Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Roy Orbison Series

I'm currently working on a group of paintings that go by the title the Roy Orbison series. Roy is the perfect subject for a series of paintings, because he is a fastening persona that I feel a connection with, but I also feel some distance from and perspective on. It's hard to describe, but I'll try.
I sometimes describe Roy Orbison this way to people: Roy is like an alien that came to earth to spy on people. (Even that name sounds alien---ORBISON) There is something very strange and unworldly about Roy. He looks like an alien in a human disguise that could be better.
I'm not trying to be mean. That's just the best way I can think of to describe Roy's strangeness. I should quickly mention that very strangeness makes him a great artist and person.
But, boy he sure is strange isn't he? That is the nexus of my inspiration. He had a voice that has been reported to span four octaves. He had a black Pompadour that looked like it was made out of jet black fishing line. He wore sunglasses in almost all situations. He was shy and had a heart of gold. He was best buds with Johnny Cash. Despite the soaring nature of his voice, he sang quite softly, in an airy way like a whisper with a wind tunnel's worth of air going through it. Sam Phillips, in anger, once told Roy his voice was weak and that he had to put a mic right up to Roy's face to cut a track. Roy just laughed. Millions of fans and casual observers since have also laughed. But Sam did have a point. Roy's voice isn't all power and virtuosity; there is also something very frail about it.
All this personality is transferred to his music. Roy has a unique mix of country, gospel and rock 'n' roll, pop-ed out to the extreme, mostly in ballad form. But that doesn't tell the whole story. His songs are strange, surreal, dreamy, maudlin tales full of a strange atmosphere that is both mega corny and simple heartfelt expression. It must be also said that his songs have a sort of creepiness to them. Perhaps that is purely due to strangeness. Obviously that is part of it, but while I enjoy a three minute vacation to Roy Orbison land, I wouldn't want to live there.
It's not so much that I love his music. I like it a lot and listen to is often. On the other hand, there is a lot of stuff a listen to way more, stuff that I think had more musical value. I don't just paint this series because I'm a fan expressing that fandom. In fact, that seems like a dangerous perspective for a painter to take, and a reason that this isn't the Buddy Holly series. I can take a step back from Roy easily and have a cool, perceptive take on him. That is a good place to come from for this kind of painting.
Roy doesn't seem full color to me. So, as I do from time to time, I set up a rule for the series: I only use three pigments, black, red and white. First I use black because, to me Roy is the true man in black. I can imagine Johnny Cash relaxing at home in full color, but I feel like Roy only has black clothing. Well, he did have a killer orange sweater, so I should say that it is harder for me to imagine Roy in non-black than Johnny. There is no black without white, so I sort of had to use that too. But white is a very expressive color. One can paint with only white and let the sculptural quality of the paint dictate the imagery. It is hard to get away with that with another color. Plus, my other color is red, so with white I can make pink, which seems like a very Orbisony color! That's right red--the color of blood, passion, anger, the heart. Beneath the skin of every person, even the legendary or the invisibly shy, is red---and so I must use it.
I once read an article which described Roy's disastrous foray into movies something like this: 'Even a Rock star has to have some semblance of personality to make it in movies.' Apparently this writer was not too familiar with Roy. Roy Orbison has more personality than Dee Snider, Gene Simmons, Van Morrison and Elvis combined. I'm still waiting for the spaceship.

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