Mellencamp: From R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A. to an exhibit at the Butler



The first exhibition of paintings by John Mellencamp in a museum will be at the Butler Institute of American Art and will open Nov. 3.

Mellencamp will visit the Butler for a members-only reception on opening night.

Though he is known mainly as a rock star, the Indiana-born Mellencamp has studied painting and has been an artist for most of his life.

The Butler exhibition, which will run through Jan. 12, will consist of more than 40 of his paintings, mostly portraits and human figures.

Louis A. Zona, direc- tor and chief curator of the Butler, spoke highly of Mellencamp’s work, calling it innovative.

“He is not only competent but one of those people blessed to be able to work in a couple of artistic directions simultaneously and with great competence,” said Zona.

The Butler has a reputation for exhibiting works by celebrities in the music and film worlds. Past exhibitions have included works by Tony Bennett, Jessica Lange and, most recently, Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood in 2010.

“When the Mellencamp exhibition was offered to us, we jumped at the opportunity,” said Zona.

Mellencamp’s artistic style stems from his own German ethnic roots and his Midwestern upbringing.

“His paintings are quite intense and very painterly ... the markings of the brush are evident,” said Zona. “They are typically Expressionistic. When I first saw them I immediately thought of German Expressionism, and in interviews, [Mellencamp] talks about the influence the German Expressionists had on his work, painters like Max Beckmann and Otto Dix who were part of that early 20th century movement.”

Mellencamp, 61, still lives in Indiana and his ties to that Midwestern state are evident in his music, which depicts working-class values and sensibilities. His hit songs include “Pink Houses,” “Jack and Diane,” “Hurts So Good” and “Small Town.”

The social and political conscience that permeates Mellencamp’s music also is manifest in his artwork, according to New York arts writer Hillarie M. Sheets, who discussed the topic in a recent essay.

“Mellencamp doesn’t wince at grappling with issues of his heart,” she wrote. “Since 2005, he has taken on themes such as racism, war, faith and justice, and broken with some of the formalism of his earlier work.”

Painting is a refuge from “the hectic life of touring and performing” for Mellencamp, wrote Sheets, and a way to stay productive and keep his mind engaged.

“Every day that I walk up to my art studio and I complete a painting, I have something to show for my time,” wrote Mellencamp in a biographical statement. He maintains an art studio in Bloomington, Ind., and sees himself painting through old age.

A descendant of German immigrants, Mellencamp began playing music at age 14, but his interest in painting began at age 10 by watching his mother, who painted with oils.

He studied at the Art Students League in New York with portrait painter David Leffel, but his visual-arts interest was quickly superseded by a burgeoning career in music.

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