Color and Emotion: The Butler to Display Art of Rocker Paul Stanley
YOUNGSTOWN – For Paul Stanley, painting is never about perfecting a technique or becoming proficient at a genre. Too much devotion to those things can take a toll on creativity.
Instead, the rock’n’roll superstar aims for emotional impact.
Stanley, who cofounded KISS and has fronted the iconic rock band for five decades, has become an accomplished artist. He will reach a milestone on Sunday, Aug. 13, when the first exhibition of his work in a museum opens at The Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown. The exhibition will run through Oct. 8.
The multitalented rocker wrote many of KISS’ biggest hits and is the band’s primary singer.
Stanley is also an actor – he played the lead role in the Toronto production of “Phantom of the Opera” – and has written two bestselling books: “Face the Music” and “Backstage Pass.”
Aside from music, Stanley’s most successful undertaking has been visual art. Sales of his eye-catching paintings have topped $25 million.
Although rock’n’roll was his first love, Stanley excelled at art while growing up in New York City. But music proved to be his best route to success, and he threw himself into it as a teenager.
The artistically driven Stanley, now 71, formed KISS in 1973 with Simmons, Peter Criss and Ace Frehley. With each member becoming a character through face paint and costume, and an explosive live show, KISS became known for its image as much as its music and would become one of the top-selling bands of all time.
Stanley put his art skill to use for the band, designing the KISS logo, which is one of the most recognizable in rock history. He also played a key role in designing the band’s album cover art.
DOING IT HIS WAY
In a phone interview from his California home, Stanley discussed his approach to painting. It’s based on the same principle that guided his music career: To pursue creativity with no regard for the rules, and no desire to fit in with what is currently popular.
“I’m always looking for new mountains to climb and this is another wonderful page, if not a chapter, in the book of my life, which has been really amazing,” Stanley said. “When we open ourselves up to possibilities and live by ‘why not?’ we can find endless mountains to climb, and the pleasure is enormous. I define myself by the challenges I take on and painting has been a blessing for me and broadened my horizons and colored my world.”
His policy of personal openness imbues his paintings, which are usually abstract but also bright, colorful, forceful – and sometimes quite large.
“People are taken by the honesty, but the less secrets we have, the more free we are,” Stanley said. “When we share our vulnerabilities, it lets other people see how much we are alike.”
While music commanded his attention during KISS’ heyday, Stanley got back into painting about 20 years ago as a form of therapy.
“I was going through some personal calamity and my best friend said, ‘you should paint.’ I didn’t expect to hear that,” he said. “But it purged what was going on [in my life]. I got something out of my system.”
That’s how it started, but Stanley would keep at it and continue to improve. “My mantra from the beginning was, do not get hung up on detail,” he said.
The 16 works in the Butler exhibition include several of his self-portraits in KISS regalia; portraits of other stars of music and film; and abstract pieces, including several that start with an image of an electric guitar.
Louis A. Zona, executive director of the Butler and its chief curator, pinpointed Stanley’s place in the art universe.
“We would term him an Expressionist,” Zona said. “His work seems to be emotional in the way he approaches it. The markings of the brush are evident, and there is a little bit of free verse in there.”
In his prepared comments for the exhibition, Zona described Stanley as “an artist who encourages both order and dissonance in fields of color and form.”
Stanley’s depictions of the human form, according to Zona, are “empowered by an explosive use of color.” But his paintings “move beyond the figure and into imaginary worlds where his KISS persona floats through stars, guitars, flags, hearts and other background imagery.”
The paintings in Stanley’s Butler exhibition represent his output over the years, although the artist might have preferred focusing more on his current works and less on his evolution.
“There are pieces in the exhibit that I was not all that keen on because they are from earlier [in my life], and my trajectory has always been to move forward, and without any sense of having to maintain a style,” he said. “Because I’m not interested in perfecting a technical style, but rather the ability to convey a personal emotion.”
The changes in his art over the years are obvious to him.
“It’s like looking at photos of yourself over [the years of] your life,” he said. “At this point, I don’t want to paint with any preconceived idea of what I’m painting because that kind of takes you away from, in my case, the purity of it, and it intellectualizes [the painting process].”
The only characteristic of his painting style that has remained unchanged over the years is his use of color.
“I see color as a reflection of my life,” he said. “It is vibrant and filled with emotion – most of it joyous at this point. But I don’t want to know color relationships, complementary colors, or anything that structures what I’m doing.”
SENSE OF PURPOSE
Stanley’s aversion to a pedagogical approach doesn’t mean his art has no destination or isn’t serious.
“It is not done cavalierly,” he said. “It has a sense of purpose. But I analyze the purpose after I’m done with it, because [to declare it beforehand] would sabotage the honesty of it.”
Stanley’s exhibition is the latest at The Butler to spotlight an artist best known as an actor or musician. The museum has become known for such celebrity exhibitions, which have included the late Tony Bennett and Peter Falk, John Mellencamp, Jessica Lange, Kim Novak and Ronnie Wood, among others.
Stanley said he has respect and appreciation for The Butler, or any museum that exhibits the work of people who are outside “the legitimate” art community.
“I’m a big believer in and champion of that, because snobbery sells the public short,” he said. “[Art snobbery] intimidates people and keeps them from exploring things that could enrich their lives.”
Stanley also takes issue with art critics who intimidate [potential art lovers].
“If you like a piece of art, someone else’s opinion is completely irrelevant,” he said. “I want people to experience the joy of things and not have them cower or avoid it because they feel they will be judged. Kudos to any outlet that breaks down those barriers.”
Stanley will attend a private opening reception at The Butler on Saturday, Aug. 12. The reception is a fundraiser for the museum and is not open to the public.
Beginning Aug. 13, the public can view his exhibition during regular museum hours: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. The museum is at 524 Wick Ave. Admission is free.
Stanley’s art is available for purchase exclusively through Wentworth Gallery.
Pictured at top: Paul Stanley stands next to one of his works.
Copyright 2023 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.