I was raised in a manner that taught me to absorb and appreciate art and culture wherever I could find it. My parents took us on vacations to places like London and Paris, seeing sites such as the Louvre or the Victoria & Albert museum, and the desire to learn about the world through art never left me. When I was a senior in high school, I spent a very nerdy, yet formative, week at a program in DC called “Presidential Classroom.” It was a sort of mock government, but more importantly, I was away from home and around students from 32 different countries. We had plenty of time to explore DC and all that it had to offer, as well as learn about each other’s cultures. In one week, I bunked with a girl who was born, raised and living in then war-torn Sri Lanka, made close friends with a Canadian who was “out” in high school, and saw the nation’s Capitol for the first time. Free from Texas, the rest of the south as I had known it and the supervision of my parents, I had the freedom to explore the museums and art exhibits that appealed most to me. In between the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival, which filled the mall with a plethora of sights and sounds, I wandered into a pop-art exhibit, and left a lifelong fan.
Since then, I’ve always been drawn to the bright colors, sensational images, and unique interpretations that are associated with pop-art. Roy Lichtenstein’s Kiss V still sticks out in my mind. Blonde haired, red lipped, filled with so much emotion for what my eyes perceived as a cartoon, I was blown away, to say the least. My love of pop-art continued when I lived in London, where I was able to see both large- and small-scale exhibits in varying styles. It was then I first became a fan of Banksy, whose clandestine street art was rapidly spreading from Bristol to the rest of the world. I saw the Warhol vs. Banksy exhibit — “The first exhibition anywhere, of over 40 mixed media works by Banksy and Andy Warhol.” Building upon my love of Warhol’s works first seen in the Smithsonian, my appetite for art grew more and more voracious. By the time I returned to the United States, pop and graphic art was everywhere, whether we realized it or not — even in politics. Artist Shepard Fairey invaded both our artistic and political consciousness with his now-infamous Obama piece, which has been replicated thousands of times since.
In what feels like a world away from the London and DC art scenes, I continue to seek out art and culture in Charleston. While most gallery spaces strike me as appealing to a different, stereotypically “old, white and southern” crowd, a new show caught my eye. Beginning this today and running through July 31, SCOOP Studios will be showing the new works of Philadelphia-based pop artist, John Stango. Ironically enough, over the weekend, Southern Prince Charming and I had been walking on Broad Street when a bright red painting caught my eye and I immediately declared: “I want it.” I was more than pleasantly surprised to see it was part of John Stango’s solo show. With the show opening on Friday evening, immediately I had to know what brought him to Charleston, and I emailed him to arrange an interview. When I heard back so quickly from both John and his fiancée/publicist/agent, Mimi, I was ecstatic to talk with him prior to his departure for Charleston.
John has a thick northeastern accent, and the conversation quickly led to Charleston. He explained that his fiancée’s parents had moved to Charleston, and when they visited, he not only thought that it was beautiful, but was surprised it had so many galleries, around 35 or 40, he recounted. He also explained the galleries had a bit of a different style than those in Philly, referring to the more traditional, conservative art forms; they also seemed to appreciate a hot, newer style. Stango noticed the people of Charleston are also very young and hip, but with a beautiful, romantic southern backdrop. He could tell that “Things were changing in South Carolina”, as we discussed candidacy of an African-American Republican male and an Indian-American female for major political offices. Stango also appreciated that Charleston was “very cosmopolitan, I dig the vibes of the city”.
For pop art to come to Charleston would be a bit surprising, if it weren’t for the affluence of pop art in recent years, which I also asked him about:
“How do you feel about graphic or pop art becoming main stream, specifically with things like street art, or artists like Banksy?”
Stango pointed out that “Pop art had become mainstream during the 80s, with MTV,” something I had never thought about before. He then pointed out that “Now, it’s all over the place, even places like Saks and Chanel… I like it.” This glamorized perspective of pop art is apparent in Stango’s work, particularly in his works that include Audrey Hepburn, among other glamour icons. His show in Charleston will be the first time he has shown any pieces of his new series focusing on stewardesses, prior even to his stewardess show in the fall in New York City. With his fiancée, a stewardess, as his muse, he has plenty of fantastic pieces I’m dying to see in person.
But the legendary image of the stewardess is not the only focal point of Stango’s work. He also has a lot of patriotic symbolism featured, which I asked about, with a strong sense of cynicism toward the entire subject: “Most pop art is known for repeating an image until it becomes meaningless, yet you use lots of patriotic or historic imagery in your work. Do you feel the same way, that you’re using them until they’re meaningless, or perhaps that they are already meaningless?” His refreshing response both surprised and delighted me: “I love those patriotic symbols […] our flag has personality, it’s very cool.” I commented that I liked his use of patriotic symbols without using only red, white, and blue, and he responded “I used to see soldiers with uniforms that had black flags on the shoulders. It stood out; it was a flag, but it was black and white,” which later inspired his further experimentation with colors. He also loves using eagles, historical figures, old west symbols like Clint Eastwood, 1950s icons such as James Dean and other symbols of “Free-spirit patriotism,” the kind that “reminded us of our right to bear arms” and of the spirit that led us to “fight for our independence from the British.” He also referred to it as “Johnny America” art, and said he is sometimes referred to as the “Patriotic Pop Artist,” with his use of flags as “macho, with a beautiful, great design.” Pulling from influences like Andy Warhol, Peter Max, Banksy and Shepard Fairey, it’s no wonder Stango’s art has become both nationally and internationally known.
The beauty of the art, however, is not just skin-deep. Stango also does art as a means of giving back. He often creates a piece to donate to a charitable auction, supporting breast cancer research or other such philanthropies. He did mention, however, that he “Donates but never goes to the auction,” for fear “that no one will bid on them,” something I doubt has ever occurred. Stango also is forward-thinking, always creating and looking for new ways to become influenced. In the future, he mentioned a desire to work on some more “Southern-specific” things, such as the use of Confederate money, old south iconography such as tobacco or even the concept of a Southern Belle. Perhaps with more time in Charleston and other shows in the south, Stango’s art will have an opportunity to imitate southern life, or, if I had my way, life would more closely imitate his art.
Stango was as pleasant to talk to as his art is to look at, and I can’t wait to see the entire show on Friday, which Stango will also attend. The event is free and open to the public, and light refreshments will be complimentary to guests. SPC and I will definitely be in attendance, because not only do I support my local art scene, I’m also John Stango’s newest fan.
John Stango Solo Show
Reception: 5 to 8 p.m., Friday, July 9
Artist: John Stango
On View July 9-July 31, 2010