Iíd be the last guy youíd want to hire to do a portrait of
yourself. You donít want to see that. But the story my dad told about Bill is
JC: About Bill?
JM: Yea, Cook Ė he just hated that fucking painting. It was just like over
about a 10-year period that he finally came to me and said, ďYou know itís my
favorite painting.Ē This guy is really rich. He said, ďItís one of my prized
possessions.Ē It was only a little portrait about 8Ēx10Ē and took me 2 hours to
do. But it was Bill. It was the essence of Bill, not the physical disguise of
JC: And he was able to grow and adapt himself to it?
JM: You see, what I was seeing was his personality. Not that I should be a
weight guesser at the fair or anything.
JC: But it is supposed to make people think.
JM: Yea, and I think that thatís the problem with my paintings. I really hate
even showing them to people because first of all I donít want to even talk about
it. Thereís nothing to talk about. There it is, and thatís it. But then I really
hate it when people start talking to me about things they donít know what the
fuck theyíre talking about. Itís like, ďWhat?Ē And my dadís a perfect example of
that: heíd walk into my studio and heíd start talking to me, Iíd be like, ďDad
just shut up, just be quiet.Ē
JC: Sure, heís bringing his own associations to it, but he doesnít know how
to really get into it from your perspective. So who are some of the visual
artists that inspire you?
JM: Well, you know, itís hundreds of people. I see something and itís like,
ďOh wow, I wonder if I could make that work or this work inside one of my
paintings.Ē I really admire these guys that have such an economy in their
strokes. Itís amazing, you know, and it still works. As for me, Iíve got to dick
around with painting over and over. Sometimes when I get lucky, I can do a
painting but thatís my goal: to have an economy of colors, strokes and still be
able to do it. You know I donít ever draw on canvas. This is painting. Itís not
drawing. You know drawingís drawing and paintingís painting. I might set weight
on the canvas, but if I was doing you, I wouldnít sit there and draw a picture
of you and then paint it in.
John Mellencamp, Strange Fruit, (2006) mixed media on canvas, 2 Panels, 60 x
42 inches, 58 x 55 inches.
JC: Youíre taking more of a risk, I think, when you do that, because in that
position as an artist, you donít know where things are going to land or how itís
going to end up.
JM: Well thatís another point, too. You know I love these surprises. I hate
surprises in life, but I love surprises on canvas. Itís like, ďWoah! That fuckiní
looked good! I like that!Ē And you know, a lot of my stuff is like, I put a mark
somewhere but itís not working so I take it off. Sometimes when you put them on,
they work. Then itís great and really good. But most people, you know, they want
to get to the highlights right away. They forget theyíve got to build a
foundation, and that is the key, I think, to any music, painting, putting
furniture in a room, designing a chair, or even releasing a record - where is
the foundation? Youíve got to have that. If you donít, all the rest of it is
JC: It doesnít stand strong.
JM: Yea, it would be like Ė see that building over there? ďWeíre not done
with it yet but when we get done, weíre going to put these rooms on and then
weíre going to add this room.Ē And then you start putting the fucking rooms on
the painting and itís like, ďWait a minute! You only see the building!Ē Weíve
got to have the building. And so many people do that. They want to go straight
to the tricks.
JC: Like those who create images in PhotoShop and then paint from them?
JM: Oh, I canít do that. I donít like it. Iíve seen guys do that and Iím just
shocked. Generally I just look in the mirror, because I have a mirror right
behind my canvas. Because the mind flips it Ė you know that, right?
JC: Itís like ďLas MeninasĒ by Diego Velŗzquez from 1656 where no one ever
knows what theyíre looking at - if heís looking at the mirror or if weíre
looking at it Ė but most of all, we donít know exactly what weíre looking at
JM: Part of the mind is that if you draw a circle and it looks right to us
but then you put it in the mirror and itís like, ďOh, that one side is not
right,Ē and youíre able to recognize that. So when I paint Iím like this, my
canvas is reflected onto the mirror, and Iím always constantly checking to see
if what I think Iím seeing is what Iím really seeing. And the mirror solidifies
the fact that ďyes, you are,Ē or ďno, youíre not.Ē And my studio is lit so that
all I have to do is stand in it and Iím lit properly. If you notice, all of my
shadows are coming from this direction, from left to right.
