Neon pop, watercolor superstars: Kelly Inouye’s ‘MTV Generation’ paints a cultural moment

At the Marrow Gallery in the Sunset, watercolors of Prince, Madonna and Public Enemy hang on the walls, along with other 80s acts, part artist Kelly Inouye. MTV Generation (until June 4). Inouye has been painting watercolors on pop culture subjects for nearly 20 years, most recently completing a project, Against the Ropes, about female wrestlers and feminism. To explore the cultural impact of Boy George, Michael Jackson and Twisted Sister in living rooms around the world, Inouye read books by bell hooks and Questlove as well as an oral history of the network and searched for the right image to portray the acts. .

In addition to being an artist herself, Inouye created a residency for female artists, Irving Street Projects, which closed during the pandemic. Many artists who have completed residencies there have been recruited by larger venues, such as Cathy Lu, who currently presents Interior Garden at the Chinese Culture Center, and Leah Rosenberg, whose Getting Better Everyday A Color recently wrapped at SFMOMA.

Inouye explained why she loves watercolors even though they’re considered an “amateur” medium, how Michael Jackson and rap artists had to fight to get their videos on MTV, and how Bell Hooks says pop culture is here. where is the pedagogy.

“Madonna” by Kelly Inouye

48 HILLS When did you start thinking about MTV?

KELLY INOUYE I had been painting on TV shows I watched as a kid for almost 20 years. I have always tended towards more obscure subjects: I made a few paintings on Peewee Playhouse and The fantasy island and sights that were perhaps less recognizable. I realized at some point that even though MTV was such a huge common culture that we all shared and talked about, I had never touched on it in my work – and that felt strange to me.

Usually in my process I start researching, and during my research I found that there isn’t a ton of scripture or cultural analysis on MTV in general. I thought that was interesting because it had a huge influence on the 80s and Gen X. It defined that generation in a lot of ways, so I thought there was a lot to think about here. And then I was totally overwhelmed [laughs]. What am I supposed to present from this decade that is relevant today and important for us to reflect on?

48 hours What have you decided?

KI I landed on this historical, chronological order, and that’s how I hooked the show. That was my structure for thinking about MTV in the 80s. I started at the start of the Channel with the second British invasion, and I chose Duran Duran to represent that. Then I moved on to Michael Jackson and Madonna because you can’t really have a conversation on MTV in the 80s without talking a lot about Michael Jackson and Madonna.

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And then some of the things that I found really interesting about the decade and the acts that were so popular was the androgyny that was sort of accepted and admired on all levels. The next three images I chose were of Boy George and Prince and Twisted Sister because they really played with gender dynamics. Boy George was obviously out and gay even though no one ever talked about it. And Prince had this incredible gender fluidity, and in his group he had Wendy and Lisa who were lesbians and on TV in suburban living rooms all over the world. Then there was Twisted Sister with Dee Synder wearing that Louis XIV makeup.

48 hours How did you research for the show?

KI I had a good book, I want my MTV, it’s a compilation of interviews with 400 or 500 people involved in the creation of MTV – people who starred in the videos, people who started the channel, administrators, all kinds of people. It’s a first-hand account with a sort of quote pastiche. There’s no linear narrative that I think is so appropriate for MTV, for it’s just a bunch of non-linear quotes [laughs].

Another book that I found really fascinating was music is history by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. He’s kind of linking music and social and political issues and how they reflect each other. It was a wonderful book. Then bell hooks’ Outlaw Culture is a phenomenal collection of essays on various topics in popular culture. She championed the idea that you can learn a lot about politics, culture, and feminism by looking at popular culture.

It’s an amazing set of essays, especially the Madonna one. MTV is kind of woven all over the place. She has also written extensively on Beyonce, and also on Public Enemy. She’s written extensively about Spike Lee and “Fight the Power” in do the right thing and used characters from popular culture to brilliantly illustrate academic topics that might otherwise seem a little dry. A quote at the beginning of the book that really stuck with me was “Pop culture is where the pedagogy is.”

