Good portraiture captures more than likeness — it captures essence. A gleam in the eye, a tilt of the head, hues in hair and skin tone and personal style are all significant. Los Angeles–born, San Francisco–based artist Jason Mecier is all about these details, but he highlights them in a way no one else does: with found items that represent the individual's personality, often provided by the subjects themselves.
Mecier, who will sign his new book, Pop Trash (Chronicle), tonight at La Luz de Jesus Gallery, is a mosaics master (he's been called the "macaroni Monet") who took a unique idea to eye-popping extremes and in the process became a collaborator with the stars he sought to celebrate.
"When I was in kindergarten, my grandma was an artist and she would set me up at a table with her when she was painting," Mecier says of how his interest in art began. "I'd make little mosaics out of macaroni."
Mecier was always into craft mosaic and pop culture, he says, and early subjects included Pat Benatar and Olivia Newton-John. Macaroni art became his specialty and he showcased work around San Francisco in the early 1990s. His most popular was a picture of Nancy Sinatra that was used as a concert poster for the Fillmore. "It's like 25 years old and it's still around!" he says. 'I've done maybe 25 posters for them at this point."
Macaroni led to experimentation with other mediums including vegetables (Martha Stewart), bacon (who else? Kevin Bacon, natch!) and tater tots (Napoleon Dynamite). One of his newer materials is cigarette butts, which make up the bulk of his John Waters and David Lynch pieces.
He even has a Snoop portrait made entirely of weed (it's real, but it's the cheap stuff). Though the Dogg does not own it himself, he tweeted out a photo of it and is apparently a fan. On a not-yet-aired episode of the VH1 show Snoop & Martha's Potluck Dinner Party, Mecier says the rapper will present his co-host with one of the artist's Martha pasta pieces.
While collectible items and trash make for easy and uniform collaging, it's Mecier's work with other materials — especially those that incorporate myriad different things — that really suck in the viewer. The details are astounding and compelling, and thinking about how they tie into the subject and who that person is is half the fun. There is a connective logic to what the artist uses in every piece, even if it's as simple as being the subject's actual trash.
As a longtime collector of Charlie's Angels memorabilia, Mecier started his large-scale mosaics with more diverse found items featuring likenesses of the '70s show's stars. "I did some portraits of them using my collections. ... Say it was Farrah; she was in The Burning Bed, so I used matches, and just pretended they were hers when she caught on fire — you know, like I'd make my own scenarios," he recalls. "Then I thought, why don't I just ask celebrities for their real junk? I sent out maybe 200 letters. Kinda like a Bed Bath and Beyond coupon, I'd get like one or two responses out of 100, actually replying and sending me stuff."
The very first was comedian Phyllis Diller. "Literally within like two weeks there was a box of junk from her," Mecier says. "I was so excited. I did her portrait and she invited me over. I got to go to her house and then she just kept sending me boxes. I still have maybe 30 boxes from her. I've done three portraits. They're all in the book and I could still do a couple more with pine cones. She had her assistant go pick up pine cones off her lawn and then mail them to me."
And there was so much more. "I also got prescription bottles with their name on them, anti-itch lotions, broken glasses and wigs," he adds. "She even sent me mussels she ate for lunch."
Speaking of edible stuff: In addition to noodles, Mecier has done a lot of pieces with candy over the years. Visitors to the Candytopia experience might even think he was commissioned to make the candy art on display there, but he says he was not. As someone who attended and covered the pop-up, we gotta say they were more than a little inspired by his sweet style. He says a lot of people have pointed this out.
So what are Mecier's favorite pieces? He points to Parker Posey as a great one; also Rosie O'Donnell and Margaret Cho (who both own a few pieces), and Pamela Anderson and Clint Eastwood, whom he calls the perfect subjects for their hyper-femme and masculine personas. In the new book, which features all of his creations, the mosaic masterpieces that we get to see blown up biggest include Divine, Barbra Streisand, Farrah Fawcett, Elvira, David Bowie (as Aladdin Sane), Burt Reynolds and a bunch of Real Housewives. The latter will be on display at La Luz, while a lot of his candy work can be seen the next day at Sweets Hollywood, where he'll be signing the book as well.
And lest anyone think, "Oh, I can do that," you probably can (it seems like it'd make for a fun craft project) but the result will not be as nuanced nor as involved, unless you have a lot of time, patience and intimate knowledge of your subject.
"This can be very challenging because it's like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle," says the artist. "It's more than just coloring book work. I have to think of the size and shape of the stuff I'm putting in. These get built up with foam core underneath, and some things need to be higher."
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We won't give away his techniques, but suffice to say his materials and tools are plentiful. "I have like four glue guns. I use drills and staple guns. And different kinds of bonding agents to make everything stay. Some stuff is complicated, big and heavy. Every color is pretty much like it's found in life, but I'll rip something or break it a little to make it work."
It's a layered process, obviously, and Mecier says each work takes about 50 hours from start to completion. His price range varies widely, for those wondering — anywhere from $500 to $5,000. That makes his new book, Pop Trash, a bargain. The coffee table tome features all his work on vivid, glossy pages (they'd make a nifty and kinda meta mosaic or collage put all together into one image, though the awesome detail would be lost).
"My bucket-list life goals were to do a book and to go to Dollywood," Mecier enthuses. "I'm going to Dollywood for my 50th birthday in October and the book is out now. People always asked me, 'Why don't you have a book?' And I wondered that, too. I also thought the book industry was kind of fading, but it's not really true. I'm just super grateful that it worked out and it looks so good. It's totally beautiful."
Jason Mecier signs Pop Trash tonight at Soap Plant/Wacko/La Luz de Jesus, 4633 Hollywood Blvd., Los Feliz, 6-8pm. (more info here), and at Sweets Hollywood, 6801 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, Sat., Aug. 4, 1-3 p.m.. (more info here).