JC: Itís part of the three-quarter portrait.
JM: Yes, so, for me itís easy. Iíve got it set up that way, so all I have to
do is look and the shadows are always correct. I might have to do this or that,
but generally all these people in these paintings respect my work.
JC: What is the portrait to you, as a genre, rather than landscapes or
JM: Oh I have no interest in that.
JC: Is there some aspect or character in a personís visage that youíre trying
JM: Itís like writing songs, you know. I write songs about people.
JC: Are you trying to portray someoneís experience in the form of an
JM: You know, folk songs are a way about passing on information. They were
written and then they would be updated and changed before getting passed on. I
look at painting the same way. You know, itís just an expression Ė a feeling of
a person or situation or a moment. But all that really matters to me is that
when the painting is done, itís really beautiful. It could be grotesquely
beautiful. There are a lot of things that indicate beauty to me. So some of
those people - theyíre not Ďbeautifulí people Ė but when you see it as a whole
and you look at the painting as a whole, I think itís beautiful. It doesnít
matter to me if itís flat or if it has dimension. I could paint dimension,
obviously, but I donít care to and does it need to be? If it doesnít need to
happen and if itís not going to bring anything to the feeling of the painting -
thatís why sometimes youíll see some bodies that are just painted with house
paint, and itís just flat.
JC: Like Scooter (2012)?
JM: Yea yea, thatís all house paint. That was done in like an hour. It took
me an hour to do that. But if you look at some of these other paintings - like
they talked about Strange Fruit (2006) - I only paint what I think is necessary
for painting to mean what I want it to mean.
JC: Is it like a cathartic feeling thatís similar to a zap going through you,
your hand and then into the canvas?
JM: Yea, yea my songs are like that. Sometimes I donít even know Ė what the
fuck - where this came from. I just wrote a song the other day, and I had no
intention of writing a song. I didnít want to write it but, you know, those
things come knocking.
JC: Itís like a poem, right?
JM: Yea but paintings and songs Ė Iím lazy, I really donít want to do it. But
sometimes itís like someone saying, ďGet up there!Ē ďOk, Iím coming!Ē And songs
are the same way. You know I was just, ďAh fuck, Iíve got to write it down!Ē So
I write it down. Iíve written millions of songs and Iíve done millions of
paintings. Iíve painted since I was a kid.
JC: Thatís part of you.
JM: Yes, so I just get this feeling sometimes like itís time to take a shower
Ė ok, Iíll go.
JC: Do you want people to take anything away from your work when they see it?
Or do you want them just to see it?
JM: No - donít forget, I really donít care. You know this thing thatís going
on here, they asked me to do it. A friend of mine came to my house - heís a real
famous singer Ė and he said, ďWhat are you going to do with all this?Ē I said,
ďI donít know.Ē He said, ďWhy donít you try to sell it?Ē I said, ďWhy?Ē He said,
ďI donít know, because I sell my stuff?Ē So when Randy and these guys came to me
and said, ďYou want to do this?Ē I said, ďReally?Ē
I did a two-person show with Miles Davis once at a gallery in Los Angeles Ė
and I love Miles. But it was such a fucking turn-off. I looked at Miles and
said, ďIím outta here.Ē
JC: Itís the people that came, right?
JM: It was awful.
JC: Plastic beach?
JM: Yea, I think it was around something like October 5, 1989 right before
Miles died in 1991, so this gallery did a joint show. After that I said I would
never do another art show again. But now, you know, itís 30 years later.
JC: I know of artists who want galleries as well as others who donít, due to
the way the business works.
JM: You see the good thing about me is that I donít need a gallery.
JM: I donít care Ė you want to give me money for it? Ok. If you donít, I
donít care. Thatís where the freedom is. Thatís what we all strive to. We strive
to be free. But Iím not saying that itís what itís cracked up to be all the