Iconic: Artist explores what it means to be an icon

“I’ve never swayed from what I do,” said contemporary artist Robert Mars of Redding. “I started making assemblages when I was seven years old with sports objects, especially baseball. I’ve always been interested in iconic things. What is iconic? That is the question I pose in my work, but do not answer. I want viewers to look and decide.”

Robert Mars is a Redding based artist known for his Neo Pop art. — Molly Quan photo

Mars works in a broad range of art forms, but is best known for his Neo Pop multilayered, mixed media and collage art that celebrates the cultural icons of the 1950s and 60s, which have been dubbed Futurelics. His work has earned comparisons with such Pop Art masters as Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Richard Diebenkorn.

A book commemorating his career, Futurelics: Robert Mars Past is Present, will be released Jan. 12, featuring photography by Cary Whittier, with whom Mars has worked for 13 years, and text by Ted Vassilev, president and founder of DTR Modern Galleries, which represents Mars. The book will also include essays by Eleanor Heartney, Bruce Helander and Donald Kuspit.

Futurelics: Robert Mars Past is Present

Mars explains his work, sometimes known as reappropriation, as “taking something someone has made and changing it in some way to give it a new meaning. It has been said that there is no original thought, just making something better than the person before you.” He focuses on postwar personalities, items and images that have become iconic.

While many people think of the 1950s and 60s as a simpler time, Mars, who was born in 1969, said, “We remember those things we want to, create our own nostalgia, but those icons — Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, Elvis — are still with us and don’t age. Neon signs, cars of the fifties and sixties, these things never left me.” Object images he uses include flags, targets, strips of color, “sixties stuff,” motorcycles, designer logos and sometimes neon. Most are drawn from American culture, but now include global culture that Americans have embraced.

Mars often uses old logos and brands in his work. — Cary Whittier photo

Regarding the use of popular brand logos, Mars has never had a copyright issue. As long the logos are not used in a detrimental way, “the companies probably realize the publicity value of what artists do.”

He begins a work in his Redding home studio by building a raised base of birch wood, then applying layers, first vintage ephemera, generally from Life magazines, selecting only black and white pages and words or fonts that jump out at him. He notes he enjoys viewing the old advertisements and headlines — “Some of the ideas and fears are not so different from what we see today.”

He builds up a base of color, sands through, does another layer, creating a weathered look, “like you see in the Southwest. Before [having] children, I used to go out there twice a year, photographing small towns along Route 66. My color palette reflected the sundrenched tans and reds then. Now I use all kinds of colors, including jewel tones.” The top layers include pieced together computer-enlarged images, sometimes repeated, and large text and graphics, all sealed under a resin coating. A typical piece can take six weeks to complete.

Mars includes images of icons from the 50s and 60s like Audrey Hepburn in his art. — Cary Whittier photo

It is all about the small details, he said. “The final product is beautifully made.” Mars notes that with all the layering his works aren’t perfect, and he wants them “to have a handmade feel.”

He also believes that, “as an artist, it is important to challenge yourself, to grow. In 2015 I saw the Frank Stella retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art and was blown away. I was excited by what I saw and started adding shapes to my work.”

Another inspiration came from the interests and art of his wife, Brenda Phelps, a fabric artist and a quilter. Active in a quilt guild and teaching costume technology at Western Connecticut State University, she also maintains a studio in their home. “It was right in front of me; quilts have dynamic patterns that make sense as history of American culture. While not Pop Art, the patterns work with it,” Mars said.

Je-taime is one of Robert Mars pieces that will be featured in a book about his work, Futurelics: Robert Mars Past is Present. — Cary Whittier photo

“Sometimes you collect something and don’t know why,” he noted. “For me, one of those items was vintage wallpaper. I didn’t know what to do with it; later, I realized many of the patterns I created in my work were similar to quilt patterns. Now the wallpaper fits in and the collecting makes perfect sense.”

Inspired by the work of Joseph Cornell and his shadowboxes from the 1950s, Mars has begun to create shadow boxes of vintage objects; they are sculptural time capsules measuring 48 by 48 by four inches, and he recently showed three for the first time.

Mars and Phelps moved to Redding about four and a half years ago and have been active in the local arts community.

“When we moved here,” Mars said, “we had no idea of the number and quality of artists in town. We met Sandi and Brien O’Reilly through the library and I became a part of the art show when they asked me to enter my work four years ago; I have been a part of it ever since. When I dropped off work for my first Mark Twain Library art show, I was amazed by the variety and quality of work I saw. And the artistic community is so welcoming and generous.”

Mars immediately joined those who donate an artwork for the library’s silent auction.

“I think it is vital to give back to the community, especially for organizations that support educational and children’s programs. The library is such an important asset to our town and its sense of community and I am honored to be a part of its fund-raising efforts.”

For more information, visit robertmars.com.

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