A world-renowned artist’s special connection to Williamsport

Australian pop painter Johnny Romeo. PHOTO PROVIDED

WILLIAMSPORT – An Austrialian native and world-renowned pop painter, Johnny Romeo first brought his art to Williamsport in 2013. 

He began by showing three skull paintings with John Yogodzinski, owner of Arthaus Projects. After all three paintings sold, Romeo took a special interest in Williamsport and has been coming back ever since. 

“I work really hard throughout the year to try and give him good reasons to come back,” Yogodzinski said. Arthaus has launched three books and helped facility many artist collaborations with Romeo over the years. 

Romeo’s shows have shifted over the years, focusing more on working with artists in the local community, as well as hosting group shows with famous artists around the country such as his current exhibition, Un Dead – A Special Project, running at Arthaus, 140 W. Fourth St., the entire month of November. 

On the PULSE talked with Romeo recently about his art and his connection to Williamsport: 

Q. Your art makes strong statements about social norms and political upheaval. Do you feel as though these statements have changed over the years? What do you want to tell the world now? 

A. “The world is constantly changing and evolving. Cultural issues and conversations are constantly shifting with new generations and changes in the political landscape. It’s very difficult to remain with your head buried in the sand for too long and expect nothing to change. 

As a Pop Artist, I’m fascinated with exploring the way humans are bombarded with Pop culture on a daily basis, and how the rise of social media and the 24-hour news cycle has fragmented our attention spans, forcing us to be engrossed in everything and nothing all at once. My art-making practice acts as a television reflecting our Pop-obsessed reality, and because of this, my work is forever changing and motivated by what is current and trending. 

I believe that we as a people have lost the ability to process and retain the relentless amount of information that we are bombarded with through endless social media feeds and rampant advertising. We have adjusted to receiving information and acquiring knowledge in small bites in the form of Tweets, posts or memes – formats where it is better to know a little bit of everything than to know a lot of a few things!

Looking back at my career, there has been a gradual shift in the statements I make about Pop culture through my work. In my earlier paintings, my fascination lay in the concept of the ‘can’t cope culture’ , a term I coined to describe the contemporary phenomena of people being paralyzed by the relentless information we are presented with on a daily basis through Pop culture. More recently, I use culture jamming to re-contextualize the Pop iconography of our youth to enable viewers to see the world through the lens of their childhood Pop culture memories. In today’s word, everything does matter and because of this, I want to make the process of receiving, retaining and being aware of current issues more personal and lasting.” 

Q. Your work has traveled around the world and influenced many people with diverse backgrounds. Is your work universal? How can it relate to a small city like Williamsport in rural Pennsylvania? 

A. “Yes, I do believe my work is universal, in the same way that Pop culture is universal. We all grow up with Hollywood icons, rock stars and comic book heroes in some shape or form, and we can all fondly recall familiar imagery from our childhood and youth. I aim to tap into this collective Pop consciousness through my art practice, and endeavour to culture jam these shared Pop culture recollections to provoke my audience into seeing Pop culture in new and different ways. 

I would say that people in smaller cities like Williamsport in some respects can relate to my work on a deeper level. In larger cities, one can feel a bit anonymous amidst the hustle and bustle of urban life. You’re enthralled and overly occupied by living in the big machine. Time is of the essence and people are less inclined to stop and reflect. Ultimately, memories become distant and what was once important no longer is. Recently, I’ve seen a big push against gentrification and the corporatization of urban centres. People are once again invested in reclaiming the idea of local community, of genuinely connecting with each other and creating something that speaks to the local experience. It’s what the current entire hipster movement is currently all about. 

I believe smaller cities are where it’s at. Where people feel more genuine and where ideas are given enough time to properly develop. After all, who’s got the time to develop thoughts and ideas in bigger cities where the pressures of grinding and hustling a living are an everyday reality. Smaller cities are removed from the frenetic pace of major cities, which gives people the chance to stop and think. There is obviously still a connection to Pop culture,  but the way in which people engage with it is is often more thought through and considered. In my experience, people seem to have a greater tolerance and acceptance towards life. There’s no bombardment or overloading of the senses, which allows new ideas to be more easily accepted.” 

Q. Do you believe art has the ability to change the cultural narrative of any given topic or idea? Have you seen your art do this? 

