For most of 2020 and at least half of 2021, musical artists were forced off of stages, out of venues, off the road, and into some form of isolation. Those circumstances brought forth a lot of streaming, remote performances, one-man-band-type recording experiments, and attempts—some astonishingly successful—to collaborate musically while working and playing in separated, remote locations. But for George Clinton, the man behind Parliament-Funkadelic and one of the most creative and socially spirited figures in modern American music, that meant painting.
“It was a lifesaver,” he says over a recent Zoom connection. When the pandemic started, he had to cancel an ongoing tour and head home, like everybody else. There, “the more I heard people bitching about being locked down, the more I wanted to paint. It was great, I loved spending my days that way. I just went crazy, worked from 7 a.m. to midnight, every day. I bought every piece of canvas in this town, they ran out, I was painting bird houses."
Clinton has been making visual art for a few decades, but at no time previously with that pace and prominence. The result of all that work—which in his telling sounds more like the exuberant pleasure that comes through in his music—was his first solo art show, Free Your Mind, an exhibit of 25 organized by Spring McManus Art Advisory at the Spillman | Blackwell gallery in New Orleans, from October 2 to November 3, 2021 (some works are being shown at the Soho Beach House during Art Basel Miami through January 31). For Clinton, it sounded like his first encounter with the fine arts world, and he was amused by people “intellectualizing” his work, looking at it through the perspective of techniques and art history, when he was, in his own way, really just doing the kind of thing he’s always done.
"When I make a recording,” he points out, “I throw the kitchen sink at it, then I start to take things out. I end up with a whole other record of stuff.” That’s his musical sound, a funk foundation with musical and lyrical ideas, horns and verbal asides, spinning around overheard—funky, funny, irreverent, reaching out to the public, but also at the core bluesy and dead serious, as anyone familiar with Maggot Brain (album and title track) knows. Clinton describes those musical roots as starting with the polish of Motown and “adding the blues, funking it up.” Making it fun, but being serious about making sure it’s fun. He references Miles Davis’s own exploration of painting later in his life: “Miles painted too, when he started out, he said, ‘that ain’t shit.’ But then he got serious about it, and it was serious stuff.
“So I paint, then I take stuff out. I would fill a canvas, then take stuff out. Trust the funk.” And like with Parliament-Funkadelic, he absolutely did things his own way. He also got a lot of useful advice from artist Overton Loyd, who illustrated a number of Clinton albums, including creating the album cover for Motor Booty and the comic book that’s part of the inside sleeve of Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome. Loyd gave him tips on technique, including “like, you can’t spray paint everything! But he also told me, don’t tell me what you did!” He mostly got out of the way and let Clinton do what he wanted.
Loyd, though, was crucial in one respect, serving as Clinton’s eyes, because the musician is color blind. “I used to cut hair,” Clinton explains, “I can do a fade, follow a shape and texture and shadow,” and so manage space and balance on the canvas. Loyd “helped me with structures and colors, he gave me the dos and don’ts.”
Loyd may have guided the colors, but the imagery is Clinton’s own, and straight from his own personal interests and pleasures. Foremost is ideas out of science fiction. During the pandemic, he “binged on Star Trek and shows about alien encounters and alien technology … ‘Beam me up, Scotty,’ and traveling through different dimensions, what that looks like.” The pictures have recurring faces that look like classic dreamscape aliens, and ideas that run through his music, like the alien Mothership and the Atomic Dog. Looking at and thinking about pictures from space, “planets, gasses, nebulas,” the paintings are something of a survey of Clinton’s outer space imagination, the spaces yet unspoiled by the messes on the Earth.
One of the consistent things in all the pictures is the focus on a facet inside the phantasmagoria of shapes and colors that balances possibilities, even utopianism, with reality. The painting BLM (2020) has a face that might be staring at us in puzzlement or that’s simply full of agony and despair. The Atomic Dogs of Seeking St. Bernard (2020) look haunted; the motherships don’t appear to be here to help, not even in the sense that they are a means for Black people to escape racism, as in Sun Ra’s cosmology.
Inside these original, personal images there are occasional, intriguing visual memories of work that’s come before. Blacks Live Masterfully (2020) has a face, looking to the side, that is reminiscent of Mati Klarwein’s famous album cover for Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew, while Alice in My Fantasies (1999) has a crowned figure that could have come out of a Basquiat painting, and a collage work includes a picture of Smokey Robinson. Beyond illustrations for albums, or a musician whiling away their downtime with a hobby, these are meaningful works from an artist who has ideas that are clear to him and has found a way to express them visually. Shapes, colors, images, and their juxtapositions come together in psychologically complex balances between beauty and, if not danger, then some kind of ambivalence. On one sketchbook piece, he wrote, “I do this.”
As a musician, Clinton works with other musicians and an audience, making music with and for people. Clinton points out that in concert, his band's sets are mostly unscripted. He lists maybe two songs, then sees how the audience is reacting before picking what comes next, “it’s control and also chaos, putting that together.” He doesn’t paint with any audience, client, or gallery in mind; it’s just one more facet of an enviable amount of energy and joy in doing things, making things. The energy in the paintings is like that, the borders of the canvas keeping everything from going completely out of control, and holding in the life and energy.
With all the work on painting, Clinton never left music behind. “All the time I was painting, I was rehearsing,” he says—he’s going to be leading Parliament-Funkadelic in concert in Newark, January 21, 2022—and the painting continues. It wasn’t just during the pandemic. There are still musicians to collaborate with, more music to funk up.