Nashville Art Scene: John Mellencamp's Art Opening At Tennessee State Museum, 5/17/2012

By Joe Nolan - Nashville Art Scene

Last Thursday night I found a spot at my favorite downtown lot and marched across Legislative Plaza on my way to a John Mellencamp press conference and private reception at the Tennessee State Museum. Arriving early for a change, I made my way inside where I was pointed to a media waiting area. Penned-in by lobby furniture, this motley crew huddled like a herd, murmuring among themselves, weighed down with cameras, lights, microphones and the burden of their own expectations of a pop icon who was in town to celebrate his first museum show as a fine artist. I was one among the throng, but not for long.

After being lead through the downward-turning maze of stairs that led to the illuminated art spaces at the State Museum, we were collectively informed of a a dizzying itinerary of filming, photographing and interviewing that would take place before the guests arrived in their Thursday night best, gravitating toward the open bar and overindulging in the spicy grilled shrimp. Having missed a few statements from my strategic location at the back of the crowd, I stepped forward for clarification. I was informed that I, “Mr. Nolan,” would have a chance to interview “Mr. Mellencamp” one-on-one — the singer had added me to his pre-approved list.

Had he read my review? A few weeks ago, in this very paper, I wrote-up Nothing Like I Planned: The Art of John Mellencamp. The general gist of my scrawlings was that Mellencamp was different from other rockers who take up brush and paints. During my exploration of his show at the museum, it struck me that the portraits and narratives on view mirrored those in songs like “Rain on the Scarecrow,” “R.O.C.K. In the U.S.A.” and “Jack & Diane.” I also implied that while most celebrity musicians painted as a hobby, Mellencamp seemed to have something more at stake when creating his canvases.

Had I simply made Mellencamp's images my own, marrying them to my personal experiences of his music? Or, had I looked into that final moment that exists between an empty canvas and a paint-loaded brush, shaking slightly in the hand of a chain-smoking rock 'n' roller who's made such a career out of defying expectations that he was now spending an evening being lauded as a maker of images and a spinner of stories, sans R.O.C. and K?

After waiting out the television interviews — exchanging Mellencamp-ian minutiae with my Scene colleague Adam Gold — it was my turn. I extended my hand, introduced myself and hit record on my cell phone's voice notes app.

Scene: When I first saw your show, I immediately felt like I was seeing characters and stories that could have been in your songs. What is the connection between your painting and your songwriting?

John Mellencamp: Well, I'm not really sure that there is a direct connection, but sometimes I do use song lyrics on the paintings themselves. But, I don't know, I'm just interested in the human condition and I write about the human condition and I paint the human condition.

Scene: In trying to paint the human condition, when you look at all of this work (the exhibition is a retrospective that covers four decades of work) together, perhaps for the first time in one space, how do you feel about your progress as a painter?

Mellencamp: I don't really have such thoughts as that. You know, with my songs I do that. That's a very legitimate question. But, with the painting, I never painted to make a living or anything like that so I never look at it like that. I see that there were periods when I was more focused and periods where I was less focused — it doesn't mean that the paintings were any better or any worse. I just know where I was at in my life at that point.

Scene: So they're like a diary in a way?

Mellencamp: Kind of, yeah!

Scene: If you're not doing this to make a living, what is it about painting that makes you want to continue?

Mellencamp: I have to paint. It makes life bearable. (Laughing) How's that?

That's just what I thought, Mr. Mellencamp. Congratulations on such a big turnout at the reception. I hope you got to try those spicy shrimp.