A. “Definitely. Art reflects life and life’s views. I believe that the best art holds a mirror up to society and demands people take notice. People are so influenced by what they see in the mirror, so art offers a great avenue through which people can see themselves and the world in a new light. Art is a reflection of peoples’ ideas and beliefs. In many ways, people tend to gravitate towards art because it expresses our current state of mind, our feelings, our moods, our hopes and our desires, and allows us to confront complex and often challenging or confronting issues. 

In my formative years, I was greatly inspired by culture jamming and ‘subvertising’ crews such as the Guerrilla Girls and Australia’s BUGA UP collective. I was instantly drawn to the clever way that they used art to directly hijack and subvert advertisements and Pop culture to raise awareness of burning social and cultural issues. I see my own art practice today as a continuation of this subversive tradition, where art can make a direct and huge difference in the world. It’s a major reason why I paint. 

In today’s world, where the truth can be fabricated and fake news runs rampant, being a socially and culturally conscious artist is the new battle. I feel an immense obligation as a contemporary artist to inform and challenge my audience to think critically and engage with Pop culture, to question reality and actively participate in the Pop culture that surrounds us. Our current cultural narratives are quite fragile, and can shift in an instant. It is my mission as an artist to capture the stories of our contemporary Pop reality, and empower people to see the world a little differently. 

I choose to do this through my culture jams, which are fused throughout my candy-coloured pop veneer paintings.”

Q. Your work tends to take prominent popular figures and place them in hues and settings very different from their own. Is there a compare and contrast element that is important in your art, or any art? 

A. “The use of mash ups plays an integral role in my art making practice. As a Pop artist, I am driven by a desire to subvert the familiar, to turn our preconceived notions of the Pop culture icons that we encounter in our everyday life on their head. My use of juxtaposition, hyper-saturated, confectionery colours and stream-of-consciousness text assemblages has a huge impact on how I re-envision prominent popular figures in fresh and unconventional ways, and provoke my audience to see Pop icons in a different light. 

Like the principles of Yin and Yang, all things exist as inseparable and contradictory opposites. My paintings often play off incongruous and unexpected Pop culture mash-ups, which allows me to toy around with notions of familiarity and cultural association. However, I also feel it is my role as an artist to make sure that my paintings work as believable and cohesive compositions in their own right, and that they present a clear sense of meaning. I am not interested in contrasting Pop iconography in a simply jarring manner, but rather want to use juxtaposed imagery in such a way that my source Pop icons undergo a transformation from their original content and meaning. 

Like an alchemist, I then apply text and subtext, ultimately informing the painting and creating new meanings. The textual appropriation of ad words, musical lyrics and cultural references provides an additional dimension through which I juxtapose interesting and disparate elements of Pop culture. Most art has a pushing and pulling quality, in that artists are able to highlight certain elements whilst knocking other qualities back. It’s the process of painting. Paintings want to speak and it’s so important that artists give them their voices. As a contemporary artist, my use of juxtaposition and contrast through text and image allows me to channel the lingua franca of contemporary life, one that reflects the realities of living in a Pop culture-obsessed world.”

Q. Vibrant color is such a prominent aspect of your work. Do you feel you could make the same overt waves into pop culture if you were only to use black and white? 

A. “Colour is emotion. Its impact is enormous and can never be understated. Growing up, I was very much influenced by artists such as Picasso and Matisse, who harnessed the power of colour to convey feeling in raw and powerful ways. I’ve always strived to apply their philosophy of ‘pure colour’ in my own art-making, to maximize the impact of my candy-coloured, hyper-saturated hues to capture the awe-inspiring and overwhelming nature of Pop culture.The world is a colourful place, and as a 21st century Pop artist I deliberately select colours in order to give off the desired aesthetic and imbue my work with emotional nuance and weight. 

With that said, it would be very difficult for me to paint the way I do without the use of colour. Colours have certain properties and characteristics that evoke a certain feeling and determine a certain psychology. Selecting colour plays an intricate part in my painting process, and understanding how I use it to distill the essence of Pop culture is vital to understanding my body of work. Having to paint in black and white would change everything as those tones have their own psychology, which differ remarkably from the psychological properties and effects of the pure colours I use.” 

Q. I’ve noticed the majority of your work focuses on an individual figure, sometimes looking directly off the painting. Why focus primarily on individuals? 

