BY Harmony Holiday in Interviews | 10 NOV 21

George Clinton’s New Rituals

Harmony Holiday talks with legendary Funkadelic musician about making art, NFTs and getting high on paint fumes

H
BY Harmony Holiday in Interviews | 10 NOV 21

At home in Tallahassee, Florida, George Clinton – legendary funk musician and lead singer-songwriter of Parliament/Funkadelic since the 1960s – has taken to new rituals. He’s waking up with the sun to paint bird cages, large canvases, shoes: anything that calls him, he answers in audio colour. Rhythm-fluent but colour-blind, Clinton has an impeccable sense as a visual artist of how to manipulate texture to pace a stroke of light against the void, his singer’s inflection translating seamlessly into the tonal motion of his paintings. His first solo show, ‘Free Your Mind’ – the title of which echoes that of his 1970 album Free Your Mind… And Your Ass Will Follow – opened at Spillman Blackwell Fine Art in New Orleans in late September.

george-clinton-free-your-mind-exhibition-view
George Clinton, 'Free Your Mind', exhibition view, SPILLMAN | BLACKWELL Fine Art, New Orleans, US. Courtesy: © George Clinton and SPILLMAN | BLACKWELL Fine Art and Spring McManus Art Advisory; photograph: Leslie-Claire Spillman

For entertainers, the quiet and repose of lockdown was at once refreshing and confrontational. Life on tour doesn’t leave much time to re-evaluate what inspires you, even as the muse inevitably shape-shifts throughout an artist’s life. Being a legend often means being at the mercy of fans’ tastes even as Clinton himself shirks success and lives in that Zen concept of shoshin – or the ‘beginner’s mind’. Hobbies, side hustles, offstage love and the intimacy of private life are all left in limbo while performances strut out in front to monopolize the days. After a while, the spectacle only nourishes the spectator, and the performer becomes an idea or relic subject to the whims of consumers. Clinton’s love of painting had likely seethed beneath his constant array of duties and appointments for years – he had dabbled in it before this renaissance and deeper commitment – but the time away from performing to be at home gave him occasion to notice how loudly painting was calling him, to breathe life into it, and to become more of who he is through the practice of trying something new—falling in love again.

Clinton springs out of bed in the morning and rushes to his pool house-turned-art studio to begin work, between there and in the open air. He redirects the gaze that has been focused on him throughout his music career back into his own vision. His wife, Carlon, sometimes reminds him to wear a mask to protect himself from the fumes. ‘I’m 80 years old,’ he laughs. ‘You waited a long time to start saving my life.’ His family pranks him and mixes up the names of the colours on the bottles of paint since he cannot tell the difference through hue alone. His friend and fellow painter Overton Lloyd (known for designing Funkadelic LP covers) gives him tips on technique.

george-clinton-a-cooper-2020
George Clinton, A. Cooper, 2020, acrylic, spray paint and pastel on canvas, 51 × 41 cm. Courtesy: © George Clinton and SPILLMAN | BLACKWELL Fine Art and Spring McManus Art Advisory; photograph: Leslie-Claire Spillman

Music may be one of the loves of Clinton’s life but it has also caused him pain and confusion, forcing him to conquer the business side of things recently through the recapture of the rights to songs he signed away when he didn’t realize how dogged the industry could be. With painting, Clinton is starting out with an eye on agency by exploring NFTs. As taboo as the art world wants to make the blockchain seem, the real issue it takes with the prospect of NFTs is that they strip the veil of prestige away from those who have held it and profited from it for so long. It’s disorienting when artists are not at the mercy of art bureaucracy in recognizable ways, when the trope of the starving, tortured or lovelorn artist is replaced with well-fed, well-adjusted and equally passionate practitioners. It’s as if we want to punish artists for being happy and confident. Clinton responds with a giddy couldn’t-be-me energy and a sense of renewal and discovery.

As a man who has given so many permission to express sound and thought freely, and who refuses to stop reinventing himself and listening to new music, Clinton is now fusing a funk sensibility in sound with that same sensibility in light. On the canvas (or bird cage or streetwear), he is also grappling with notions of outer space and how to access dimensions we can feel and interpret but not touch. Many botch the Cosmic Slop by collapsing George Clinton and Sun Ra into one ‘Afrofuturist’ slush and oversimplifying their work because they both loved outer space. The message from these Black polymaths diverges in many places but unites on the axis of an eternal present. The Black future is now.

george-clinton-blacks-live-masterfully-2020
George Clinton, Blacks Live Masterfully, 2020, acrylic, spray paint, vine charcoal and pastel on canvas, 122 × 122 cm. Courtesy: © George Clinton and SPILLMAN | BLACKWELL Fine Art and Spring McManus Art Advisory; photograph: Leslie-Claire Spillman

Harmony Holiday: It seems like you kind of paint by texture?

George Clinton: It’s like making music, when you look at it like that. I used to be a barber, you know. I had my hair in the ‘60s, shaved all off with moons and stars … Chiseled in my head.

Pretty soon, I can just feel it, what colour is what. It’s actually tones that I relate to. It becomes linguistic. The rhythm of your stroke, that becomes your writing – especially with spray paint.

HH: Braiding is a form of sampling and looping, doing hair is, so that makes sense: a visual, tonal language.

