Rock-and-Roll Legend John Mellencamp Talks Painting, Bob Dylan, and Living Lawlessly
Hailing from Seymour, Indiana (population: 17,503), John Mellencamp is best known as a rock-and-roll icon. Through nostalgic ballads and the rustic twang of his guitar, he’s captured the working class struggles of those who live in America’s heartland. Lesser known is Mellencamp’s long–held interest in being a painter, one that dates back to before his first record deal. That Mellencamp puts brush to canvas may come as a surprise for many, but given the artist’s proclivity to imbue his music with intimate stories and potent imagery (think “Pink Houses,” one of the most famous examples), perhaps it shouldn’t. Often figurative, and evoking hints of Neo- and German Expressionism, Mellencamp’s paintings tread new ground, while remaining thematically in line with the small–town, earnest portraits he crafts in verse. His latest solo outing at ACA Galleries in New York, titled “The Isolation of Mister,” opens to the public on October 22, 2015. We spoke with the artist and musician about his forthcoming exhibition, his beginnings in art and music, and the milestones that led him to stardom.
Isaac Kaplan: When you first came to New York, you thought you wanted to be a painter—is that right?
John Mellencamp: Yeah, I came to New York trying to get a record deal because I had been playing in a rock band. I also had the desire to learn how to paint, but knew I needed instruction. As it turned out, I got a record deal kind of rapidly and pursued music instead of the Art Students League of New York. [The record label] gave me the opportunity to make records at a time when everybody in the world wanted to be in a rock band. I had that opportunity, so I took it, thinking that I’d make a couple records and that would be it.
IK: How do you think about your visual art as it relates to your music? Does painting allow you to address things that you wouldn’t necessarily deal with through music?
JM: Well, one is obviously done with the English language, and one is done with paint. So those are two totally different things. And I feel like I can say a lot with oil on canvas or mixed media on canvas that I can’t say in a song.
Every picture tells a story—that’s why it’s so hard for me to talk about art and music. What I had in mind when I was [painting and making music] is really insignificant compared to what the viewer sees or thinks, or what the listener hears. I’ve written hundreds of songs that were huge hit records, and what people got out of them is not anywhere close to what I was thinking when I wrote it. But I can’t go around and go, “Oh, no, no, no.”
JM: Paintings and songs are meant for the viewer to dream their own dream about what they’re listening to and what they’re seeing. For me, to sit here and go, “This is what this painting is about, this is what that painting is about,” is just total bullshit.
IK: Could you tell me more about the title of your new show, “The Isolation of Mister.” Where does it come from? And how does it relate to this body of work?
JM: That’s a big question for something that’s not that big of a thing. All the people I paint seem to be occupying the same space but are somehow not in contact with each other. For me, personally, I’ve been in the music business for a long time, and I’m always around a lot of people. I find solitude, safety, and footing in my life by being in my art studio by myself. Part of the reason the exhibition is called that is I have this song “The Isolation of Mister,” on a record called Plain Spoken. I think if you take the time to read the lyrics, just go online and read the lyrics, what that song says will answer your question.
IK: Let’s talk about the figurative aspect of your painting. What draws you to painting people?
JM: I think that painting the human condition is a very high form of art. No matter how you present it—if you present it in a traditional, let’s just say a “Rembrandt-ish” way, or if you present it in a very abstract way—it’s a very high form of expression. I think it may be a higher form than songwriting. I write about people in my songs, and I paint people on my canvases.
IK: Some of your works have a very overt political message. I know you’ve addressed inequality and gun control in your art in the past. Do you see the current political climate influencing your work? And are these subjects you’ll take on again?
JM: For sure. I have a painting called Gun Control (2013)—it’s a boy being shot. It’s a great big fuckin’ painting. I find that painting to be grotesque in its beauty. And it was painted that way, you know? For me, it had to be grotesque, but abstract at the same time. When you’re painting a painting, at the end of the day you have to ask yourself, “Is there beauty inside this painting?”—no matter what the subject matter is. And either you answer yes or you don’t, but that’s always my goal.
IK: Anyone can listen to your music and understand your messages about working class identity. But the art world can be an insular place. Do you think that’s fair to say? And when you’re painting, do you think about who’s going to be able to see your paintings in person?
JM: Can I be totally frank with you?
IK: Sure, go ahead.
JM: I don’t really care. And that, to me, is freedom. I don’t really care who’s going to be looking at the paintings.
IK: So making art is something that you do for yourself?
JM: Absolutely. I would have never done this in the first place if it hadn’t been for Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan came to my house, and we went up to my studio and he said, “What are you going to do with all this stuff?” I said, “I don’t know.” It hadn’t dawned on me. He said, “Well, people would like to have this.” I said, “What people?” And he said, “I don’t know. People buy my stuff.” And I said, “Yeah, so?” Bob said, “I know a guy who knows a guy, who knows a guy. Maybe you should talk to that guy.” And so Bob hooked me up with this guy, and here we are [Laughs]. It’s that simple. Eliminate any idea that I paint for any other reason than my own enjoyment of painting, because the idea of selling paintings never really dawned on me—other than just to get them out of my studio.
IK: What’s your artistic process like?
JM: I’m either painting or I’m not. I get into stretches of time where I will paint 10 to 12 hours a day for months on end, and then I won’t paint for maybe three or four months. I’ll go up and maybe do something, but I’m an all or nothing guy. And that’s a real blessing but it’s also a real curse. When I’m writing songs, don’t bother me—I’m writing songs.
IK: Do you collect art? Who is in your collection?
JM: I have Beckmanns, I have Jack Levines, I have Marvin Cherneys, I have Walt Kuhns. Just for a laugh, somebody went through my house in Indiana and counted how many faces were inside that house. There were 470-some faces, either in sculptures or in paintings on the wall.
IK: German Expressionism and Jean-Michel Basquiat have both been influences for your art. What else inspires you to paint?
JM: Time. I have time to do this now. Rather than sit around and waste my time, I like having something to show—either a song, or a painting, or a love affair. So that’ll send me into the studio. I have a house on an island which is where I am now, and I think, “I’m going to go down there and paint.” I’ve been down here 10 days and I haven’t even walked into the art studio.
Look, you’re talking to the luckiest guy in the world, just so you know. I am the luckiest guy that you’ll probably ever talk to. I’ve been able to live my life outside of the law, outside of being part of anything in the music business. Never been part of anything, never wanted to be part of anything. I view my art the same way. I do what I want to do when I want to do it, and that is freedom. I have been able to live my life since I was a pre-adult, unfettered with rules. And I don’t have any fuckin’ rules that I feel like I have to live by. I am just lucky. I just had my 64th birthday and I have lived life the way that I wanted to live it, rightfully or wrongfully, since...you know, ever. It’s a blessing and it’s kind of a curse.
IK: In what way is it a curse?
JM: Well, Stephen King is a friend of mine and he said it really well. He said, “John, we dig our own little trench and then we decorate it.”
IK: And is the art part of decorating that trench?
JM: Sure. That’s why it’s “The Isolation of Mister.”