By COLTER RULAND November, 2018
Artist Robert Mars grew up skateboarding. In the late 80s and early 90s, it wasn’t a sport to him, it was a lifestyle, a way of being creative. One can imagine the kinetic thrill it gave his body to lift into the air and land the perfect trick. It acted as a conduit for the creative energies bound up inside him. It also provided a kind of mythos, one that skirted the boundaries of Americana and counterculture and pop art—all the things Mars would later draw inspiration from and channel with that same kinetic thrill into his iconic and dynamic work.
Like skateboarding, art, Mars says, is not “something that you choose, it chooses you.” When he wasn’t pulling off tricks or hanging out at the skatepark, Mars was delving into his art. That early passion took him to Parsons School of Design in New York, studying graphic design and illustration. After college he worked in advertising, but it was difficult to find a way into illustration in New York at the time. “The old icons,” says Mars, as if speaking of very important but very forgotten gods, “were doing Playboy and Time Magazine,” leaving little room for him to leave his individual mark. Ironically, these icons are now right up Mars’s alley, but at the time they were stagnant and a hindrance.
So Mars looked back to skateboarding, and it landed him a job on the other side of the country in Los Angeles working for a skateboard company. It was the perfect mix of graphic design, illustration, and production. He felt that he was involved at every level, that he really had his hands in his work. And skateboarding epitomized what Mars was looking for, namely the kind of creative process that lived on the boundary between high and low art, between art as expression and art as consumer good. This boundary translates into his current work, which aims to blur the boundary altogether.
Mars’s work draws considerable influence from the likes of Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg. For Mars, the 50s and 60s hold “mystique,” and the design, celebrities, and even politicians of the time still resonate with us today. There is an “abundance of information”—from newspapers, magazines, television, advertising—and Mars acts as a curator. His work looks back on history through a highly tailored lens, sorting out all the information of an era. “When you look at the past,” says Mars, “you curate the way that you look at it. You can construct your own narrative.”
The word “pastiche” gets a bad rap these days. The word conjures a general feeling of old-timeyness and is often used to covertly mock. It is usually confused for “parody,” but it is the furthest thing from it. By emulating past techniques and repeating iconic images, Mars revitalizes them. It is a fascinating exercise in artistic cannibalism. On the one hand, Mars is revering the subjects he uses. This is very basis of nostalgia. On the other hand, he hopes to confront that nostalgia and insists that interpretations of his work sometimes miss the point.
In Your Lucky Number, three skulls are shaped from vintage magazine pages overlaying a background of the iconic Louis Vuitton purse pattern. “A lot of people think it means the death of fashion,” says Mars. In reality, Mars is trying to critique post-consumer waste. Whereas fast fashion lasts a season, is ethically questionable, and ultimately ends up in landfill, these luxury brands “won’t get thrown out.” No one is going to get rid of a $10,000 purse, which, in a sense, turns what could be a simple commodity into a relic. And like relics, these things will last, maybe even outlast us
Mars wants to criticize nostalgia and post-consumerism, but that criticism is only kept alive by the consumable thing itself. In this way, his work becomes a kind of ouroboros: pop culture begetting pop art begetting pop culture and so on in a chain of reactions. This is not a frustrating aspect of his work, but rather an interesting conversation. What does it mean to keep using images of Audrey Hepburn? Is that an act of longing for a bygone time, or is it an act of resistance against contemporary celebrity culture? Is a relic only a relic if you treat it like one? If you leave it behind and forget about it, will it continue to exist? Is an icon inherently iconic, or do we make it so?
Mars, for his part, isn’t interested in giving answers or leaving these things behind. That artistic stubbornness has fueled pop art since the 50s and will continue to fuel its evolving forms. Pastiche is perhaps one of the quickest ways to evoke a sense of remembrance and nostalgia. We all know (one hopes) who Audrey Hepburn is, so seeing her in Mars’s Sentimentalist Audrey instantly recalls our own personal feelings about her and watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Seeing Sean Connery as James Bond wielding a pistol over a British flag and Martini & Rossi cutout in Conquers All, instantly recalls the specific masculinity and swashbuckling of those movies. In this way, pastiche also acts like a recall in the literal sense: a recall of past things, people, events, in order to either revere or reconsider them.
This aspect of Mars’s work is achieved by one of his most surprising influences: quilt making. Quilting and pop art don’t sound like natural companions, but in 2014, Mars had a breakthrough. His wife is a quilter and belongs to a quilt guild. For years quilting existed in his peripheral vision, until finally he decided to incorporate it into his work, taken by the use of layering and color combinations.
It may sound old fashioned now, but early American quilt making was a symbol of leisure, time, and wealth. Early American quilts were not made from scraps or worn fabrics, but rather with fine materials that displayed the expertise and finesse of needlework. They were often decorative. If they had had their names stitched into them, one could argue they were the Louis Vuittons and Chanels of their time. In the pioneer era, paper was also used in quilts since it was a rare commodity. Letters and newspapers were woven into patterns or stuffed between quilts as insulation. Patchwork quilt making, popularized during American Independence, required the same skill and time, but integrated older blankets or fabrics with newer ones, extending the usefulness of those former materials.
In the same way, by using recognizable images, Mars is also extending their usefulness, creating contemporary patchworks of American culture and extending an incredible link between American pioneer women and modern art.
In Floral Obsession - Kate, Kate Moss lies nude across interlocking circular patterns of black, newspaper clippings, and floral patterns. The words “Total Obsession” are lit in bright neon pink. This is Mars at the height of his powers, seamlessly combining modern juxtaposition with retro imagery and traditional patchwork techniques. The totality of it is indeed an obsession, an obsession of borrowing from the past to create a denser experience in the present, and on obsession for seeking what is “classic.” The most important question Mars’s work asks is not what makes something classic but why we keep going back for more.
Old habits die hard, but for artists that can be a way forward. Today Mars still keeps a skateboard in the car. He is admittedly not as agile, but he still looks at the world as a skateboarder. Sometimes he will pass by a park, and the lure, the nostalgia, of that kinetic movement, that creativity, that earlier time, becomes impossible to resist. So he returns. WM
Colter Ruland lives and writes outside of Los Angeles. His work has appeared in Territory, Cosmonauts Avenue, Fiction Advocate, Goodnight Sweet Prince, The Thought Erotic, Switchback, and elsewhere. He is working on his first novel.view all articles from this author