A. “The focus on individuals in my paintings primarily works on two levels. Firstly, my portrayal of solo celebrities, and Pop culture icons reflects the cult of personality that strikes at the heart of Pop culture. We as a society are obsessed with larger than life personalities, whether they be Hollywood stars, iconic musicians, supermodels or cartoon characters. Their flawless faces and statuesque physiques loom large over city billboards, occupy bedroom walls and are beamed on to our social media feeds on a daily basis. My paintings push our unhealthy addiction for celebrity imagery to hilariously absurd extremes, as familiar individual icons are transformed through sugary, attention-grabbing neon hues. 

At the same time, my focus on individuals captures my interest in exploring the semiotic value of celebrities and Pop icons. I use the imagery of instantly recognisable cultural figures and re-interpret them as players, archetypes or stock characters who provide allegorical representations of our contemporary Pop experience. Like characters out of the Commedia Dell’Arte, each individual is a symbol recognisable by their stylised features, costumes and gestures. I’m not so invested in exploring the personal narratives of the celebrities and icons I portray, but rather their cultural currency and what they as symbols can tell us about Pop culture. For this reason, I don’t usually depict figures who look directly at the audience because I want them to be neutral representations. I am drawn to the performative nature of Pop iconography, and the way in which I can easily improvise, jam and mash up icons in ways that are playful, insightful and even occasionally controversial.

My interest in portraying individuals within a Pop context stems from seeing Gustave Courbet’s   work The Painter’s Studio: A real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life (L’Atelier du peintre, 1855) at art school. In the painting, the world (his world) comes to his studio to be painted. The figures within the painting symbolise for Courbet various people from all levels of society, with the artist describing the work as “representing society at its best, its worst, and its average”. The experience of seeing this work absolutely changed my world. I was transfixed by how a painting could use real people from different levels of society to capture emotions and sentiments in such a profound way. I seek to evoke Courbet’s social realism in my own work through Pop Art, which for me is the new realism.”

Q. How has pop culture changed since you began painting and how would you say your art changed with it? 

A. “Pop culture has changed dramatically since I started working as an artist. The critiques of modernity explain the decline of the individual and the rise of the mass media. This is the period in which we currently live today. Pop culture, now more than ever, is embedded into our everyday experience, and its grasp on society has multiplied tenfold during the years I’ve been painting. Over the last decade, Pop culture has definitely blown up, changing and evolving remarkably to become a more ferocious, complex, complicated and multi-faceted beast. 

The media landscape as we know it has completely changed. Social media and online advertising are the new norm, as magazines and print media are being phased out.  Our nightly viewing habits have changed and 24 hour online streaming platforms have replaced old-fashioned television, offering us endless video content on demand. The rise of social media has made self broadcasting, posting and publishing not just a possibility, but the modus operandi for the digital savvy around the world. In a time where we are all obsessed with SoMe (an appropriately self-centred industry shorthand for social media), people no longer buy magazines, they are their own magazines via Instagram and Facebook. The new digital DIY allows people to curate their own You Tube stations and develop their own content to stream, post, podcast and watch. The everyday Pop culture consumer is now also very much a part of the fabric of Pop culture. We don’t need to talk to anybody anymore, we can tweet our thoughts, ideas and desires online to everybody. We are no longer passive consumers, but content creators and would-be influencers who can change the course of Pop culture through the confines of our bedrooms.

The world has definitely changed and as a result, the Pop culture influences in my life have intensified over the years. I am totally immersed and obsessed by Pop culture, and the way in which it effects society and grips it under its intoxicating spell. I am an unashamed Pop culture student and aficionado. Now, more than ever, Pop culture affects my entire world and absorbs all my time. In the same way that social media has made us all active Pop participants, I see my art making practice as directly engaging and contributing to Pop culture on a daily basis, drawing on its imagery and language to explore its impact on the world we live in. As my fascination has intensified, I’ve noticed my works have changed and have become tighter and less loose. My works say much more these days and I guess the reason for that is that there is so much more to say.”

Q. What do you think the future of the art world is? 

A. “The art world is in a state of constant flux, and the future of art is looking exciting. Traditions and practices that were once seen as conventional wisdom are constantly being challenged by new, innovative ideas. Rapid changes in not just the art world, but society more broadly, have meant that artists and arts bodies have had to adapt and think outside of the box in order to survive and thrive. 

