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. Mellencamp’s paintings capture a very visceral response to these socio-political disparities.
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 you’re thinking when you’re making it, but at least I feel like your work draws me in – it’s a moment where I don’t 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 I’m enjoying what I’m doing. When I stop enjoying it and it starts being a struggle I say, “fuck it” and forget about it. I’m done with this for a while. I mean I’ll either put the painting up till the next day - and you’re right, I don’t paint for anybody.
JC: Which is perfect.
JM: I don’t need to paint for anybody, you know, as long as I look at it and think I like it, then that’s good enough for me, because I have never really intended to sell anything. I’ve only ever just given my paintings away. I think I’ve 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. It’s like “Why?” I mean, I’d be the last guy you’d want to hire to do a portrait of yourself. You don’t want to see that. But the story my dad told about Bill is true, though.
JC: About Bill?
JM: Yea, Cook – he just hated that fucking painting. It was just like over about a 10-year period that he finally came to me and said, “You know it’s my favorite painting.” This guy is really rich. He said, “It’s one of my prized possessions.” It was only a little portrait about 8”x10” and took me 2 hours to do. But it was Bill. It was the essence of Bill, not the physical disguise of Bill.
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 that’s the problem with my paintings. I really hate even showing them to people because first of all I don’t want to even talk about it. There’s nothing to talk about. There it is, and that’s it. But then I really hate it when people start talking to me about things they don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about. It’s like, “What?” And my dad’s a perfect example of that: he’d walk into my studio and he’d start talking to me, I’d be like, “Dad just shut up, just be quiet.”
JC: Sure, he’s bringing his own associations to it, but he doesn’t 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, it’s hundreds of people. I see something and it’s like, “Oh wow, I wonder if I could make that work or this work inside one of my paintings.” I really admire these guys that have such an economy in their strokes. It’s amazing, you know, and it still works. As for me, I’ve got to dick around with painting over and over. Sometimes when I get lucky, I can do a painting but that’s my goal: to have an economy of colors, strokes and still be able to do it. You know I don’t ever draw on canvas. This is painting. It’s not drawing. You know drawing’s drawing and painting’s painting. I might set weight on the canvas, but if I was doing you, I wouldn’t sit there and draw a picture of you and then paint it in.
JC: You’re taking more of a risk, I think, when you do that, because in that position as an artist, you don’t know where things are going to land or how it’s going to end up.
JM: Well that’s another point, too. You know I love these surprises. I hate surprises in life, but I love surprises on canvas. It’s like, “Woah! That fuckin’ looked good! I like that!” And you know, a lot of my stuff is like, I put a mark somewhere but it’s not working so I take it off. Sometimes when you put them on, they work. Then it’s great and really good. But most people, you know, they want to get to the highlights right away. They forget they’ve 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? You’ve got to have that. If you don’t, all the rest of it is just bullshit.
JC: It doesn’t stand strong.
JM: Yea, it would be like – see that building over there? “We’re not done with it yet but when we get done, we’re going to put these rooms on and then we’re going to add this room.” And then you start putting the fucking rooms on the painting and it’s like, “Wait a minute! You only see the building!” We’ve 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 can’t do that. I don’t like it. I’ve seen guys do that and I’m just shocked. Generally I just look in the mirror, because I have a mirror right behind my canvas. Because the mind flips it – you know that, right?
JC: It’s like “Las Meninas” by Diego Velàzquez from 1656 where no one ever knows what they’re looking at - if he’s looking at the mirror or if we’re looking at it – but most of all, we don’t know exactly what we’re looking at either.
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 it’s like, “Oh, that one side is not right,” and you’re able to recognize that. So when I paint I’m like this, my canvas is reflected onto the mirror, and I’m always constantly checking to see if what I think I’m seeing is what I’m really seeing. And the mirror solidifies the fact that “yes, you are,” or “no, you’re not.” And my studio is lit so that all I have to do is stand in it and I’m lit properly. If you notice, all of my shadows are coming from this direction, from left to right.
JC: It’s part of the three-quarter portrait.
JM: Yes, so, for me it’s easy. I’ve 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 seascapes?
JM: Oh I have no interest in that.
JC: Is there some aspect or character in a person’s visage that you’re trying to capture?
JM: It’s like writing songs, you know. I write songs about people.
JC: Are you trying to portray someone’s experience in the form of an individual?
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, it’s just an expression – a feeling of a person or situation or a moment. But all that really matters to me is that when the painting is done, it’s really beautiful. It could be grotesquely beautiful. There are a lot of things that indicate beauty to me. So some of those people - they’re not ‘beautiful’ people – but when you see it as a whole and you look at the painting as a whole, I think it’s beautiful. It doesn’t matter to me if it’s flat or if it has dimension. I could paint dimension, obviously, but I don’t care to and does it need to be? If it doesn’t need to happen and if it’s not going to bring anything to the feeling of the painting - that’s why sometimes you’ll see some bodies that are just painted with house paint, and it’s just flat.
JC: Like Scooter (2012)?
JM: Yea yea, that’s 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 that’s similar to a zap going through you, your hand and then into the canvas?
JM: Yea, yea my songs are like that. Sometimes I don’t even know – 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 didn’t want to write it but, you know, those things come knocking.
JC: It’s like a poem, right?
JM: Yea but paintings and songs – I’m lazy, I really don’t want to do it. But sometimes it’s like someone saying, “Get up there!” “Ok, I’m coming!” And songs are the same way. You know I was just, “Ah fuck, I’ve got to write it down!” So I write it down. I’ve written millions of songs and I’ve done millions of paintings. I’ve painted since I was a kid.
JC: That’s part of you.
JM: Yes, so I just get this feeling sometimes like it’s time to take a shower – ok, I’ll 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 - don’t forget, I really don’t care. You know this thing that’s going on here, they asked me to do it. A friend of mine came to my house - he’s a real famous singer – and he said, “What are you going to do with all this?” I said, “I don’t know.” He said, “Why don’t you try to sell it?” I said, “Why?” He said, “I don’t know, because I sell my stuff?” So when Randy and these guys came to me and said, “You want to do this?” I said, “Really?”
I did a two-person show with Miles Davis once at a gallery in Los Angeles – and I love Miles. But it was such a fucking turn-off. I looked at Miles and said, “I’m outta here.”
JC: It’s 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, it’s 30 years later.
JC: I know of artists who want galleries as well as others who don’t, due to the way the business works.
JM: You see the good thing about me is that I don’t need a gallery.
JM: I don’t care – you want to give me money for it? Ok. If you don’t, I don’t care. That’s where the freedom is. That’s what we all strive to. We strive to be free. But I’m not saying that it’s what it’s cracked up to be all the time.
Jill Conner is an art critic and curator based in New York City. She is currently the New York Editor for Whitehot Magazine and writes for other publications such as Afterimage, ArtUS, Sculpture and Art in America. firstname.lastname@example.org
view all articles from this author