Peter Mars isn’t from Mars; in fact, he’s as American as cars, and calls Chicago home. He just has a punk-rock sounding name, though when I met him at his solo show at Radiant Space in Los Angeles on December 1st, he looked the part of a genuine rock star. If I didn’t know that he was a visual artist, I’d have sworn he was the guitarist for the GooGoo Dolls or some other hard rock band. I’d heard of his iconic pop-art, but never had the opportunity to see it in person, and was keen to do so. As I entered the small, intimate space I was immediately captivated by the vivid colors and the overwhelming sense of nostalgia.
Mars’ work isn’t just a tribute to popular cultural figures like Marilyn Monroe and The Lone Ranger; his well-crafted work shows a deep love for Americana culture and the way it faded from history but never left our consciousness. Peter purposefully creates screen prints that are rough around the edges, weathered by time, much the way the past has eroded. It’s still with us, but it isn’t perfectly preserved.
Mars began making graphic t-shirts about 35 years ago in New Orleans when he was in his early 20s. “I would wear whatever t-shirt I was making and I carried more of them in my backpack, so when people said, “I love your shirt,” I had a ready stash to show them.”
“One day I did a few t-shirts with Billy Idol on them, and I was doing my laundry in a French Quarter laundromat. A guy saw the Billie Idol shirt I was wearing and he asked me what kind of music I liked. We had a casual conversation about the [early 80s] music scene, which was very exciting at that time. Judging from his bedhead and ragged jean cut offs, I assumed he was just another French Quarter resident. Then, shortly into the conversation, I realized I was talking to David f-ing Bowie. He was in town composing the soundtrack for Cat People, and living around the corner from me.”
The transition from graphic t-shirt design to making prints on paper would not be an easy transition for Peter Mars. At first, he met nothing but resistance from printmakers, because they didn’t want to share their craft secrets with him. That all changed when he was fortunate enough to meet someone who was willing to mentor him and show him how it was done. A master printmaker who was doing all the silkscreens for New Orleans Contemporary Art Center was kind enough to show Mars how to make the silkscreens, and allowed him to work in the silkscreen studio. “I learned a lot of the secrets to making beautiful art from simple silk fabric stretched on a wooden frame.” And it is from this “simple” art form that Mars’ imagination was finally able to soar free and create some truly breathtaking pieces of artwork.
Much of Mars’ work is defaced, as if it were hanging somewhere and another artist or activist came along and wrote some sort of protest language over it. His image of tanks and the American flag has words of political dissent: “War Pigs” scribbled across it. These are in fact, Mars’ own writings, and not the work of someone else protesting his glorification of war. He is forever the agitator, the artistic rebel. And there is nothing more American than that.
Peter Mars is at Radiant Space until the end of December, and is also showing in Chicago, New York, Houston, Naples Florida, Palm Beach Florida, Paris, Toronto, and London. His next Spring show is at Taglialatella’s Chelsea gallery. Taglialatella’s features the works of Banksy, Haring, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Basquiat, and many other notable Artists.