“Boy George” by Kelly Inouye

48 hours What are the most important things you took away from MTV?

KI I was surprised in historical research on the racism people faced for getting their music out into popular culture. I was surprised to learn that Michael Jackson had to finance his own video for “Thriller”. The network has long refused to air its music saying it is a rock network. They used these racist euphemisms like “It’s not our kind of music” or “It doesn’t fit our mold”.

The only reason he got this opportunity was because the network was almost down a year after he was born. People were getting tired of Hall and Oates and Duran Duran, and his record company was threatening to pull all their other acts if they didn’t play the Michael Jackson videos. After that, he was the most popular, highest rated and most sought after act in the world, and opened the door for all the other acts that followed.

Then it happened again at the end of the decade – they didn’t want to embrace rap or hip hop. Someone [Fab 5 Freddy] begged and begged to give her half an hour at 2am on Saturday or Sunday, and it was Yo! Rap MTVand that went back to being a whole other revival of the network, he insisted that he had a journalistic orientation, and he would go to Brooklyn and Los Angeles and the bay area and talk to people about what was going on there- down, but again he had to kick the door down.

It was surprising to me. I take it all for granted after growing up watching Yo! Rap MTV and Snoop Dog and Dr. Dre were all people who populated my childhood, but I had no idea you had to fight so hard to be recognized.

48 hours How do you now see the impact of MTV?

KI: In my mind, there’s a guideline you can draw that starts with Andy Warhol, whose films influenced a whole generation of art school filmmakers like Kenneth Anger and Bruce Connor, and all the non-linear filmmakers who influenced filmmakers making music videos for MTV. at first. This guideline continues with the voyeuristic reality TV slant that MTV took in the 90s, and we kind of appropriated that on social media. We have our own 15 minutes of fame now, and we’re sort of doing our own online sequel. We just live in Andy’s world now.

“Public Enemy” by Kelly Inouye

48 hours Why do you like to paint with watercolors?

KI I have many different reasons. I have to concentrate at 100%. When I paint with this wet-on-wet technique I use tons of water and if I don’t concentrate I get unsatisfactory results or stray marks. Watercolor is very unforgiving – if you mess up, you have to start over. You can’t hide anything.

I also love it conceptually because it’s best known as a kind of hobbyist material like weekend painters paint with watercolors. It’s not a serious medium, necessarily, even if it’s really difficult. Especially those big paintings are really hard to do. I feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment when I complete a great piece like this. It’s that process of drafting, studying, and testing pigments.

When it’s successful, it’s a real high. It’s almost like I’ve climbed a mountain or something. Also, watercolor painting is many people’s first experience with art. Because of that, he has a tug quality at heart. People can relate to it – they have experience with what they may not have with acrylics or oils. I’ve been working with it for decades, and I’m not done yet.

48 hours Tell us a bit about the Irving Street projects

KI In 2015, I started a residency program in a storefront in the outer Sunset, to the west, near the water. It was basically an experimental project space where I gave artists several months to realize ambitious projects. I really tried to give them freedom and support and gain new audiences and press for them where I could and organize events. I tried to collect all the good experiences I had as an artist.

Things are tough in the art world now in San Francisco, but it also felt tough in 2015. I mostly felt like women artists weren’t getting the opportunities they should, so I focused on creating the best possible opportunities for people to flesh out their ideas and work ambitiously in a relaxed and charming environment by the ocean. It kind of organically became this proving ground for projects that got pitched at bigger institutions.

Leah Rosenburg was recently at SFMOMA. Cathy Lu has done amazing things. She did her Peach Garden at Irving Street Projects and that got her thinking about the concept of gardens. These things make me so happy that I contributed in a small way to these projects that ended up being seen by so many people and meaningful to so many people.

MTV GENERATION shows by appointment only through June 4 at Marrow Gallery, SF. Email [email protected] for more information.