“The 1977 New York Blackouts. The mere mention of these words still conjures images of a city at breaking point, as the Big Apple erupted in a dark wave of looting, arson and violence. In the wake of the blackouts, New York was not only able to bounce back, but flourish, reclaiming its vibrant spirit as a haven for rebels and dreamers. With my latest series, MARQUEE MOON, I wanted to use the New York Blackouts as the backdrop for exploring the nature of dreams, and more specifically, about how we find meaning amidst a chaotic world. My latest paintings capture not only the restless energy and gritty urban angst that fueled the riots that reigned through a darkened New York, but also the freedom and promise of new beginnings that rose out of the ashes of the blackouts.
While developing the concept of the series, I was heavily influenced by the album ‘Marquee Moon’, by the cult New York band Television. I was fascinated by the band’s expansive, spacey sound, beautifully complex guitar lines and bandleader Tom Verlaine’s lyrical explorations of rising above the darkness of your current situation to find meaning amongst the chaos of life. The album, and in particular its ambitious 10-minute art-punk centre-piece, set the tone conceptually and aesthetically for my latest series. The image of the marquee moon informed the recurring use of space and flight imagery in my paintings, while Verlaine’s insistent refrain of ‘the kiss of death, the embrace of life’ became the central mantra underpinning the series”.
Dream, 2019, acrylic and oil on canvas 81cm x 81cm
John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ today stands as one of Pop music’s greatest tributes to dreamers. Taking its title from ‘Imagine’s anthemic refrain of ‘you may say I’m a dreamer/But I’m not the only one’, Dreams depicts Lennon as the mysterious suited man immortalised by Surrealist dream-weaver Rene Magritte in his painting ‘The Son of Man’ (1946). Johnny Romeo playfully evokes Magritte’s mastery of visual puns, deftly removing the apple motif popularised in the Belgian Surrealist’s work as a sly nod to the 1978 lawsuit that The Beatles’ Apple record company brought against the Steve Jobs-led tech company Apple over the use of the name. At the time, Apple had only been incorporated since 1977 and was yet to become the tech juggernaut it is today. Romeo’s removal of Magritte’s apple motif visually breaks the ‘Apple Chain’, shifting the focus of the work to the dream-like quality of Magritte’s bowler hat as it floats aimlessly in front of Lennon’s chest. The intentional misplacement of the bowler hat recalls ‘Imagine’s denunciation of materialism in the lyric ‘Imagine no possessions.’ Freedom and flight play significant roles conceptually within the painting through the word ‘bird’, a subtle reference to Lennon’s 1977 home demo ‘Free as a Bird’ and The Beatles’ 1968 track ‘Blackbird’, taken from their critically-lauded double record ‘The White Album’. In the painting, Romeo subtly crosses out the phrase ‘Blackbird’ to craft the word assemblage ‘Comeback Bird’, a stirring paean to Lennon’s comeback and ultimately final album ‘Double Fantasy’, released just three weeks before his untimely death in 1981.
Black Out 77, 2019, acrylic and oil on canvas 101cm x 101cm
From the space odysseys of Major Tom, to the extraterrestrial androgyny of Ziggy Stardust, Bowie’s unique blend of glam rock and art pop reflects a deep fascination with space. Black Out is a gloriously Kitsch Pop re-imagining of Bowie as both an elder statesman of Pop culture, and an intergalactic space mercenary decked out in a cosmic gridiron helmet. The allusion to the American sport of gridiron slyly references Bowie’s foray into R&B and ‘plastic soul’ on his 1975 album ‘Young Americans’. At the same time, the helmet bears a close resemblance to those worn by soldiers in the popular interstellar video game franchise Halo. The artist playfully teases out the connection between the sci-fi video game and Bowie’s space obsession in the brash word assemblage ‘Halo Spaceboy’, a hilarious riff on the track ‘Hallo Spaceboy’ from the Pop icon’s 1995 album ‘Outside’. Bowie’s ‘half-man/half-alien’ duality is further explored through the number 77 in the painting, a nod to the year 1977 when the rock legend released his critically adored album ‘Low’. Many of the tracks from ‘Low’ were first recorded for the soundtrack to the 1976 sci-fi film ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’, in which Bowie starred as the alien Thomas Jerome Newton. Romeo deftly weaves Hallo Spaceboy into the greater narrative of the ‘Marquee Moon’ series through the title ‘Black Out’, taken from a song off Bowie’s classic 1977 album ‘Heroes’. Lyrically, the tune’s focus on power cuts evokes the notorious 1977 New York Blackouts, while also paying homage to Bowie’s final musical transmission, ‘Blackstar’ (2016).
