Redding artist channels mid-century imagery to get people talking today
Robert Mars reaches up to a cardboard box where a page from an old newspaper peeks out. It is one of about a half-dozen such receptacles, all holding publications that would have been topical some 50 to 60 years ago.
They occupy several shelves of a bookcase in his Redding studio. Then there are the stacks of old magazines, such as Life and National Geographic, in nearly a dozen plastic crates scattered throughout the space.
“I will never get through all of these,” Mars, says, smiling. Relics of the past, they also inform the present, and foretell daily struggles and joys that likely will be the experience of future generations. The worth of their artistic DNA provides power to his pop-art influenced works. He alternates layers of vintage paper and paint on wooden canvases, and then sands portions to reveal articles and ads. Mid-century fonts and fashions, graphics and photos, play peek-a-boo with the pop iconography placed front and center.
Mars works in the age of instant digital celebrities, but his muses are largely popular culture icons and objects of the 1950s and 60s — Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Jackie O and JFK, Grace Kelly, Muhammad Ali, Frank Sinatra. These are stars whose worth has not diminished with their deaths — if anything, they continue to fascinate and captivate.
“One of the concepts of my work is that the past is the present,” he says. “Jackie O is still alive in our minds.”
Pop Art has lived up to its name in the years since it hit the scene more than 60 years ago. It remains popular among collectors, curators and the public for its bold, bright colors and reliance on everyday objects and cultural icons. For masters of the craft, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns (who all influenced Mars), the pop figures and objects they adopted and approximated were very much present in their lives.
Mars could have used present-day icons and objects in his work. He could have grabbed images of iPhones, Lady Gaga and Kim Kardashian West, but he is drawn to the bygone era, traveling even further back when it comes to the layers. Through his wife’s interest in quilts and quilt making, Mars began using vintage wallpapers and contact paper about three years ago to create traditional quilt patterns that become part of the background. Call it folk-laced pop, his work brings out the best of American culture — its ingenuity, its boldness, its democratic ideals, its creative outlook and its hope.
“I do think there is a mystique about the 1950s and ’60s,” he says. Born a few weeks shy of 1970, Mars did not directly experience the era, but believes his work resonates with those who lived through that time, or perhaps wish they had. “I have done my due diligence to tell the story the way it was. But, obviously, I am curating what I want to tell.”
For instance, Mars does not directly reflect the race riots of the 1950s and ’60s, but his adoption of pop icons who spoke out about civil rights, such as Ali and Sinatra, are a shorthand to those ideals.
Mars also shows how celebrities once managed to be more glamorous and mysterious (think Hepburn during her “Breakfast at Tiffany” days) than their present-day counterparts. Celebrities were once hounded by shutterbugs, while today’s breed largely can’t stop clicking images of themselves. With such an avalanche of images, he wonders what celebrities will manage to rise to pop-icon status.
Although his work is steeped in nostalgia, he touches upon modern cultural shifts, such as the public’s evolving reaction to celebrities and the rather dizzying pace of innovation. The 1950s and ’60s were no slouches when it came to progress, but today’s new toy may literally be tomorrow’s relic.
“I want to try and slow things down,” he says of his work, which hopefully encourages viewers to ponder and talk about what has come before — the art of the roadside sign, the care in creating a corporate logo, the beauty of a tail fin on a Cadillac. Such reflection just may help develop the eyes that will determine the popular iconography of the next century. It all makes sense, given his background as a graphic designer for companies such as Aeropostale, Adidas and several skateboard companies.
This month marks a significant milestone in his career — the release of his first book, “Futurelics: Robert Mars Past is Present.”
“It goes all the way back to when I was (a kid) and making pictures of KISS and things from the 1970s, like custom vans and shag carpets. I really have been looking at icons my entire life. It’s not something I jumped on because it’s cool and Warhol did it. This is a lifelong passion for me,” he says. “Warhol was there in the 1960s, commenting on what was happening in the times. I am commenting on how these things are supposedly gone, but are still so ingrained in our culture.”
He suspects it’s not all about nostalgia, but a desire to recognize and reconnect with a particular value. At least, that’s the story he wants to tell. “All the pieces of my artwork make sense together,” he says. “There is nothing that is just random. There is nothing from a different era thrown in there just because. I think as an artist, you are curating and distilling down what you want your story to be.”
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