Between Rock and an Art Place
The inside of Mikey Welsh's Inman Square apartment looks like a paintball battlefield. Splashes, drips, and pools of vibrant colors Â— fireplug reds, screaming yellows, coal blacks Â— are everywhere. They trickle down the walls and dapple the doorknobs, but mostly they cover his explosive, almost manic, paintings.
“I'll wake up in the middle of the night and paint for a few hours,” Welsh says. “In the morning I'll paint for a few more hours before going out. Then I'll come back and paint until I go to sleep. I've done 17 paintings in the last four days.”
Many are astonishing. Not only for their subject matter Â— a crucified bull with a giant phallus, a life-size pope melting in the fires of hell Â— but also for their beauty and power. Influenced by abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock and early pop artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Welsh turns oils, acrylics, house paint, brush-stroked words, and pages torn from newspapers or porn mags into images that seduce the eye and ignite the mind. His work has a bristling energy that's akin to the heat thrown off by a great rock 'n' roll band.
Which makes sense, since Welsh's gig before he turned to painting was playing bass in the multiplatinum rock band Weezer. Welsh grew up in a household brimming with art, but forwent painting in his teens when the rock muse beckoned. He spent a decade in edgy bands like Chevy Heston and Stompbox before being anointed with stardom. He left the L.A.-based Weezer in 2001, returning to his native Boston after suffering a nervous breakdown.
“I started painting again in the hospital, and when I got out, I really dove into it,” says Welsh, who has exhibited at Boston's Paradise Rock Club. “When I was a kid, I dreamed of being a rock star. Now it's more satisfying to finish a painting than to play in front of 20,000 people every night.”
So Welsh has become part of a longstanding rock 'n' roll subgenus: musicians who paint. International stars as diverse as David Bowie, John Mellencamp, David Byrne, and Marilyn Manson are among their numbers. Locally, the cadre includes hitmaker Peter Wolf, Bowie's former guitar foil Reeves Gabrels, cult heroes like Willie “Loco” Alexander, and journeymen such as Adam Sherman and Asa Brebner.
“Rock 'n' roll and painting live in the same room,” says Alexander. “Like in music, there's improvisation. Sometimes you just get into a rhythm and attitude and fling paint around. You go exploring and find what the painting suggests. I keep every painting in my closet. I figure someday somebody's gonna realize, 'Hey, this guy's a painter,' and start buying them up.”
But not yet. Founder of punk pioneers the Boom Boom Band, Alexander has lately taken on bright ocean blues and fishing imagery of his beloved Gloucester Â— all seemingly friendly fare. Still, like many of his fellow painting rockers, Alexander is better known for his recordings than his bold canvases.
The difference, says Brebner, a Cambridge-based guitarist who used to play with Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers, is inherent in the medium. “With rock 'n' roll you're in a dysfunctional marriage with multiple partners,” he explains. “In art, you've only got yourself to deal with. Music and art have different kinds of rewards. When a performance is great and the audience loves it, there's no substitute. It's a cathartic thing you don't have with art.”
The intersections of these hybrid creators' sonic and visual works are intriguing. One of Brebner's more fascinating pieces is a detailed mixed-media study in evolution, which starts with apes and leads to nuclear oblivion. Its title, Progress, flexes the same barbed wit that often lurks beneath the lyrics of his songs.
As a painter, Cantabrigian Adam Sherman practices a highly structured style of abstract expressionism that incorporates graphic design and computer technology to create colorful, gripping images. “I think of it as a very distinctive and unfiltered kind of mark-making,” he says. The jazz-inspired songs on his first solo album, Songbird, are much the same, textured with layers of guitars, reeds, horns, and keyboards to support his literate, introspective lyrics.
“Doing music and visual art isn't easy,” Sherman says. “There's this often unspoken feeling that people would like you better if you just made a choice. But music and art often overlap around the edges. As an artist, there's a tendency to focus on the things that seem most meaningful for you. If those things involve both music and making images, well, if you're truly an artist, then it's only natural to follow your instincts.”