As printed in the summer edition of Art & Museum Magazine
Movies, television and songs often inspire the formation of additional pieces of popular culture. The Kris Gebhardt painting, Play Guitar, was not only influenced by John Mellencamp’s hit “Play Guitar” but also born of Gebhardt’s past life as the singer-songwriter and fellow Indiana native’s trainer.
After a heart attack in the mid 1990s, Mellencamp enlisted the aid of then fitness author and trainer, Gebhardt. Mellencamp needed to rebuild his weakened body and Gebhardt was the man for the job. This is no easy task with any heart patient, but a performer who spent most of the year living in hotels, eating at restaurants and sedentary in transit would need 24/7 support. Gebhardt accompanied Mellencamp to keep his workout regimen and diet on track. Prior to his coronary event, Mellencamp had been painting. He offered Gebhardt not only a glimpse of the rock-n-roll lifestyle, but also a peek into the soul of a MASTER artist. The time they spent together proved beneficial for both, as Mellencamp continued to rock, write and paint, and Gebhardt’s creativity was awakened.
Play Guitar, is colorful, gritty and layered like most Gebhardt paintings — akin to a grinding bass and screaming axe trading lead on an extended play vinyl version of a favorite jam. The image of a sad rock star not only competes with the words written on the piece but challenges the popular notion we all have of a rocker’s lavish debauchery — going head-to-head with the reality that Gebhardt witnessed totally immersed in that world for six years.
Like the thump and bump of the music that has defined several generations, Play Guitar drags the viewer into the 1980s, rife with metal-mania, punk, glam and arena all converging on radio and television as American kids announce “I want my MTV.” Aspiring heavy metal hair bands and music industry frauds wait around every corner to make naive boys who pluck instruments — with the sole intent of getting laid — into overnight sensations. In the immortal words of Mellencamp “…if you really want to taste some cool success you better learn to play guitar…”
Debuting as Johnny Cougar, he became John Cougar, John Cougar Mellencamp, John Mellencamp — a man of many names created by a manager-mister — because back then, everyone needed a gimmick. But the true musician, singer-songwriter, poet, artist that Mellencamp “hatched” into, dominated the charts as himself; not the “Bruce Springsteen-light,” half cowboy-half biker created in a high-rise office building.
Gebhardt lurked in the wings as what could have been the nuclear fallout of a promising career suckled at the wrong teat played out in concert halls all over the country. Years after finding his way as himself, Mellencamp would be mocked on the streets of Anytown, USA, with shouts of “Johnny Cougar, play guitar,” and smart-ass laughter. Shrouded in the tenuous confidence of success, it wasn’t obvious to all the “soul-crush” that Mellencamp experienced, but Gebhardt felt the gut punch with him just the same.
Channeling Mellencamp’s pain, Gebhardt’s painting is somber, lonely and the visual
representation of the proverbial brooding creative-type wearing his heart (or in this case his cherry-bomb) on his sleeve. The image crafted for Mellencamp by music industry insiders — womanizing, boozing, all-nighters complete with sex, drugs and raucous parties — couldn’t have been further from the truth. Depicting the inner conflict between professional success and loss of self, Gebhardt penned this poem on Play Guitar, “The king is gone, his life a sad song, lost himself pleasing everyone. Hey, hey, hey, it’s alright, I ain’t trying to bring you down tonight.” Etched along the guitar neck we see lyrics from the actual song “All the women around the world want a phony rock star,” and that’s just what the 80s delivered.
The Gebhardt work Play Guitar depicts complex concepts and boil the 80s down to paper rock stars and everyday schmoes trying to live in a fabricated world begging the question, “Do we really want our MTV,” or would we have been better off without it? Were the dreamers seeking fame and fortune at any cost the only ones duped by THE INDUSTRY, or have we all been lulled by the hype? Play Guitar will be on display at the Red Dot Show during Art Basel in Miami, FL the first week of December 2019.
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About the Author:
Kristie L. Smith Nikitin is a product of the American Midwest. She has a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Bowling Green State University (OH) and a Master of Science in Communications from Grand Valley State University (MI). She loves writing and doesn’t care if it’s a “to-do” list, ad copy, fiction or a social media post about Friday night plans. After living in Ohio, Michigan and Indiana, she now makes her home in central Illinois with her husfriend, Greg and step-dog, Louie.