Art review: John Mellencamp is an artist on canvas as well as in music

The habit to make and be creative certainly begins with talent. However, the drive to produce is something that takes commitment and dedication every day. If you don’t foster it, it simply won’t grow.

John Mellencamp is a world-famous musician who has also been making visual art for more than 35 years. An exhibition of his paintings, “John Mellencamp: Expressionist,” is on view at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown.

The show is worth the short drive, and not just because this is a famous person who also happens to paint. Rather, it gives you a chance to tap into a studio practice he has sustained in a variety of media. Mellencamp has maintained his career in the art studio and on the stage, and that offers something for all of us to try to understand and learn from.

The exhibit is laid out in two of the larger gallery spaces on the second floor of the museum. It features work that shows how the artist has grown and changed over the years, starting in the early 1990s with a more figurative expressionist style that was primarily contained to oil paint on canvas. Mellencamp’s more recent work, done in the past five years, has pushed beyond the canvas to include mixed media and found objects that have been integrated into the compositions to somehow better inform them.

The show would be stronger with a little less work and more information about the ideas behind each individual piece, even if only a sentence or two. This is a full-feeling show and while less might be more, the paintings are strong, vibrant and often a little dark in subject matter.

If you’re a fan of Mellencamp’s music, it’s fun to draw lines from the paintings to what you may or may not know about his songwriting. There may be absolutely no connections between the two, but because Mellencamp is the creative force that he is, the other parts of his life seep and flow into the exhibit whether intended or not.

“Step Right Back,” an oil on canvas from 1993, features a sunglasses-wearing man smoking a cigar, reaching out or pointing to a bikini-clad female performer standing to his left. They appear to be in front of a curtain, perhaps in a theater or a circus. There is a clownlike or carnylike theme that carries through all the years of Mellencamp’s work, as well as a prizefighter theme. It’s not clear if this particular painting is at all autobiographical, though it’s easy to draw a line between Mellencamp and the female performer: someone who is out there on stage, exposed.

“Step Right Back” is also representative of his painting style, with thick dark lines shaping colors that more often than not feature a portrait of a person. The works have a grit that may reference the life and struggles of the artist, or more accurately the life and struggles of the people in the world he is seeing around him.

“Twelve Dreams,” a mixed media piece on canvas from 2005, features three seated clowns. The central clown has a bit of an angry look on his face and is holding a guitar. On one side of him sits a younger or perhaps just smaller clown, looking out of the canvas, and the one on the opposite side appears pulled out of time, as it has a more classic Shakespearean clown look. He looks off into the distance at something unknown. Dark lines that go from brown to black surround these three subjects.

It’s almost as if a circus rail car from decades ago ran into a more modern rail car spotted by graffiti, and somehow these three clowns have integrated themselves with it. Unlike earlier works, this piece is not framed, and the active edges of the painting can be seen and appreciated. Further, the work is hung on metal rings attached to the painting by leather straps, adding to the overall aesthetic.

“Monstrosity” from 2017 features photos, objects and painted portraits in a large assemblage. The work is held up on one side by an old set of scales and on the other by an old-fashioned ironing board. The work features images of people in uniform, small children and even a couple of mug shots. There is a element of the fighter in this work that is carried through many of the paintings featured here along with the element of the clown.

Laid on top of the portraits are small dolls, a flask and washboard. This piece is a snapshot of many lives that could be from any period of time, and the texture of the work feels well trodden, like a sidewalk of long-established community or even the interior of an old barn.

It’s hard to separate Mellencamp the painter from Mellencamp the musician. So why try? The joy of this show is to look at how these thoughtfully created paintings relate to what you know about what’s being presented, which includes what you know about the artist making them. It’s an ultimately relatable exhibition that features a window into the human condition from the special point of view that has sustained Mellencamp’s creative career for over 35 years.

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