For anyone interested in puzzling out the identity of Kevin Teare, there are abundant clues strewn in the path, and most are so self-evident that they might as well be road signs.
For starters, there’s the title of his current exhibition at the Quogue Library, “Kevin Teare—Reel to Reel,” on view through September 29. Hmm: an art exhibition that shares its title with the term describing the early analog tape recorders used in studios and by hi-fi aficionados in the age of vinyl.
Then there’s the title of Teare’s forthcoming book, “The Most High (The Drop T Logo Changed My Mind),” which will feature both text and art on view in the current exhibition, among other works.
This one’s a little more challenging, but people of a certain age still blessed with visual memory—and anyone who launches a quick Google search—will get the reference to “The Beatles” on the front of the bass drum in Ringo Starr’s Ludwig kit, which etched itself into the consciousness of an entire generation across the globe.
Add to this the John Lennon-like twisting ambiguity in the meaning of “the most high” and in the idea of changing one’s mind, and it starts to become clear that the “Reel to Reel” exhibition deals in some way with music, and specifically the music of The Beatles.
Then there’s the CD that Teare recorded with an assortment of musicians called The Mercyfunks. A homage to the Beatles’ white album, “Don’t Pet the White Dog” is also a two-disc set in a plain white sleeve with “The MRCYFKS” embossed in raised letters on the front cover, along with a serial number in the lower right corner, just like the early releases of the white album.
The release date of November 22, 2014 was purposely selected to line up 46 years to the day after the release of the so-called white album, the formal title of which is actually “The Beatles,” the band’s only self-titled recording in its discography.
It doesn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to deduce from all this that Kevin Teare is a visual artist and a musician. And that, in both realms, he is fascinated, if not a little obsessed, with The Beatles.
That’s a good start in figuring out who he is and (some of) what he’s interested in. But before going any further, these deductions beg a chicken-and-egg question: which comes first, the artist or the musician?
“My music informs my art and my art informs my music,” is the way Teare answered the question in a recent interview at his studio in Sag Harbor, N.Y.
“The art scene I came into in the 1970s—minimalism, installations, performance art—there was no incentive to do anything different,” he said. “If you had some success as a painter or a sculptor or making installations, you were expected to keep doing the thing that won you your success over and over again.”
For Teare, who arrived in New York in the early ’70s from his native Indiana, it was important to try new things. He wanted to find ways to connect his art to his music and his music to his visual art, and both to his interest in history and the interface between high and low art and sociology. He saw his ongoing exploration of the connections between disciplines and ideas as a path to the one thing he saw as critical for the creative process: freedom.
“I guess I see art as a passage to someplace, a way to get somewhere,” he said. “Art is not a room, I’m not defined by it. Or enclosed within it. Freedom is the most important thing.”
The studio he works in is a testament to the pull of his different interests, and his efforts to integrate them. Along one wall is his drum kit, backed up to an 8-foot by 8-foot hard-edge geometric oil painting depicting stained glass. On the opposite wall is a relatively blank working space flanked by two identical 8-foot-high printed lists, each in two columns, of all the track titles of the Beatles’ white album on the left and all the track titles of “Don’t Pet the White Dog” on the right.
Along with a typical array of artist’s supplies and materials, there are shelves holding more than a thousand CDs and stereo equipment. A small room off the back of the main studio space has his computer station and oversize monitor. Another small alcove off the side of the main studio has recording equipment, including a substantial analog mixing board.
Did his interest in one form precede the other when he was younger? If it did, Teare doesn’t remember.
He knows that he grew up drawing and making things, with many of his drawings based on images he found in “Collier’s Photographic History of World War II.” But he also remembers that before the Beatles broke on the scene in the U.S. when he was 12, he was already listening to the rock and roll of that era and recognizing that the singers and bands weren’t making music or writing songs for his parents: they were directing their attention to young people like him.
The story of the evolution of Teare’s commitment to both music and art—and the chain of events and the connections with other artists and musicians that led him to New York and the East End and the work he is doing now—would fill at least one hefty book. But almost all of it can be traced back to one point of origin: the tumultuous events, both historical and personal, of the years from 1963 to 1965.
In 1963, the year that John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, Teare’s mother filed for divorce from his father. Also on November 22, 1963, the album “With the Beatles” was released in the United Kingdom. This album would be released in the U.S. two months later as “Meet the Beatles!” on January 20, 1964.
