The Tennessean: John Mellencamp's Art Takes Stage

By Michelle Jones - The Tennessean

John Mellencamp came to Nashville last weekend, not to record, not to perform, but to look over “Nothing Like I Planned: The Art of John Mellencamp.” The exhibition of 49 paintings opens Thursday at the Tennessee State Museum and remains on view through June 10.

Though not particularly effusive about his work, the rocker nevertheless offered a look into his approach to painting. For one thing, he considers painting something he has to do, but doesn’t see it as a soul-baring experience, even if some of the pieces seem highly personal.

“I don’t really know about soul-baring stuff; I’m not that kind of guy. I’m a worker, I work,” he said by phone from the museum.

Stand for something
Like any artist, he has developed a visual vocabulary over time. He repeatedly uses stenciled letters and numbers, the year of his birth (1951) and the stripes of the American flag in his work. He incorporates crowns into paintings, referencing Martin Luther King Jr. and Stephen King; the latter is his collaborator on Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, a play premiering Wednesday in Atlanta.

Mellencamp frequently uses his own image in his paintings, and he’s not always as identifiable as one might expect, especially given the span of years covered in “Nothing Like I Planned.” Curator Renee White has a tip for picking Mellencamp out of the paintings, however.

“You can usually recognize him by either the hair or the cigarette,” she said during an early look at the show. The paintings were still propped up against gallery walls painted in ice-blue, celery, cream and lavender.

Mellencamp’s own use of color is impressive, especially the way he defines faces or fills in the background in Boom. Here, patches of sky blue, muddy brown, white and sand converge on a cartoonish portrait of a man in uniform.

Several works in the show reveal the same political awareness found in Mellencamp’s songs; Coast to Coast, for example, is a wry commentary on the U.S. using symbols and icons tweaked or turned on their heads.

The word “timeshares” represents Florida, while blood drips from the eyes of Grant Wood’s American Gothic couple; “meth” is spray-painted in black across the steeple of the white clapboard church behind them. An Army-green rectangle at the bottom of the painting bears the word “FEMA”; an electric chair covers the Texas area; a long thin twister snakes over tornado alley.

Life, death, love
Other works in “Nothing Like I Planned” are contemplations on life, love and family. Various family members, ex-wives and Mellencamp’s children are depicted, including in Hud, which recalls early-19th-century portraits with its ornate frame and presentation of a young boy dressed in a shirt reminiscent of a child’s sailor suit. A lush turquoise background surrounds the boy.

Two of the paintings, both finished earlier this year, depict actress Meg Ryan, Mellencamp’s girlfriend. MNELEH shows the actress wrapped in a coat and staring straight out of the center of the canvas, her signature tousled blond hair crowning her head. The letters of the painting’s title, which refer to the subject’s names, are stenciled across the top of the canvas.

These are beautifully simple portraits, reflecting Mellencamp’s latest direction. There’s also a similarly spare self-portrait, Savannah GA, depicting a resigned, slumping Mellencamp positioned as though in a lineup — a chalky height line runs across the gray expanse behind the figure.

“Right now, I’ve been kind of going back to straight portraiture, like Savannah. That was the last painting I painted for the show,” he said. “I was real busy on the canvas for a while, now it seems that I’m still and everything is still again.”

(This likely will be the image used on the cover of the exhibition catalog set to come out some time this spring, according to Renee White.)

Best that he could
Mellencamp paints in the morning and keeps going till he has to stop. Finishing a painting can take awhile, as in years.

“Paintings are never really done; they’re just abandoned,” Mellencamp said. He returned to at least two of the paintings in “Nothing Like I Planned” years after he started them.

The main figure of Skeletons, a man sitting in a chair, was left alone on the canvas for a few years until Mellencamp added the people surrounding it. All the people represent the different stages in a person’s life, the various incarnations of self and the people one meets along the way.

Mellencamp is less specific about how he reworked Heaven & Hell (he insists he changed too much to get into). He created a textured Meffect by covering the canvas with the pages from a Bible — religious imagery appears in many of his paintings — then covering those in thick layers of black paint.

Some of the pages are visible as a body lying horizontally across the center of the piece; red and yellow paint drizzles across the body; black paint drips over it and to the bottom of the painting. The painting’s title is stenciled in cream letters in the upper left corner.

The final painting is eerily striking in a Day of the Dead sort of way.

“That painting sat in storage for seven years, then I pulled it out and worked on it some more and I thought, oh, that’s good, but originally it wasn’t that great. Not that it’s that great now,” he chuckled, “but it’s better than it was. I think it’s a neat painting.”