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Gantt exhibit pays tribute to iconic figures

There's more to Robert Mars' art than faces

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While singer/actress Lena Horne blends in with the stars and stripes of Robert Mars' "Out of Style" work, the cartoon character Olive Oyl — an addition painted by Jay West — stands out like a sore thumb. She pops up from a wave of blue brush strokes and casts a smirk in Horne's direction while resting a hand on her shoulder.

The piece is part of the A Love Supreme: Robert Mars featuring Jay West exhibit that's currently showcasing on the 2nd and 3rd floors of Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture.

Connecticut-based Mars collaborated with contemporary artist West, who imposed the image of the comic strip/cartoon character better known as Popeye the Sailor Man's girlfriend. It gives Mars' pop-style collage art a special twist. The result is two powerful, strong-willed, mouthy ladies, one fictional and one real, situated side by side with the word "Glamour," written in bold below them.

But most of the other works in the exhibit are by Mars alone. For this exhibit, he primarily deals with celebrities and idols of the '60s and '70s, gathering photographic images of African-American activists, musicians and others who've made history in some way and giving them a chance to shine among bold colors, words and consumerism.

"This exhibit was conceptualized back in 2012," says Mars. "I had done a few pieces that had African Americans as the main icon. I was focusing on Muhammad Ali, Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane at the time. The director of DTR Modern Gallery in New York felt that these icons had a huge impact and also pulled me away from the regular icons that I was focused on at the time: Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Brigitte Bardot and John F. Kennedy. The idea grew from there. In early 2013, we were able to connect with Jay West about doing a show together and collaborating on some artwork. The show materialized in May of 2014 in New York City and then traveled on to the Gantt Center in October of this year."

In addition to Horne, Naomi Campbell, Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Foxy Brown and Jean-Michel Basquiat are among other notable black icons honored in the exhibit — sometimes twice. In "Revolutionary," the same photograph of Jimi Hendrix sits next to each other with different coloring and stars and stripes, while "Giant Killer" features a double take of Muhammad Ali over colorful bull's-eyes.

Using birch panels, Mars refurbishes recycled shopping bags as a base, where he builds layers of paint and old newspaper/magazines, later adding a top-coat of the final color. To add a sense of weathering, he sands away areas to expose the underpainting.

"I will go back into the piece with more vintage ephemera and then add the acrylic transfers. People will ask if my images are screen-printed, but if you look close you will notice that they are hand-assembled," says the 44-year-old artist. "After the final image is applied and dries, I coat it with a UV varnish and then resin coat with a UV epoxy resin to seal the piece."

All the works are brightly colored with circles, squares, stripes and stars that expose the old advertisements and headlines from newspapers and vintage Life and Look magazines that surface in interesting ways.

Many are also crafted to resemble the American flag, an element that gives a sense of freedom, pride and nostalgia. One of the most powerful is "Worth Fighting For," a piece featuring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It's also among Mars' favorites on display.

"[King] is a huge influence to me of how powerful a human can be through the power of love and kindness. His words are so positive during a time of great strife and struggle. The image of him and his stance, speak of power and leadership," says Mars. "The colors and flag motif are very fitting for the theme."

Other frequent elements that make appearances in his works include dollar signs and logos of consumer brands — like General Electric — and cars advertisements for Chevrolet and other cars. Mars, who is a classic car enthusiast, traveled across the U.S. from 2000 to 2010, documenting the disappearing icons of American culture.

"With all of my work, I want the viewer to look deeper and examine the small details that act as a subtext to the main image of each piece of art. With these pieces I was attracted to icons like Horne, Ali and, more obviously King, because of their outspoken voice. The idea that an athlete or a performer could use their status to be a voice for important social issues was of interest to me while creating this body of work."

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