Our good friend Nigel Mead, whose gallery Mead Carney can be found on London's Dover Street, W1, recently introduced us to the works of Robert Mars. Robert's vibrant paintings and collages bring the golden age of Americana and the nostalgia of the 50s and 60s back to life is large form. A student of Parsons, this skate kid, graphic designer turned fine artist pays 'homage to the idealized age of growth and hopefulness that was prevalent in the USA at the end of the depression.' A time where instead of 'instant internet celebrities' there was 'the allure of unique, untouchable and unforgettable personalities Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, Audrey Hepburn and Elvis Presley,' to the groundbreaking architecture of homes, hotels and motels to mechanics in the form of muscle cars. Which all continue to 'resonate with contemporary American culture.'
Interview by Sarah J. Edwards, Art by Robert Mars
How would you describe Americana today? If you listed five authentic things that spring to mind, what would you say are the modern day equivalent or something that has replaced the original?
"I would describe America as a country with immense pride, deep patriotism and a sense of opportunity. Many of the brands and concepts that have endured touch on those points. I think that one of the things that defines Americana is a rich (but relatively short) history that has become synonymous with American culture. Original purveyors of style and design that have proven their worth over decades have established themselves through strong visual branding, where the product itself becomes secondary to the lifestyle aspects of the brand. It’s difficult to forecast what current brands may resonate with us in the future. Who could be the rising version of Coca-Cola, Levi’s, Dodge, Ford or even Eames and other American architects and furniture designers. These brands are consistently found at the forefront of
What aspects of American culture of the 50s and 60s do you wish were still as respected today as they once were?
"I feel that the 1950’s and 60’s were a unique time in American history. There was a pride in community and sharing, country without nationalism and family. I believe today there is a societal disconnect where things have become increasingly insular. Small, independent businesses and a strong middle class helped America survive the Great Depression. The next decade brought World War II, with increased nationalism and austerity. Those tragic events bound the country and lead to the blossoming 50’s and 60’s, where innovation, beauty and pride in America were at the forefront of our culture. I wish that there were a revival of mom and pop businesses and less homogenized corporate culture, where “Main Street, USA” existed as it did decades ago. While the rise of technology has drastically altered access to every aspect of the consumers life, it has also provided smaller businesses with a larger platform. Americans could use that as an opportunity to shop small, support local business and return aspects of manufacturing and industry to the US."
How do you think these icons would have been treated if social media was as prevalent and accessible by everyone as it today, but with the older attitudes still intact?
"I think that the big difference between the Golden era of America and today is propriety. Back then it was not prudent or appropriate to flaunt your addictions, vices or private life. The big stars had agents that told them what to wear and how to act in public and they kept personal life separate to maintain allure and perhaps lend credibility to their acting style. Their lives were very stylized and controlled. Today we are inundated with shockingly personal information on a continual feed. Knowledge of every minute personal detail of a star’s life must be taking up valuable mental space in the social conscious. “Brain space” is bring wasted on gory details of someone’s latest bodily modification, instead of some higher pursuit of math, science or dare I say, art. The stars themselves divulge their personal lives to gossip and a greedy public devours photos of their newborns and vacations. It becomes a negative cycle that is not appealing to me. There seemed to be a sort of respectful distance and sense of privacy allotted to stars of the past. That golden aura of allure is more appealing to me than the latest set of long range lens photos of someone’s private life."
As hungry art school kids, we had to really hunt and collect inspirational media - books, magazines, posters, music, films and it was a real treat to see and own a great shoot with an actor or musician you admired. It felt like a glamorous glimpse into their world. There was a real frisson associated with owning something that was hard to come by. Now everything is accessible often aggregated and watered down and it doesn't have that same impact: seeing a beautiful photo in a tiny square or an incredible track played through a little speaker. Art is a great way to own and tap into that old feeling. I'd love to hear what you think about this.