Dead City, 2019, acrylic and oil on canvas 101cm x 101cm
Amidst the concrete jungles of a blacked-out New York, following your dreams can be the ultimate freedom, but also the road that ultimately leads to your demise. In Dead City, Romeo explores the deathly allure of ambition, appropriating Andy Warhol’s uber chic combover and killer shades onto an acid neon-drenched skeleton with a rose clenched between his teeth. Warhol’s ghoulish visage is a tongue-in-cheek nod to the role that he and the Factory played in the emergence of punk rock in New York, a style of music that set fire to the bloated corpse of rock music in the mid to late 1970s. The skull, furthermore, symbolizes the death of the first punk movement in New York around 1978, as it splintered into various subcultures and crossed the Atlantic to wreak anarchy in the UK. Death rears its head again in the painting’s title ‘Dead City’, a reference to a tune taken from Patti Smith’s 1997 album ‘Peace and Noise’. In the song, the iconic New York punk laureate paints a nightmarish picture of a withering city ‘longing to be free’ and ‘building scenes on empty dreams’, a sentiment that aptly captures the chaos and desperation of New York’s 1977 Blackouts. The link between Patti Smith and death grimly acknowledges the iconic singer’s own brush with fate in 1977, where she accidentally fell 15 feet from a stage and broke several vertebrae while performing in Florida. Romeo rounds off his exploration of urban decay in the Big Apple on a sickly- sweet note with the word assemblage ‘Candy Gnarling’, a play on the name of actress, transgender icon and Warhol muse Candy Darling. A master of wordplay, Romeo uses ‘gnarling’ to describe his own twisting of the skull and Warhol into a mangled Pop nightmare.
Hooligan Hustle, 2019, acrylic and oil on canvas 101cm x 101cm
Hooligan Hustle is a darkly humorous take on the disco music that dominated the airwaves in the 1970s. Far from the sequins costumes and feel-good vibes of the Soul Train dance floor, Romeo’s ‘hooligan hustle’ is ripped straight from the annals of a Lynchian apocalypse as a pastel Pop deer in KISS make-up gazes ominously at the audience. The title Hooligan Hustle examines the struggle to survive and make it in the big city, taking inspiration from the song ‘Hooligan’ off KISS’ 1977 album ‘Love Gun’, and the popular 1970s disco dance move ‘the hustle’. Romeo ingeniously connects hard-rock bad boys KISS and the theme of space with the Bee Gee’s 1977 disco anthem ‘Staying Alive’, taken from the iconic dance film ‘Saturday Night Fever’ (1977). The word ‘alive’ alludes to ‘Alive II’, KISS’ second live album, released in 1977. The band’s original lead guitarist and co-founder Ace Freely was widely known by his persona ‘The Spaceman (aka Space Ace)’, a point captured with delightful absurdity by the deer’s Space Ace inspired make-up. Known for his pitch-black sense of humour, Romeo’s nod to ‘Staying Alive’ is a morbidly droll play on the idea of a deer in headlights trying to survive from being made into roadkill. On a more serious note, the reference doubles as a surreal comment on doing whatever it takes to survive and make your dreams a reality.Romeo’s textual switch to ‘Staying Jive’ acknowledges the influence of African-American culture on disco, while referencing another Bee Gees tune used in Saturday Night Fever, ‘Jive Talking’ (1975) and the 1980 disaster film spoof ‘Airplane! (Flying High)’.
Pretty Betty, 2019, acrylic and oil on canvas 101cm x 101cm
The ram has long been a symbol of great force and power. Throughout ancient mythology, the ram was widely revered as a divine creature whose horn embodied the strength and fortitude of warriors. In Pretty Betty, Johnny Romeo cleverly culture jams the mythological symbol of the ram with Bob Gruen’s iconic 1974 portrait of John Lennon, transforming the beast into a rock’n’roll party animal prowling the streets of the Big Apple. Decked out in Lennon’s iconic New York City sleeveless tee, Romeo’s Technicolour ram oozes with an undeniable swagger that recalls the classic boogie rock of 1970s bands such as Ram Jam. The cheeky word assemblage ‘Ram Jam’ pays homage to the iconic New York-based band of the same name, who’s barnstorming 1977 single ‘Black Betty’ remains, a classic rock’n’roll anthem. On a more subtle level, ‘Ram Jam’ acts as a tongue-in-cheek nod to the artist’s own role as a culture jammer. Romeo creates an amusing meta-commentary within the painting, referencing Ram Jam’s sophomore album ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ram’ (1978) to allude to his own practice of mashing disparate Pop culture references together with the unstoppable force of a battering ram. ‘Pretty Betty’ takes its title from the collision of two Ram Jam tunes, their signature single ‘Black Betty’ and 1990’s swaggering ’Pretty Poison’. The hilarious juxtaposition between the daintiness of ‘pretty betty’ and the aggressive masculinity of the ram showcases Romeo’s knack for rambunctious wordplay and absurdist humour, a point reinforced with the ram’s prison tattoo of the name ‘Betty’.
