The Strange (and Often Wonderful) Things We See When Celebrities Paint

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John Mellencamp’s “The Isolation of Mister” is at the ACA Galleries through December 19. Photo: Private Collection of Jenny Norton Bob Ramsey/Courtesy of John Mellencamp

On October 22, John Mellencamp will open a new show. Not of songs at a concert but of paintings (like the Arshile Gorky–influenced one above). The rock star is just the latest in a tumble of actors, singers, newscasters, and others of their famous ilk who feel the need to be seen, and taken seriously, as visual artists. I’ve written before about how freaked out I was contemplating the intense, almost village-idiot-like unself-conscious paintings of George W. Bush. For once, through his work, I got to peek inside his strange inner life. Could, I wondered, the same thing happen by looking at the work of entertainment celebrities, typically enshrined in their own publicity bell jars? Some of these boldfaced names range relatively far afield: Miley Cyrus has gone big into sculpture (and was compared by art impresario Jeffrey Deitch to Mike Kelley), and last year, Jay Z took a page from Marina Abramovic’s performance act (full disclosure: I sort of fell for it). But most celebs, just like most people, seem to think of painting first when they think of art and, therefore, want to be painters themselves, painting their own masterpieces. Whether you see this as a blessing, curse, or sideshow farce, fame has become such a meta-subject and an American obsession that just the act of someone famous making a painting is thought to add kicky secret layers to the artist’s image. (That person, you begin to wonder, painted this?) The work becomes souvenir, holy relic, tragic flaw.

But the work can also function like Instagram—a curated window into the inner life of the painter, to be sure, but still direct, and, occasionally, quite powerful. I marvel in the mystic crystal labyrinth of Bob Dylan’s photo-realist paintings, to pick an example from the images in the quiz below. (He’s an exception: Most celebrity painters seem oddly fixated on a certain Expressionistic slushiness, full of gaudy color, slashing lines, thick paint, representative of an idea of art similar to what other people’s ideas of art have already been.) Of these artists, some have genuine talent. But mostly, this striking phenomenon is not really about the work itself. Clearly, stars see art as a way out of one thing and into another; a means to shape their personas and control the feed. At the same time, celebrity visual artists tell us what we already know: Art has broken through, into mass consciousness, as spectacle, social life, and money. It’s the thing to do. Just like growing a beard. 

Which Famous Person Painted This?

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Tony Bennett

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Sylvester Stallone

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Stevie Nicks

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8

Paul McCartney

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8

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8

Joni Mitchell

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8

Bob Dylan

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8

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8

Billy Dee Williams

7

8

8

8

Anthony Hopkins

8

8

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*This article appears in the October 19, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.