In terms of galleries, the game has changed. The gallery model as we know it has had to reinvent itself to withstand changes in the art landscape. Gallery space rental prices have increased as the real estate market around cool urban arts districts have blown up as a result of gentrification. Arts precincts are being purchased, knocked down and turned into stylish apartments. Galleries are downsizing, closing, or moving to less populated areas further away from urban centres in an effort to re-establish new art zones. 

The gallery roster of artists is now more than ever carefully considered, and curators are taking less of a chance on emerging artists and sticking to more established, better-selling options. Galleries are also cutting back on artists, shows, and operating hours. Interestingly, these developments have led to the rise of the gallery hybrid model. Independent art dealers are now operating out of viewing spaces or corporate offices, pop-up spaces and galleries, and art advisors are working specifically with clients and sourcing works off artists on a need to sell basis. The  intersection between art and technology has led to online and virtual exhibitions and galleries, a trend which I think will continue as younger artists further integrate digital dimensions to their art. 

Social media has also changed the game. Artists are selling independently of galleries, eliminating the need for gallery commission and show overheads. Unattached to gallery representation, many artists now have greater freedom to become their own curators and marketers via platforms such as Instagram and Facebook, giving them unprecedented coverage and the ability to engage with their audience 24/7. Access to artists has also changed, with clients now following artists and direct messaging them for works and sales from their studios.

I do believe as a direct result of all these developments, artists are now painting more for themselves with fewer inhibitions or hang ups. There is an exciting DIY culture surrounding emerging artists, who are unafraid to display their works and share their process with their audience. They’re braver and more daring with their approach to painting and art-making. As a reaction against institutionalised and conventional art, there seems to be a movement towards freedom and expressiveness, which breaks down the boundaries between the audience and artist, and is as much about the process as it is the artwork. In this respect, I can see the parallels between what is happening now and the Neo-Expressionism or ‘New Wild Ones’ movement of the late 1970s, and in some ways feel like we’re shifting towards a new Expressionist movement.” 

Q. Pop art reaches a younger audience and perhaps could be called the future of the art culture. Would you agree? Do you see your art and message as one specifically for a new, younger world? 

A. “Yes, I definitely agree with your assessment. Younger people, by virtue of growing up in the digital age of the Internet and social media, are more immersed in Pop culture and take greater liberties to actively engage with it because they better understand the technology. Pop Art is such an accessible and immediate art form for the new, younger world because it reflects their reality in a visual vernacular they can understand. Pop culture is part of their world 24-7 and is constantly in their hands, quite literally. As a result of this immediacy and access, however, I think Pop Art and culture can seem more disposable and ephemeral to younger audiences. In this respect, I am not sure whether a younger audience necessarily gets my work better than older audiences or if it’s better suited to them. 

From my experience, younger and older audiences have slightly different relationships with Pop Art. Older audiences better understand and appreciate the relevance of Pop culture and Pop Art because they’re more aware of Pop Art’s lineage and how the movement challenged the traditions of fine art. My paintings often examine the intersection between memories, nostalgia and Pop iconography, which resonates with older audiences because they grew up with these original references and are able to appreciate how much I have subverted their meaning through kitsch, irony and satire.

For younger audiences, Pop Art is a movement that is new and refreshing. They relish in rebelling against the modern world and enjoy the thrill of subverting Pop culture. They see it as being colourful and photo-worthy, creating an interesting cycle in which Pop Art is re-captured and disseminated into the Pop world through social media. I think the awareness of kitsch and parody is there, but in a different way. I’m confident that younger people will carry the torch of Pop Art into the future.”

Q. Do you paint for you, or for your audience? 

A. “I now paint for my audience. This isn’t to say that painting is no longer a deeply personal process  for me, but rather that I use my art making practice today to reflect our everyday Pop reality. As a social commentator with a lot to say about the modern world, I can’t help but feel a sense of obligation to actively communicate with people through my art. I want to break things down and give people the opportunity to dismantle and engage with Pop culture in a way that allows them to see the crazy world we live in in a new light. I strive to culture jam their subconsciousness and jolt them into a realization of how things are, playing off childhood memories and vibrant imagery to explore how Pop culture influences our lives.”

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