On February 9, 1964, The Beatles made their first appearance on national television in the U.S. on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” In 1965, while he was attending a summer session of Culver Military Academy, Teare learned that his father had been killed in a car crash. By that time in 1965, the Beatles’ songs “Yesterday” and “Help!” had been released.
It was during this period, Teare recalls today, that he concluded two things. The first was that both his world and the entire planet were undergoing some quantum shifts and major changes. The second was that “the Beatles were hard wired to the way people felt about things.”
He graduated from Culver Academy in 1967 and graduated from high school in ’69. He went to Indiana University for a semester, then enrolled as an art major at Ball State in Muncie, Indiana. He was asked to leave, he says, because he was writing record reviews for a Communist newspaper, The Only Alternative, and not doing his homework.
Teare had been playing drums since age 14 and when he left Ball State he and his friend Bob Stoner (Teare swears that’s his real name), who played guitar, moved to East Lansing, Michigan, to try to put together or join a rock band.
When that fell apart, the two of them moved back to Bloomington and started a different band, Cottonmouth, and played gigs at different venues for two or three years. He describes the band as a “hippie psychedelic jam garage band” whose primary influence was The Grateful Dead, though “we mostly wrote our own stuff.” The high point for the band was opening for John McLaughlin at the Ritz Theater in Indianapolis.
By 1973, he realized that he wanted to—actually needed to—work on his own, on something. He didn’t know how to write music, but he realized he was always drawing and so he rented his first studio and started painting watercolors and drawing in Magic Marker.
The main thing, he says now, was that he wanted to work by himself. That was the most important thing: that he make some kind of art by himself, not just be “jamming with my friends.”
“There was something compelling about needing to be by myself,” he recalled, “to have solitude and be unto myself.”
He ventured out from his studio to make weekly visits to the Indiana University Fine Arts Library so he could teach himself something about modern art.
Every week he would pick a different artist, “Philip Guston, Giorgio Morandi, different artists,” he said. “Nobody told me what to look at. I’d change styles every week; try to make a Larry Rivers painting one week and a Philip Guston painting the next.”
A painter and former Beatnik named Ronn Johnson took Teare under his wing and one revelatory road trip to New York, an expanding spiral of art world connections and a short-lived marriage later, by 1976 he had moved to New York, was showing alongside minimalist sculptor Julias Tobias at the 55 Mercer artist co-op, had won an NEA grant, and was embarked on his career as an artist.
During the 1980s and into the ’90s, Teare made large paintings—some 36 inches square and some 8 feet by 4 feet—devoted to politics, war and history. He made extensive use of maps and cartography, camouflage and other symbols, he said, to explore “how economics informs foreign policy.”
He made a series of assassination paintings devoted to JFK, Martin Luther King, Robert F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, John Lennon. His consuming interest in the JFK assassination continued through 1990, when he organized a panel discussion on the topic to complement his “Myth and Denial” show at the René Fotouhi Gallery in East Hampton.
And it continues today, as seen in two “palette” pieces in the Quogue Library show. He created The Beatles Are Coming and The Beatles Will Save Us while he was mixing paints and colors for another painting on top of enlarged excerpts from the Jim Marrs book about the killing, “Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy.”
He married the artist Mary Boochever in 1993 and went to Bard from 1994 to 1996 to “get my master’s so I could teach,” he said, adding that it was in the mid ’90s that he started spending more and more time on the East End.
He also recognized that “after working on assassinations and war and politics for so many years,” he wanted to change his focus to something more uplifting, like “the way the Beatles’ work keeps living on in different ways” some 50 years after they first conquered the charts and “connected the healing dots around the world after World War II.”
As he put it succinctly in an artist’s statement to accompany the show in Quogue, “Much of my work from 2002 to the present has reflected my interest in popular music, roughly from the years 1963 to 1971, specifically the work of The Beatles, with all its sonic and compositional innovation as well as its sociological and cultural gravity.”
“I see my interest in this aspect of popular culture as part of the tradition of artists throughout history who have documented and elevated the lives of heroes, usually hunters, warriors, athletes and, most recently, celebrities, to the level of immortality.”
The intention behind many of the works he created in this period and that he is working on now was to include them in the book he is putting together, “The Most High (The Drop T Logo Changed My Mind.”
