John Mellencamp’s Americana Roots Carry Over into Oil Paintings

John Mellencamp’s artistic vision reaches beyond the confines of music and into the realm of oil painting. The singer-songwriter, famous for his rolicking blend of folk and hard rock, began experimenting with mixed media in the ’80s as a student at the Art Students League of New York. A selection of 50 of his works are now touring the country as a solo exhibition—beginning in Deland, Florida, and ending in Augusta, Georgia. When viewed in unison, these works prove that Mellencamp’s spirited approach to music translates effectively into visual works. 

In many of the paintings featured in the aptly titled exhibition “American Dreams: Paintings by John Mellencamp,” words like BOOM, DREAMS, LIFE, and GOD call out to viewers in attention-grabbing colors like black and red. Rendered in an all upper-case typeface and following a cascading pattern, the letters demand viewers’ direct engagement. The words, which punctuate otherwise noisy figurative renderings, drive home the earnest, energetic spirit of his work. As is the case with Dreams (2014), three figures, an American flag, and letters spelling out D-R-E-A-M-S are rendered in bold colors with large gestural brushstrokes. This creates a dynamic composition—one that references street art and graffiti tags. 

He states that his paintings are inspired by German Expressionists Max Beckmann and Otto Dix, but his rigorous painting style also references ’80s Neo-Expressionists like Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Mellencamp says that “discovering Beckmann . . . was like discovering Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan.” Like his heroes, Mellencamp is a natural storyteller. When understood in this way, each painting becomes a sort of visual allegory. His affinity for tales that are melancholy yet optimistic is testament to his work’s deep Americana roots. 

As George Bolge—CEO of DeLand, Florida's Museum of Art—puts it: “Art is not merely something artist John Mellencamp uses to clarify his position or to give point to his vision of life, it’s the very substance of who he is and what he wants to say.” Like a jukebox classic, Mellencamp’s exuberant paintings are warm-hearted, deeply relatable, and deserve to be viewed on repeat. Still though, something hidden and mysterious lingers around the edges of his works.

Anna Furman

“American Dreams: Paintings by John Mellencamp” is on view at Museum of Art–Deland, Florida, Oct. 10–Dec. 28, 2014, then The Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Georgia, Jan. 11–April 12, 2015.

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