John Mellencamp “never wanted to be no pop singer,” as the lyrics to one of his songs say. Mellencamp picked up a paint brush at age 10, four years before he picked up a guitar. He was studying at New York City’s Art Student League when his success as a singer-songwriter took off.
But while he was releasing multi-platinum-selling albums, headlining sold-out tours and building a career that led to his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, the interest in art never waned.
That passion will be on display in his first art museum show at the Butler Institute of American Art Trumbull Branch. About 40 of his paintings will be shown through Jan. 12 at the Howland gallery. One or two paintings will shown simultaneously at the Youngstown museum.
Butler director Louis Zona said, “Had he lived during the German Expressionist movement, they would have welcomed him with open arms.”
Mellencamp has cited German Expressionist artists such as Otto Dix and Max Beckmann among his primary influences, and Zona said the work of American painters like Walt Kuhn and Jack Levine, both of whom are represented in the Butler’s permanent collection, also can be seen in his creations.
But Mellencamp takes those inspirations into bold, new directions.
“His painting is original, his music is original. He’s an original,” Zona said. “It must be frustrating for a very good visual artist as him to be cast as a celebrity artist. I don’t see him that way.”
Zona traveled to Mellencamp’s studio in Bloomington, Ind., in August to select the pieces that will be shown.
“He pretty much let me choose what I wanted for the show,” Zona said. “He had no qualms about anything.”
His only request was that the museum not try to show the paintings chronologically. The show will include paintings from the early ’90s up to today. Kathy Earnhart, public relations director for the Butler, said some of the work was so recent, the paint still was wet when they were delivered to the museum.
Mellencamp’s interest in portraiture is evident in many of the works selected. Some of the subjects are recognizable – his ex-wife, Elaine Irwin Mellencamp; his current girlfriend, Meg Ryan; Vanity Fair publisher Graydon Carter and one of Mellencamp’s most frequent subjects is himself.
“John with Puppet,” an oil painting from 1992, shows Mellencamp holding a marionette. For a musician who bristled at the machinations of the record business, who had his name changed to Johnny Cougar against his wishes by a manager, the message seems to be that Mellencamp is the only one pulling the strings when it comes to his art. “Twelve Dreams,” a mixed media piece that has Mellencamp tarted up like a clown or a jester with a guitar and blond wig also seems to be a commentary on the music business.
One of the largest – and most powerful – canvases is “Strange Fruit,” which juxtaposes a Grant Wood-like portrayal of rural America with images of the lynchings that Billie Holiday sang about in the song of the same name written by Abel Meeropol. And “Gun Control,” painted this year, is a graphic commentary on that issue.
The exhibition opens to the public on Sunday. Mellencamp will be in town Saturday for an invitation-only reception open to Trustee Circle supporters of the Butler.