Rebel, 2019, acrylic and oil on canvas 81cm x 81cm
James Dean has been immortalised in the annals of Pop culture as the ultimate poster boy for youthful disillusionment. Rebel sees Johnny Romeo humorously re-imagine Hollywood’s classic ‘rebel without a cause’ into a confectionary-hued, smoking astronaut decked out in a helmet and space suit. The inclusion of the cigarette slyly references Dean’s habit of smoking two packets of Chesterfields a day, while imbuing the painting with a quiet sense of mortality that acknowledges the actor’s untimely passing at the age 24. Before his death on September 30, 1955, Dean was set to play middleweight champion Rocky Graziano in the film ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’ (1956). Coincidentally, David Bowie used the same title for a song featured on his 1975 ‘plastic soul’ album ‘Young Americans’. Read in this light, Dean the astronaut takes on a spectral quality as a ‘young American’ gone before his time, a dead star looking down coolly yet fondly from space. In a moment of irreverent Pop brilliance, Romeo uses the word assemblage ‘Star Wars’ to transform the dead star of Dean into the Death Star, the intergalactic ship helmed by the Empire in George Lucas’ classic Star Wars saga. ‘A New Hope’, the first film from the original Star Wars trilogy films, was released in 1977, the same year a memorial to Dean was erected at the site where he lost his life 22 years earlier in Cholame, California. Astute observers will notice that Romeo has scratched out the phrase ‘Star Soars’, a melancholic tribute to a fallen star now soaring the heavens. Romeo rounds off the work on a defiant note with the title Rebel, recalling the Rebel Alliance of the Star Wars Universe and James Dean’s classic 1955 film ‘Rebel Without A Cause’.
Uproar, 2019, acrylic and oil on canvas 81cm x 81cm
What does it take to reach for the stars, to taste greatness? Johnny Romeo takes this existential thought to hilariously absurd heights in Uproar, as he depicts a chimpanzee plucked from the ‘Planet of the Apes’ pondering his fate as a would-be superhero. Clad in Zorro’s iconic face mask, the Monkey looks longingly into the distance, ready to embrace his heroic destiny and the dawn of a new world. Zorro’s presence in the painting pays homage to the character’s reputation as one of Pop culture’s first fictional masked avengers with a double identity, a legacy which greatly influenced American comic book superheroes like Batman. Much like the Monkey, Zorro is nimble and agile, using his acrobatic skills and bullwhip to scale great heights and traverse rooftops under the cover of darkness. The bold word assemblage ‘Moon Age’, an amusing play on the phrase ‘Moon Ape’, highlights the allure of the moon-lit night as a space where the Monkey can explore the endless limits of his dreams. Inspired by the 1993 single ‘City is Burning’ by Californian skate-punks Pennywise, Romeo’s Monkey figure seeks to find meaning and purpose in a chaotic world, a sentiment echoed in the song’s final coda ‘We’ll know in time/Let’s not regress (let’s learn)/Our lessons before there’s another uprising.’ This sense of growth is perfectly encapsulated in the title ‘Uproar’, a clever nod to hip hop trailblazer Lil Wayne’s triumphant comeback 2018 single ‘Uproar’. In the song, Lil Warne’s explores his own legacy as a fearless innovator who has paid his dues and is laying claim to the rap throne.