"Being a teenager in the pre-internet 1980‘s we had to attend and be present to have a unique experience. I spent my youth skateboarding in New York City and seeing
punk bands at CBGBs and other local punk clubs. New York City was a haven for creativity at that time, and I was lucky to be there to experience it. Today it seems that through youtube and other social media the user can have an individualized and I would argue somewhat lonely, experience without being physically present. At concerts it seems that more and more people see the show through their smartphone and I feel that it detracts from and deadens the memories. I remember flashes from every show that I ever attended, going back over more than 30 years. When experiences and even memories [are] filtered through a screen the size of your hand, instead of the inner lens of your memory, your memory suffers. I think because I grew up physically immersing myself in a moment, it allowed me to better absorb each experience. The moment, the few hours in a too dark and too loud club with too many people was a treasure because that was all we had."
Do you find inspiration via social media at all?
"I do find limited inspiration through social media. At this point it mainly comes from Instagram. My preferred use of Instagram is as a tool, as an introduction to a real experience and not a replacement of the real experience. If I find something of interest I will search it out to see it in real life. There is so much great art happening and I would be remiss to not use social media as a discovery tool. I also use Instagram and Facebook to promote my art and hopefully inspire others."
As a photographer creating original content that is shot to be seen and owned in larger format print alongside unique interviews, I find it strange to see my work republished on social media, cropped, manipulated, taken out of context or uncredited. I feel that tiny space doesn't allow the full story to be told or doesn't do the larger format tangible piece justice [let alone] represent the time, effort or money that has gone into the creation of the work. Ownership has lost its boundaries and is a whole different thing, what are your thoughts on this?
"I agree with you that creating original content and then having it republished and viewed out of context can be frustrating. I have many people tell me that my work does not lend itself to social media formats like Instagram and Facebook because of the scale. My work is best viewed in person so the viewer can see how they are crafted and finished. The layering aspect of the work gets lost in a smaller format and the pristine top coat of epoxy resin does not show through in a small screen. I hope that people go back to spending time in galleries and libraries and really absorbing content instead of trying to get the condensed version by scrolling through a feed on an iPad. I love being in my studio, surrounded by hundreds of old Post, Life and Look magazines and searching for the perfect ad or line of text. A culture moving toward instant gratification may loose out on the immersive experiences of surprise and discovery."
We're running your Kate Moss Obsession piece with this article, can you describe this one, please? From the technique to the story behind it.
"With the Kate Moss piece titled “Jade Dust Eyes” I chose to use Kate as the main icon coupled with the logo for Calvin Klein Obsession. I think that the word “obsession” illustrates a fascination with Kate and speaks to the fact she has become a brand unto herself, just as Obsession has become synonymous with perfume. The background consists of a dot pattern that is familiar within the contemporary quilting community, but I use vintage ephemera instead of fabric. The dots are clipped from magazines and newspapers to examine use of typography, illustration and photography in the 1950’s and 60’s. I feel that Kate Moss has the same appeal to the world as Marilyn or Audrey did for their era. Kate has endured scandal and has come out relatively unscathed. She has transcended into iconic status and her face is timeless and classic."
I listened to an interesting quote from you that Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn had to be glamorous at all times and today you see sloppiness and scandal, is there anyone who is coming through who you think can have that kind of longevity or real inspiration? You have referenced Kate Moss, what is it about her?
"I do think that Kate Moss has longevity and similarities to Marilyn and Audrey. I recently collaborated with artist William Goodman and we chose current day icons that will endure over the decades. We chose Lady Gaga, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Amy Winehouse, Daniel Craig and David Beckham. We looked for people who had transcended their chosen career and have made their mark on multiple aspects of culture through the arts, fashion, music and philanthropy."
What elements of the 50s and 60s would you like to be current today? How do you think that would affect people?
"I do think that some parts of that culture are still alive. People have responded well to the restyling of some of Ford and Dodge’s retro 60’s cars and they still pay thousands of dollars for new and vintage, versions of Eames furniture. I do wish that every exit stop off the highway wasn’t the same endless parade of the same businesses and restaurants. The side of the road used to tell you the difference between Albuquerque and Atlanta, Cleveland and Concord. Mass marketing is erasing individual experiences and local color."