As the chain-smoking lead singer of garage-rock duo the Kills, Alison Mosshart has lived the better part of the last two decades onstage: delivering provocative lyrics in her throaty, disaffected tone; collaborating with Jack White in the Dead Weather; tossing the hair from her face only to have it fall back in her eyes, ceaselessly; and generally embodying the traditional essence of what it means to be a rock star. She started performing at a young age — her first band, Florida punk outfit Discount, went on tour before she had even entered high school — but music isn’t the only creative outlet she’s spent a lifetime pursuing. Like Courtney Love and Kim Gordon before her, Mosshart is also a painter, making works of art backstage and in hotel rooms while on tour, as well as in her Nashville studio (when she can find the time). Her first solo show, titled “Fire Power,” opens today at the Joseph Gross Gallery in Chelsea.
“I have been [making art] since I was a kid,” Mosshart explains. “My mom was a high school art teacher, so I grew up surrounded by it. It’s always been something I’ve done because I’ve really enjoyed doing it. This is the first time I’ve ever done a solo show; that part is all completely brand-new to me. I’m still finding my feet with that. I don’t totally know if I understand the art world. [It’s] definitely different than the music world.”
Though she’s a fierce and fearless performer when it comes to belting Kills tunes, Mosshart mostly kept her artwork to herself until friends encouraged her to make an Instagram account and share her work there. “I just started posting paintings, and I think within like three or four days of doing that, I got offered a bunch of group shows,” she recalls. “I did a group show in New York [also at Joseph Gross] that went well. I sold everything I hung there, so they offered me a solo show.” For this exhibition, Mosshart submitted nearly 300 paintings and mixed-media drawings, of which more than 120 pieces made it into the show. “I have a ton, a ton, a ton of paintings. So it’s actually super cool to get them out of my studio and off the floor, out of all the boxes and up on a wall,” she laughs. “I guess it’s encouraging and inspiring that people like them and want them. That’s cool.”
Similar to the way others might use Instagram to share oddities from their day, portraits of friends, or scenes from their travels, Mosshart’s paintings are snapshots of the very same: a collection that acts, in many ways, as a sort of timeline of the last few years of Mosshart’s chaotic rock ’n’ roll lifestyle. There are references to places from Hollywood to Chicago and Mexico to Marseilles. “I bring paints and paper everywhere I go. That stuff takes up half my suitcase,” Mosshart admits. “I walked into the gallery yesterday and looked around and it was almost like having an out-of-body experience; like looking at a road trip movie in my head. Those things are made all over the place and they’re completely inspired by all these different places, and people I see and meet and know, and conversations I overhear. I’m constantly inundated with scenery and new situations and environments, so I suppose all of that comes right back out of me into a song or a painting or a bit of writing or something.” Far from being overwhelmed by it all, Mosshart sees each moment as a muse. “That’s why I love being on tour, that’s why I love traveling so much. It’s endlessly exciting to me and inspiring. It’s seriously like a million diary entries to me.”
In calling the show “Fire Power,” Mosshart makes reference to the combustible energy that drives her forward — as she puts it, “the endless moving, and the speed at which I work, and the complete chaos of it all.” It’s also a phrase scrawled across the bottom of one of the paintings; in piece after piece, cryptic text floats in the margins between jumbled forms. “I’m a lyricist — I write words pretty much all day long, so it makes sense to me that I’m also writing in my paintings as well,” she explains. “They can be nonsensical. It’s more of a feeling than meaning.”
Just as she uses a guitar riff to set the mood of a jagged Kills stomp, Mosshart’s seemingly manic mark-making is a similar exploration of tempo, whether that’s the childlike scribble of oil stick, a gonzo splatter, or a tire tread running rampant through a canvas. “The tire tracks…” she says, “that was kind of a long process.” Not only inspired by being on the road, Mosshart also takes her cues, it seems, by what is actually on the road. “I’ve always loved skid marks, treads, donut marks — like people spinning out, that mark that they leave. If I could cut out the ground and frame that, I would. I just think they’re so beautiful — they’re like these strange fossils of engine power.”
After friends talked her out of using her own car to re-create them, she and her brother scoured a used-tire lot. “I was really disappointed because the weight of the car and the grunt of the engine is such a big part of making that mark. Just rolling a tire casually over a piece of paper didn’t really quite do it for me.” Alternatively, she says, “I ended up a couple of days later at a Toys ‘R’ Us in the middle of the night…and just basically went to the register with a whole bunch of remote control cars with great tread, bought a shit-ton of batteries. I felt like a fucking kid, just laughing hysterically. I don’t think there’s anything more fun than racing a paint-covered remote control car around your studio. I would figure out if the painting was done when the batteries ran out.”
That sense of adventure appears again in her portraits, which brim with deconstructed features and kinetic smudges of color or deep, dark strokes of black ink. She even stains pages with wine and coffee, a medium born of accessibility. “There is no backstage room without coffee and wine in it, you know?” she reasons. “Whether I come prepared or not, they’re always there.”
The images, too, are a kind of language, her forms exaggerated and expressive, sometimes implying frustration, a mild sort of violence, or mental collapse. Mosshart describes this as a “slash and burn” approach. “I mean, the speed at which I paint is fast, it’s like the most immediate thing. When you’re writing a song you’re constantly editing yourself. I can’t edit myself when I’m painting; it’s all happening too fast. And I think that’s what I’m so in love with, is that it’s insanely raw. It’s about as close as you can get to performing [and] being onstage, which is my ultimate favorite place to be…completely riding the energy of what’s going on around me. And really great things come from that. I am always looking for that in almost every single thing I do. I live for that, but you can’t really force it, it just has to happen. The paintings are really, I think, just the closest thing to being brutally honest. They’re just really human.”
Mosshart says she’s also in the middle of recording new records with both the Kills and Dead Weather. “This has been an incredibly productive year so far, and we’re only halfway through,” she says with a laugh. For her, tapping into that unseen creative force and becoming the conduit through which it flows is the ultimate goal. “Sometimes songs come out of nowhere and they’re the most automatic things ever and you can write a song beginning to end in just about the amount of time it takes to play it. Those are magical songs and they’re really hard to come by. And I do think painting is like that too. Some paintings just make themselves. Those are the good ones. Those are the good paintings, and those are the good songs. Those are the good anything. I couldn’t repeat it if I tried.”
Alison Mosshart’s “Fire Power” opens at the Joseph Gross Gallery in Chelsea June 18 and runs through July 11.