GC: When I first started trying to put my mind around what the paintings mean, it’s like a real language. Like chants.

george-clinton-free-your-mind-exhibition-view-spillman-blackwell
George Clinton, 'Free Your Mind', exhibition view, SPILLMAN | BLACKWELL Fine Art, New Orleans, US. Courtesy: © George Clinton and SPILLMAN | BLACKWELL Fine Art and Spring McManus Art Advisory; photograph: Leslie-Claire Spillman

HH: And gospel, and work songs – a way of asserting your will on time, maybe, like praying?

GC: Jimi Hendrix made feedback sound like church. When you get real good, like Bernie Worrell, he was classically trained, Juilliard and Berkeley, and we knew him from like 15 years old, all his life. And all the jazz musicians wanted to play with him when he came in town. And then when he got out of school, he joined us.

HH: There’s so many things I wanna talk about, but one is your interest in NFTs for your visual art, how it relates to your experience in the music industry ...

GC: We’re getting ready to jump the planet, leave the planet. They’re gonna create a whole new set of rules about what value is. There used to be a gold standard. With the digital world, we have to change all that. Everything is 0s and 1s now, even down to our biology. Art is doing that with NFTs; it’s just the beginning of a new way. It started with Bitcoin.

 george-clinton-mirror-mirror-2020
George Clinton, Mirror, Mirror, 2020, acrylic, spray paint and pastel on canvas, 122 × 91 cm. Courtesy: © George Clinton and SPILLMAN | BLACKWELL Fine Art and Spring McManus Art Advisory; photograph: Leslie-Claire Spillman

HH: Yeah, they call them tokens. Like when you go to the arcade, like a video game currency. It’s changing what people think owning an object is, the physical world is getting less dense.

GC: Virtual reality is real.

HH: Like deep fakes. Speaking of which, did you enjoy being sampled by hip-hop artists?

GC: Yeah, that helps you stay in the game. I sampled myself. I sampled them sampling me. You have to be part of it – if you sit back wishing they hadn’t done it, you’ll really be old. That’s the reality, that’s the way they make music now. I’m glad I just got my masters back at the right time. Just won the case after 30 years.

george-clinton-digital-dabbling-2020
George Clinton, Digital Dabbling, 2020, acrylic, spray paint, vine charcoal and pastel on canvas, 91 × 122 cm. Courtesy: © George Clinton and SPILLMAN | BLACKWELL Fine Art and Spring McManus Art Advisory; photograph: Leslie-Claire Spillman

HH: Congratulations!

GC: The stories are getting ready to be told about how the Mothership flew. The Mothership is in the Smithsonian. And those people will have those copyrights in their hands when the stories come out. The proceeds from the art show will go to our foundation, to help other people recapture the rights to their music.

HH: And it was so easy to just steal people’s work at one time

GC: Not saying I wouldn’t do it again: you have to make a choice between feeding your family and holding onto those rights sometimes.

george-clinton-dayglodogg-2020
George Clinton, DayGloDogg, 2020, acrylic, spray paint and pastel on canvas, 84 × 87 cm. Courtesy: © George Clinton and SPILLMAN | BLACKWELL Fine Art and Spring McManus Art Advisory; photograph: Leslie-Claire Spillman

HH: And drugs and lifestyle can come in ... to the creative process and the business

GC: Between drugs and computers together, you can design your own reality. They gonna start remixing paintings now, too.

HH: I don’t really believe in genre in the arts, and it might be because of that, to not limit our reality. My favorite Black artists ignored it: Miles Davis, Abbey Lincoln, Lee Perry, all painted. Perry said when he painted the fumes got him high and it gave him superpowers.

GC: [Laughter] I’m just painting. I like it like I like music now. I don’t really know where it’s leading, I’m into the environment of space and the atmosphere now, gasses and plasma and things they were thinking about in the ancient pyramids, brought down to earth from those concepts. There’s also a certain level of sarcasm.

HH: Sincerity of commitment leads to humour and even sarcasm sometimes, makes it well-rounded.

GC: Like in jazz, sometimes they’ll be playing a riff on ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ so beautifully you forget what it is.

george-clinton-free-your-mind-spillman-blackwell
George Clinton, 'Free Your Mind', exhibition view, SPILLMAN | BLACKWELL Fine Art, New Orleans, US. Courtesy: © George Clinton and SPILLMAN | BLACKWELL Fine Art and Spring McManus Art Advisory; photograph: Leslie-Claire Spillman

We talked of Pedro Bell, the artist/banker who, along with Overton Lloyd, painted several of Clinton’s album covers during Funkadelic’s heyday. And we spoke of contemporary artist Lauren Halsey, who is working with Clinton now and is one of his current inspirations. We talked of Woodstock and psychedelics, how the drug of choice during a given era affects the look and texture of that whole time, and we discussed where the esoteric and the everyday meet and diverge: space/earth ratios in the spirit, the mystics of the Dogon tribe, the mystics of the everyday. Where they meet is in a deliberate creative practice that finds ways to circumvent stalemating by more market-driven work.

There are people who follow trends and those who establish or uproot them: Clinton is the latter. For most of his 80 years on this planet, he has been rescuing us from learned limitations and boundaries. Only now he is turning the most seductive and guttural and elegant elements of his sound into interstellar landscapes, and  inventing new ways to launch.

Main image: George Clinton attends Prince's Paisley Park for Celebration 2017 on April 20, 2017 in Chanhassen, Minnesota. Courtesy: Paisley Park Studios and Getty Images; photograph: Steve Parke

Harmony Holiday is a poet and performer based in Los Angeles, USA. Her books include Reparations (2020) and A Jazz Funeral for Uncle Tom (2020). Her latest book Maafa will be out later this year. 

 

 

SHARE THIS