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All the Fame of Lofty Deeds

Jon Langford

Apr 9, 2010 – May 21, 2010

Jon Langford is a founding member of British punk band The Mekons and Chicago alt-country outfit The Waco Brothers, and a painter to boot. 

Langford’s “song-paintings” fuse publicity-shot portraiture with imagery derived from folk art, Dutch still life, classic Western wear, and the cold, cold war—all instilled with sharp, sardonic wit and a Constructivist sense of the power of language. He applies his completely distinctive style to the depiction of American music giants such as Bob Wills, Hank Williams, and Johnny Cash, and also to more ghostly, marginalized figures — blindfolded cowboys, astronauts, and dancers — jerked around by the forces of success and exploitation, fame and neglect.

It’s a style supple enough not only to express the artist’s deep regard for his musical heroes, but also for him to comment on the death-dealing tendencies in the culture of his adopted homeland, from the killing off of authentic popular music by homogenized, mass-marketed drivel to the embrace of capital punishment as a response to social ills.

Each painting involves a “long process of layering, scraping, and minute attention to detail. Basically, I create a very unstable surface with acrylics and pastel on top of each other and work on top of that with Sharpies, felt pens, white out, gunk, snot and whatever comes to hand.”

Read the Portland Phoenix cover story here.

“Over the years I picked up some ideas about how art was no solitary activity removed from the world, how you had to be able to talk, explain and justify your work. How it should be about your immediate situation and politics and your place in the food chain and relationship to the powers that be and really, it was never a problem for the Mekons to write songs about just those things after all the music biz crap we’d dealt with day in and day out for years. So what was the big difference between a song and a painting or even a gig and an art-show, (or as I was to discover later a big label and a big gallery?) Obviously all my fine art insider baggage couldn’t just be ditched out of some desire to make pretty pictures, I’d have to step around it, poke it with a long pointy stick and find out exactly which bits were crippling me. But maybe a painting could be like a song, maybe there is no difference.” Jon Langford – THE EXECUTIONER’S LAST SONGS

Langford’s paintings — acrylic paint, pencil and marker on plywood — depict images of Cash, Haggard, Hank Williams and other country music icons and imagery. While those stars of country music look proud in the paintings, there is always an element of sadness in them as well. Langford said this was part of what he was trying to communicate with them — about his shared experiences with this other culture and the music industry. “I’m just trying to describe some of the atmosphere in the paintings — the music and the way the industry treated the people who made the music, which has a darker side,” Langford said. “I’m just trying to come to terms with that. “To some extent these paintings are classic country western singers,” Langford continued, “but they’re actually paintings of photographs of classic country western singers, which is kind of the point. They are [taken from] publicity photographs [which are] photographs used to sell a product. They are also kind of autobiographical in the experience of trying to make music and the way that music and words work together.” R.W. Deutsch – SonicNet

In Langford’s paintings, there is a constant mixture of the photorealistic and the iconic, the silent and the loud, the famous and the faceless. Langford said he uses an interesting mixture of styles to get his message across. “There’s elements I can see in my paintings that are modernist but also medieval,” he said. “My etchings about Hank Williams were about the Cold War and the exploitation of the musicians of the time, so there was definitely a lot of autobiographical stuff because I’d done that. I’d signed contracts and been beholden to people and been a corporate employee. It’s about the notion of what you value.” John M. Gilbertson – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Punk-rock veteran, raw roots pioneer, and all-around Renaissance man, Jon Langford has spent some 20-odd years cutting a distinctive and rough-hewn path through rustic American music. It’s odd, of course, given his Welsh origins and the early days of his seminal group the Mekons, who answered the grandiose posturing of their peers The Clash and The Sex Pistols with the classic “Never Been in a Riot.” But unlike most of the first-wave British punk bands, the Mekons demonstrated both a remarkable staying power and a catalog that serves as one of the cornerstones of the alternative country universe, with Langford finding himself in the unlikely role of indie-rock godfather. It’s almost amazing that this bloke among blokes would ever find time for another trade, given his myriad side projects (Waco Brothers, Pine Valley Cosmonauts, etc.), but Langford has in recent years forged another path in the art world. His primitive yet striking paintings and headstones have an ancient quality that recalls the “weird, old America” of Harry Smith, Woody Guthrie, and Hank Williams Sr. And Langford seems intent on keeping his subject matter rather focused; his portraits of country music icons such as Williams, Patsy Cline, Bill Monroe, and others echo a time when Nashville wasn’t a scrubbed hub of squeaky-clean pseudo-cowboys and divas. The hickoid dementia of the past comes through loud and clear, helped no doubt by Langford’s own time spent as a punk foot soldier. Nashville Scene

Langford’s paintings are shot through with a mordant wit, a lot of cross cultural symbolism and a deep distrust of the music business. the works “are as much about music and politics as art.” “This is about side stepping the mounds of critical theory that left me nailed to the floor for 10 years after I finished art school. I never had any trouble writing songs the only way I managed to start doing the paintings was to think of them in the same way! I scratch them and scrape them and kick them around the floor and rub filth into them I’m not quite sure why, but they’re never finished until I’ve done that.” Mojo

From last summer’s Mekons comeback OOOH! and 25th-anniversary tour, from his single foray with his Toronto fans the Sadies and the many with his Chicago pals the Wacos, you’d think Langford was a road dog. But Langford doesn’t tour more than a week a month–he’d miss his kids too much. Instead, unlike so many art-school rockers, he exploits his graphic gift. The ace lyricist and sometime lecturer didn’t script Great Pop Things, he drew it, and most days he works not in a studio but in the disused room at a Chicago T-shirt factory where he fabricates the paintings that pay his mortgage: drawings of cowboy or country-western photographs that are affixed to plywood, colored in acrylic, pastel, and Sharpie, bedizened with shellac, and distressed with scratches, Wite-Out, skulls, dollar signs, and other subversive messages. They’re not big, and mostly go for under a grand, cheap in a unique-object economy otherwise beyond his means. “I can make one,” he says, “but I couldn’t buy one.” Robert Christgau, Village Voice

Glowing Reserves explores the aesthetic connections between collective joy, queerness, and nature. Guided by the question, “What will people need in Maine in March?” Kelley-Yurdin’s installation serves as a catalyst for levity, connection, and emotional respite at the close of winter.

Are you a Maine artist looking to fund a project? Apply to our American Rescue Plan Project grant program today. Deadline: June 26th at 11:59 PM.