Mellencamp strikes a visual chord

Julianna Theibodeaux

John Mellencamp

Herron Galleries

Through Jan. 7

'Dignity in America' by John Mellencamp

Rock musician John Mellencamp came out as a painter years ago, so it's not exactly true to say that he's just now making paintings. But in his current exhibition of new works on view at Herron Galleries, Mellencamp unabashedly takes up brush and other manner of mark-making instruments in a brave attempt to find alternate means of expression, one that speaks to a personal evolution and an artistic one.

One gets the sense that Mellencamp, who has always had an un-self-conscious but accessible approach to art-making (in the broader sense), made these expressive works for himself, first and foremost, rather than to communicate with an imagined audience. This isn't a bad thing - it often speaks to more authentic results. But Mellencamp is the first to say, "I'm not an artist," adding, "I'm just a guy with tenacity." And tenacious he is. Herron's two galleries are filled with the evocative, moody and often chaotic images of Mellencamp exploring his personal beliefs and struggles, set to canvas in an almost primitive or naïve approach.

Mellencamp appears to be employing art to guide him through the turbulent passage of middle life, a time that often dredges up darker things from the unconscious. Prevalent images for Mellencamp are a face with one eye marked with an "X" and an enlarged mouth, the teeth appearing as a grate. Somber, ghostly figures are permutations of Mellencamp himself; political figures are rendered in monkey-like caricatures, while those personally significant in his life (including his wife, Elaine) appear as both symbolic stick figures and in more realistic renderings.

It's a curious mixture to be sure: Most of the images feel obviously personal, as in the painting "Juggling Life," with stick figure images and the words "family, self, business, faith, friends, money, love, balance" painted onto the canvas. In plain, primitive-style images such as this one, it's almost as if Mellencamp picked up the brush for the first time; the pieces are heartfelt representations but technically naïve.

This, of course, may be the point.

As if to prove it, Mellencamp gives a nod to classical portraiture in the painting "Tony." There's depth and personality to the figure, rendered in shades of brown and heavily muted contrasting light, but again, there's a quirky, off-kilter quality to it. The face might be about right, yet the arms are oddly foreshortened. When Mellencamp really delves in to a given image, taking a more objective step back, as in "American Girl," his art emerges from the shadows of his own dreams and ponderings. Here, an androgynous figure sits on a stool, legs confidently planted on the ground; the head is proportionately (and purposefully) small, carrying a halo with what appear to be thorns. Mellencamp is paying closer attention, and there's a payoff for the viewer.

On the whole, Mellencamp lets loose his inner chaos in almost frantic renderings with a hasty stew of images referencing his personal struggles and concerns. Overall, it's a prolific new body of work that offers an interior glimpse of someone who may or may not have wisdom to impart. But occasionally Mellencamp strikes a chord, and it's one worth listening to.

John Mellencamp/Paintings is on view at Herron Galleries, Herron School of Art and Design, IUPUI, 735 W. New York St., through Jan. 7. The galleries are open daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and until 7 p.m. on Thursdays. The exhibition is free and open to the public. Call 317-278-9419 for more information.

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