Before he went on to sell 27.5 million albums, John Mellencamp was determined to make it as a painter. The legendary rocker walks Billboard through his first New York exhibition
"Is that lipstick?"
Breezing through a new exhibition of his moody oil paintings at ACA Galleries in New York, John Mellencamp stops short after spotting a crimson daub near the face of Bug, an impressionistic, four-foot portrait of a woman who works for him.
"Somebody kissed this f--ing painting," he says, leaning in close to the canvas, more amused than annoyed. "See this? I didn't paint that. I just noticed it."
With a quick laugh, the rocker turns and walks away. Doesn't he want someone from the gallery to remove the rogue lip print?
"No!" says Mellencamp, 64. "I want my paintings to look like they were found in a garage. If they get a scratch or a hole in them, it just becomes part of the painting."
Painting has been part of Mellencamp's life since he was a 10-year-old kid in Indiana. His mother was an artist, and he was determined to follow suit by studying in New York. A lack of money and a surging interest in rock'n'roll derailed those plans in the 1970s. But Mellencamp, who is strongly influenced by the German Expressionists, returned to his first love in the '80s, setting up shop at home and showing at galleries.
His New York debut, "The Isolation of Mister," shares its title with a song from 2014's Plain Spoken and runs through Dec. 19 (prices range from $2,500 to $40,000). Lyrics and Bible quotes are frequently used to spell out themes that he often tackles in his music, from heartbreak to racism.
The political bend fits right in at ACA, established in 1932 as a haven for artists eager to explore social issues. The father of five who will tour Australia in February was introduced to the gallery by Bob Dylan. "I wanted to be with a gallery that wasn't for tourists," says Mellencamp, who has charted 19 albums on the Billboard 200 and sold 27.5 million units, according to the RIAA. He signed a lifetime contract with Republic Records in 2014 and, in December, will start work on an album of duets and covers with Carlene Carter. "I like the history of ACA. The goal isn't to sell paintings that match your couch."
There aren't a lot of smiles or happy people in your work.
Shiny, happy people? I'll let R.E.M. make those paintings.
You're suspicious of joy, eh?
If I laugh a couple of times a day, I'm doing good. People think it's their God-given right to be happy, and it's just not. It's something you've got to work at. I like to paint the human condition, and the human condition is not smiles and happy people.
Do you care how your art is perceived?
I paint for myself. Somebody asked me earlier -- it was kind of an insulting question -- "Do you paint for the people who might buy your paintings?" I was like, "Are you kidding me?" I never consider that.
What's the starting point for you?
The main subject. I'll give you an example. See this Used People painting? Me and my son Speck painted that. He's a junior at [Rhode Island School of Design] and came home for a few days. Actually, he came home to go to jail. (Laughs.) He had to serve four days because he beat up some kid. Anyway, I said, "Let's go up to my studio and figure this out because I can't get the math right. It has to weigh properly." Speck did the shadowing and the placement of the people, and it turned out great because he did shit that I wouldn't have. He put this average person on the pig, who is George Bush.
How do your subjects react? For example, you depict Meg Ryan and Laura Dern in clown face.
They're best friends. Meg and I were together five years -- she's a great gal. I think they both thought it wasn't going to be what it turned out to be. I don't know that she ever liked this painting very much, but I do. I spent a lot of time on it.
Did painting come as naturally to you as music?
More natural. Music was like a second choice. I wanted to study at the Art Students League in New York when I was young, but I didn't have the money. Then I was fortunate enough to become Johnny Cougar Mellencamp. At the time, I thought I'd make a couple of records and get back to painting. It never dawned on me that I'd be 64 years old and still making music.
Sounds like a great memoir. Think you'll write one?
Never. What of any interest am I going to say? I'm 64 years old. I've still got shit to do, and writing a memoir ain't on the list.
Really? You must have some thoughts on how the industry has changed.
The consumer doesn't get to hear the quality of music that I grew up listening to, and young artists don't get a chance to develop. I made five albums before I sold one. You take a girl like -- who's that girl who's so popular right now? Country singer...
She's a really smart gal. A guy like me wouldn't have a chance today. For starters, if I was 21, the last thing I'd want to do is be in a f---ing rock band. How the f--- would you make a living? You'd have to have a straight job, and I've never had that.
What was your main gripe with the business?
I'm on Republic Records now, and those two guys who run it are good guys. I like Monte and Avery Lipman. But I've probably been with a thousand record-company presidents, and I didn't like any of them -- and they didn't like me. I was never interested in kissing anybody's ass. I even punched a record-company president once.
What did he do?
He fell down. (Laughs.)