As any Nashvillian knows, it’s fairly common for interpretations of country music and its associated icons to emphasize the commercial and cliché. Take a walk down Broadway, for instance, and you’ll see the Johnny Cash gift shop and hear countless honky-tonk covers of Jolene.
But in “Bacon Grease & The Lost Song,” the exhibition on view at Julia Martin Gallery until November 30, 2019, the history of country music is interpreted in a way that is all too rare: as fine art.
In roughly 30 mixed media pieces from artists Jon Langford and Wayne White, figures like Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn and George Jones are rendered in intimate, personal and thought-provoking ways.
“Jon and Wayne are working to preserve these artists’ legacy, by bringing it to a medium not often associated with country music, fine art,” guest curator Daniel Lonow said in an statement provided by the gallery. “The goal of this exhibit is to honor the heroes who made this city what it is, by showing the work of two of my favorite artists.”
That goal is quickly achieved when assessing nearly any piece in the show.
Death of Country Music, a 2008 acrylic and mixed media piece on wood by Langford, portrays a skeletal country crooner in cowboy boots and hat, strumming a guitar, surrounded by the lyrics of the Waco Brother’s eponymous song. It creates a visual memento mori to match, underscore and elevate the (perhaps surprisingly) intense country music ballad.
June Carter, a 2019 mixed media piece on paper by White, presents the subject in colorful yet limited fashion, perhaps to emphasize her fleeting place in memory. Carter appears in mid-dance step, the fringes of her figure fading into a stark white background. Scrawled text floats at the top of the frame. It at once diminishes Carter’s persona as a legend of country music, one who may more regularly be portrayed in larger-than-life fashion, while adding new depth and intimacy to a viewer’s relationship with her.
“I’ve been a disciple of old ’40s, ’50s and ’60s country music since I was in high school,” White told The Tennessean. “I love illustrating the intimate, looked-over human moments. The small scale draws you in. I do it as an excuse to experiment with line and color, with looking and interpreting. I also do it out of love for these musicians.”
White is originally from Chattanooga and is now based in Los Angeles. He’s worked as an illustrator for The New York Times and Village Voice, a designer for the television show Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and as an art director for award-winning music videos. He is perhaps best known for his “word paintings,” which stylize massive text in otherwise traditional landscapes.
Julia Martin Gallery is located at 444 Humphreys Street in WeHo.