“Nobody knows me,” John Mellencamp said recently in his raspy Hoosier drawl. He was slumped in a black leather chair and smoking a cigarette at ACA Galleries in Chelsea, where his first art show in the city opens this week. “I know me,” he clarified. “I’m old enough to know that I don’t need instruction or any of that kind of stuff. I know what I want to do and I do it.”
Now 64, the tempestuous heartland rocker once known as “Little Bastard” has certainly mellowed with age, his prickly persona mutated into a kind of soft-hearted nihilism. “As I get older, I have a different look on life,” he said. “I just try to be a little more tolerant and a little bit more centered about what’s going on around me and not so emotional.”
Painting helps. “This is what I do to keep myself out of trouble,” he explained. “It keeps life civilized. Makes life bearable to paint.”
When he isn’t traveling, he paints nearly every day at his home studio in Bloomington, Indiana. Mr. Mellencamp’s oil works, which give off a kind of anti-establishment frown, are influenced by German expressionists such as Otto Dix and Max Beckmann. There are also hints of Basquiat. Some are politically charged, which should come as no surprise to those familiar with Mr. Mellencamp’s opposition to the war in Iraq and his involvement with Farm Aid.
One work features what appears to be an infantilized George W. Bush with a bullet hole in his chest. “So this is gun control,” the painting reads. “The 2nd Amendment in Action.” Another depicts Franklin D. Roosevelt in boxing gloves. “I can lick any man in the room,” a line above him states. Of Mr. Mellencamp’s work, Richard Reep wrote last year in Orlando Weekly: “He distorts the bodies, sometimes the eyes and other features, to intensify a sense of otherness, a feeling of stoic solitude.”
Other paintings are more personal, like The Battle of Angels, a portrait of Mr. Mellencamp and his ex-wife, the model Elaine Irwin, to whom he was married for 20 years. He started making the painting right when they were getting divorced, he said.
Mr. Mellencamp had on blue jeans and a white T-shirt under a black cardigan, the same outfit in which the paparazzi had that day photographed him with his new girlfriend, Christie Brinkley. “She is a sweet girl,” Mr. Mellencamp said, leaving it at that.
He took a long draw from his cigarette. A pack-a-day man—American Spirits are his preferred poison—he has no plans to quit, even though he had a heart attack in the 1990s. “Let’s face it,” he said, “smoking is the only thing I really do well, so let’s not fuck with it.” Mr. Mellencamp also believes that cigarettes have made his voice better. “I always wanted to sound black when I sang,” he growled. “And now I do.”
Mr. Mellencamp got into painting as a teenager, and he has kept at it with zeal, though that whole music career—the author of “Jack and Diane” hits Australia in February for his “Plain Spoken” tour—seems to have overshadowed his achievements in the visual arts arena.
Mr. Mellencamp has had about a dozen museum shows, he said. His first exhibit, he recalled, was with Miles Davis—another raspy-voiced entertainer—in the 1980s. The experience pissed him off. “The gallery took out a fucking ad on a billboard on Sunset,” Mr. Mellencamp said. “I was like, ‘Whoa, what’d you do that for?’ ”
No such advertisements were purchased this time around. Called “The Isolation of Mister,” Mr. Mellencamp’s show runs through December at ACA, one of the first Social Realist galleries in the city, established in 1932. It was Mr. Mellencamp’s friend Bob Dylan who encouraged him to start selling his paintings.
“They’re the same as my songs,” Mr. Mellencamp said of his art, which gives off a dark aura, at least at first glance. “American folk songs were about tragedy, right? They were about suffering and tragedy, and a lot of my songs are about that, even though they were misunderstood.”
Mr. Mellencamp, slightly scruffy, his mane of a pompadour protruding from his head like a casual provocation, seemed unfazed by the prospect of unleashing his paintings in the cutthroat New York art world. He wears a silver cross, which may give him his sense of composure. “I believe in something,” he said, “even if it’s just me.”