Thunder, 2019, acrylic and oil on canvas 81cm x 81cm
In the hallowed halls of boxing, only one fighter can lay claim to being ‘The Greatest’ - Muhammad Ali. In Thunder, Romeo ingeniously appropriates photographer John Stewart’s iconic 1977 portrait of Ali to re-imagine the world-renowned boxer as a candy-coloured, spandex clad Superman. The reference to the famous caped crusader brilliantly evokes John Wakelin & The Kinshasa’s 1976 ode to Ali, ‘Black Superman (Muhammad Ali)’, and the childhood wonderment of his short-lived 1977 animated TV series ‘I Am the Greatest: The Adventures of Muhammad Ali’. Fully embracing his reputation as ‘The Greatest’ throughout his career, the iconic boxer adopted the nickname as the title for both his 1977 autobiographical film and the memoir on which it was based. Romeo’s penchant for cunning Pop culture references is masterfully demonstrated through his gleeful mashing of Ali’s proclamation of ‘I Am The Greatest’ with Whitney Houston’s famous cover of ‘The Greatest Love Of All’, using it to arrive at the audacious word assemblage ‘Glove Gun’. The spunky text arrangement celebrates Ali’s legendary status as a boxer, while riffing off the title ‘Love Gun’, the sixth studio album from American hard rockers KISS (1977). Romeo further alludes to KISS in the painting’s electrifyingly rock’n’roll title ‘Thunder’, an abridged take on the song ‘God of Thunder’ from their 1976 record ‘Destroyer’ and 1977 live album ‘Alive II’. Gifted with the perfect combination of finesse and indomitable strength, ‘Thunder’ perfectly captures Ali’s superhuman ability to reign down on his opponents like a force nature.
Heroes, 2019, acrylic and oil on canvas 81cm x 81cm
Elvis Presley’s musical legacy is undeniable. As the world’s highest-selling musician, the King has left an indelible mark on rock’n’roll that continues to inspire today. History, however, has been less kind to Elvis’ extensive but critically-panned film career. In Heroes, Johnny Romeo portrays the King as a combative Native American chieftain, his raised boxing gloves suggestive of an artist fighting to redefine his legacy as a serious actor. Elvis’ feathered headpiece nods to his Native American heritage as the descendent of the Cherokee woman Morning White Dove. The King’s American Indian lineage is masterfully interwoven with references to the 1960 Country Western film ‘Flaming Star’, which starred Elvis as the mixed-race protagonist ‘Pacer Burton’. Directed by Don Siegel, the film was originally titled ‘Black Star’, and almost featured a rare track by Elvis of the same name that remained unreleased until the 1990s. Notions of death and fate ebb and flow throughout the track, in particular through the lyric ‘when a man sees his black star/He knows his time has come’. ‘Black Star’s’ meditations on death acted as the catalyst for David Bowie’s final album ‘Black Star’ (2016), in which the artist confronted his own mortality with immense gravitas. This parallel is made all the more prescient given that Bowie, a lifelong Elvis fan, shared the same birthday as the King. Romeo boisterously alters ‘Flaming Star’ into the phrase ‘Flaming Spar’, a hilarious visual pun that pithily captures Romeo’s depiction of Elvis mid-fight with his fists raised in a determined boxing stance. Elvis’ metamorphosis into a brazen brawler recalls his role as a boxer in the 1962 musical ‘Kid Galahad’. A master of multi-layered Pop culture references, Romeo deftly reconnects Elvis the boxing hero with David Bowie through the painting’s victorious title ‘Heroes’. The title nods to Bowie’s classic 1977 record of the same name, and acts as a tribute to Bowie’s personal hero Elvis, who died in 1977.
Rapture, 2019, acrylic and oil on canvas 81cm x 81cm
Few people embody the spirit and freedom of punk rock quite like Debbie Harry. As the lead singer of beloved new wave punks Blondie, Harry has continued to kick down barriers for women in music since cutting her teeth in the New York underground rock scene of the 1970s. Rapture is a Technicolor celebration of Debbie Harry as the perennial punk rock pioneer, paying tribute to her role in ushering in a ‘brave new world’ for women asserting their presence in the male dominated world of rock’n’roll. Romeo ingeniously references this in the brash word assemblage ‘New Brave’, a cheeky play on the ‘New Wave’ sound that Blondie popularised in the late 1970s. Harry’s role as a boundary-pushing icon is further reflected in her transformation into a war-time cadette pulled straight from classic World War II propaganda posters. The appropriation of Second World War iconography alludes to the sweeping social changes introduced by governments during the war, which led to millions of women entering the workforce in traditionally male industries. At once both candy-coloured and commanding, there is a rapturous quality to Romeo’s portrait of Harry that is deftly encapsulated in the painting’s title, Rapture. The title is a brassy throwback to the New York punk and hip-hop scenes that influenced Blondie’s legendary 1981 single ‘Rapture’, but also acts as a grim reminder of the Cold War that threatened a global atomic rapture in the 1970s.