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Bernie Taupin has long been known for his wildly successful career as a lyricist. But for over a decade he’s been making paintings and sculptures at his home in California. We caught up with the U.K.-born artist in May when he was in town for the Downtown Art Fair. He was showing a few paintings at KM Fine Arts’ booth, including an eye-catching work entitled “Bang.” At the end of the month, a solo show of his work will open at the gallery’s Chicago location.
WHITEWALL: You’re well known for your music career. How did you find yourself gravitating towards painting and sculpture?
BT: I started like anybody else in art, by emulating the people that I particularly appreciate, but like anybody else you eventually gravitate towards finding your own voice, your own style.
For me, the whole thing about abstract art or expressionism is what you perceive. It’s like the old Andy Warhol thing, when people asked him what a piece meant he’d say, “Well, what does it mean to you?” It works the same way with songs. It’s like, what were you thinking? Because your idea might be more interesting.
WW: Text can be a way to bring viewers in, like you did with BANG, a painting of the word “Bang” on NRA targets.
BT: I think it’s very important that whatever text you come up with is universal. People ask if it is pro guns or anti guns and I ask, “Well what do you think?” Because I’m not going to tell anybody. Why would I? And I’m not sure that I actually know. Whether people like it or not is sort of irrelevant but it does catch people’s attention. That is really the driving point of it, that’s why I made it so big and bold NRA targets. That’s food for thought.
WW: For this work in particular, is there something that you started with? How did you start working with the material of the targets?
BT: I live on a ranch, so I have guns but they’re in a gun closet. We have a coyote problem and anybody who lives in a rural area probably has a few shotguns. It’s not like I’m a rabid gun enthusiast who is going to the range everyday.
I went through my target phase where I wanted to get into more of the eye popping Warhol-esque phase of my career without purloining styles from anyone else. Mine are supposed to be almost comic. The interesting thing about them is the text. All the words are strung together so it makes people go up and then suddenly realize this actually does say something. It makes people look into the piece and spend time with it.
WW: And are you still working on abstract expressionist color paintings while you’re doing these?
BT: Not so much, I liked doing the abstract expressionism but I didn’t feel they were original enough basically. I liked them, but now I am using melted crayon.
WW: What made you start using that material?
BT: I love all kinds of mediums. Wire, string, cardboard, wire…
WW: Are you a collector of art?
BT: I collect rather strange, iconic photos of old time musicians. People look at the picture and say, “Who on earth is that?” And it’s probably Hank Williams’ driver license. I like odd pictures of odd characters.
WW: How do you find those?
BT: Oh, I’ve got my connections or I will see them in books and think that’s a fantastic shot and get in touch with the photographer. Usually he will say, “You are the only person that’s every inquired about that picture.”
WW: Was there one picture that got this collection started?
BT: I have a great picture of Johnny Cash absolutely stoned out of his mind, sweating, and pointing at the camera. You can just see he is as high as a kite. So I thought, well, that is fantastic.