Jon Langford opens Nashville Radio, his first published collection of art, words and music, with a rhetorical question: "So what was the big difference between a song and a painting, or even a gig and an art show? ... maybe a painting could be like a song? Maybe there is no difference." It's proved to be a fertile line of questioning and continues to infuse Langford's creative processes as both professional musician and visual artist.
Widely recognized for his role in the indefatigable punk band the Mekons since it's origin in 1977 at art school in Leeds, UK, Langford's reputation as a painter/printmaker has developed more recently. For many years after leaving art school he didn't paint at all, saying simply that: "A painter needs a subject and for a long time I didn't have one." The inspiration to start up again came to him quite suddenly at Tootsie's Orchid Lounge in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1988.
Tootsie's is an old beer joint across the alley from the old Ryman Auditorium, where many country musicians would come over to drink between their sets at the original Grand Ole Opry. It's worth quoting Langford's epiphany there at length: "Every inch of Tootsie's walls is covered with old publicity photos ... rabbits frozen in history's headlights, signing their contracts and signing away their souls, used up, spat out, and finally forgotten like the waste products of any other industry or theatre of war. As you stand and stare, trying to take it all in, blind optimism and hopeless nostalgia race in opposite directions like freight trains." The die was cast.
Opportunities to experience Jon Langford's work in person remain fairly rare, at least outside of his hometown and Austin, TX, where he is represented at the Yard Dog Gallery. His art has gradually become more widely recognized in lithographed mass reproduction, through the cover art he does for his own supplementary musical projects, other indie bands and worthy causes he supports such as the Illinois Coalition Against The Death Penalty.
The suite of mixed-media prints which premieres at TNG this summer is a retrospective survey of many of the significant motifs and characters that have populated Langford's potent visual art for the past twenty-five years. Skeletal guitarists, blindfolded cowboys, and the omnipresent eye of Hank Williams are all here; the sullied and scratched up depictions of western heroes that initially kick started Langford's studio practice. Also included are symbolic reminders of his own history, growing up in the deeply permeated seafaring culture of the coast of South Wales - the stuff of sailor's nightmares in the form of giant whales and other monsters of the deep. In homage to the artist's preferred musical format, each print in this series is presented in the form of a 7" square, mimicking the cover layout of a 45 rpm vinyl single.