He describes the text for the book as a kind of mental “broken field running” investigating iconic musical figures like The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Dylan and “the sociological implications of so-called low culture being made into high culture.”
The works on view in the Quogue Library show are small color studies and much larger “palette” paintings created as part of the process of making the “stained glass” paintings representing the “deification” of these musical immortals that will be included alongside the text in the book.
For one such stained glass painting, he started with a computer breakdown of the colors used to enhance the black and white image of John, Paul, George and Ringo on the cover of “Meet the Beatles!” He then mixed the colors on an oversize palette made from a sheet of mylar with an enlarged copy of the chord changes and lyrics for “I Wanna Be Your Man” printed on its face.
When the paints on the palette had dried, he stood up the sheet of mylar and mounted and framed it behind glass and the resulting palette painting, I Wanna Be Your Man, is now hanging in the library show.
He wants to include the watercolor studies and the palette paintings in the book along with the stained glass paintings because they are steps in the creative process and art works in their own right at the same time. Taken together, the combination of the watercolors, the loose expressionism of the palette paintings, the hard-edge geometry of the stained glass pieces, and the ideas explored in the text could be seen as a kind of map of the artist’s mind.
Teare says the text for “The Most High” is mostly written and the paintings are underway, but the completion of the book is still a ways off. After all, Kevin Teare the musician has been busy, too.
From his early days in New York, Teare saw reinforcement for his idea of the artist as musician in the work of people like the painter Don Van Vliet, who made music as Captain Beefheart; the sculptor Terry Allen, who writes Country and Western songs about the art scene and plays with the Panhandle Mystery Band; and ceramic sculptor Ron Nagle, who put out a couple of rock records, including “Bad Rice,” with Ry Cooder and others.
For his part, Teare the artist has curated two shows titled “Open for the Stones”—the second at Harper’s Books in East Hampton in 2012—featuring musicians who make art. Teare the musician played drums for what he describes as the “proto-punk” band MX-80 Sound and his musical credits also include several albums produced by Julian Schnabel, including work on the “Basquiat” soundtrack (1995).
After figuring out how to add chords to go with the lyrics he had been writing, he recorded his own album, “The List of Who Lives” in Southampton in 1999 and has spent the last two years putting together the songs, gathering the musicians, recording and completing production of “Don’t Pet the White Dog.” As a result, the artist—who won “Best in Show” honors in the Guild Hall Artist Members’ Exhibition, Part II, in 2007 and thus earned a solo show at the museum in 2009—has had his painting on the back burner.
Five years ago he was also sidetracked—blindsided, really—by Lyme Disease, from which he had been suffering, undiagnosed, for a number of years before that. Since his diagnosis, he has devoted a lot of his time and prodigious energy to investigating every aspect of what he sees as a scourge and “an epidemic” of major proportions.
He has also established the LYMEade Support Group, a weekly “Lyme discussion support and solutions group” that meets at Joshua’s Place in Southampton and has its own YouTube channel, searchable as lymeadegroup, www.youtube.com/channel/UCAg2vnu9HWQfiVfgNIlwRng
Dealing with the disease has cut into his artistic efforts substantially. As Teare puts it: “It’s like trying to finish a project on a deadline while your house is on fire. It tends to be distracting.”
Still, he is happy to be continuing his artistic explorations of music and visual art and ideas, and grateful that he is still driven by the hunger for creative freedom that allows him and pushes him to forge ahead.
In a follow-up telephone interview, the artist shared a somewhat dire observation about a trend he has seen too often in the art world, of “people making objects to sell to other people who have more money than they do.”
“I realized some time ago,” Teare said, “that I had to answer one question for myself: Are you serving art, or is art serving you? Because until it starts serving you, you’re not in it.”
BASIC FACTS: “Kevin Teare—Reel to Reel” remains on view through September 29, 2014 at the Quogue Library Gallery, 90 Quogue Street, Quogue, NY 11959. www.quoguelibrary.org.
Kevin Teare: www.kevinteare.com.
The MercyFunks are made of Kevin Teare, Pony Thompson, Jewlee Trudden and Keelan plus 22 featured musicians, according to the website. They include John Sebastian, Jameson Ellis, Pat Place, Jeff Marshall, Ralph Scala and others. For details on their upcoming release, visit www.themrcyfks.com.
Copyright 2014 Hamptons Art Hub LLC. All rights reserved.