The words "former Weezer bassist" still hang around Mikey Welsh like a stalker, but he makes it clear right away he doesn't want to talk about the band or his musical past. You wanna know the sordid details, go online. Welsh is more than ready for the whole famous-rock-star thing to be eclipsed by his present occupation: artist.
It has been to him, and that's apparent as soon as you step inside his Burlington home: Welsh's paintings nearly reach out and grab you by the throat. They're everywhere -- hanging, stacked several deep and leaning against the walls, crowding the furniture and narrowing hallways. Welsh makes a dozen or more paintings a week; since July, when he moved to the Main Street townhouse with his wife Danielle and her 6-year-old son, he estimates he's painted 150 canvasses. And then there are the drawings. Welsh works at such a feverish pitch, you'd think his life depended on it.
And perhaps it does. Welsh, 33, is a big guy, tall and dark of hair, eye and demeanor. Though he might seem formidable at first glance, on the day of our recent interview he's gentle, polite, even fragile. And he has the flat affect of someone on psychotropic drugs. "I'm afraid you caught me in the middle of a nervous breakdown," Welsh says apologetically. He explains that he's checked himself into a Boston psychiatric hospital for the holidays, near his family in Brookline. That's where he retreats when his bipolar highs and lows become unmanageable. "I'm a real, live 'tortured artist,'" Welsh says wryly. "My art is me; the pain and suffering is in my work -- they're one and the same and fuel each other."
Welsh hurls himself into painting, and seemingly hurls paint at canvas, for "eight or nine hours a day, seven days a week." It's an experience he suggests is more than therapeutic. "It's like purging," he states bluntly. That concept rings true when you witness the frenzy of strokes, smears and slashes, the orgy of brilliant colors, the often savage images.
Some of the works are riotous abstractions; the "face paintings," he says, are all self-portraits -- a series of distorted visages that seem to be melting. In some works there are more narrative elements -- groups of figures, though not necessarily interacting with each other -- and collaged bits of nonlinear text. A new series, Welsh reveals, is of female nudes -- not that they are anatomically correct. All of Welsh's paintings exude raw, unfettered energy, and their effect on a viewer can be literally stunning.
All that said, this seeming madness is not without some method. Welsh, who dropped out of high school in 10th grade, is a self-taught artist, and in some ways his work is consistent with that of the uninhibited and often childlike "outsider" canon: The perspective is flat; human anatomy and proportion are crudely approximated. But he didn't just pick up a brush and go at it unawares: Welsh's ongoing self-education is focused and intense, and he talks about art history with deep respect and keen intelligence.
"My teachers are all the great artists of the 20th century," Welsh says. This is evident in his studio: Paintings by some of those greats -- that is, color photographs torn from magazines -- are tacked to the wall. His inspirations include de Koon-ing, Picasso, Pollock, Bacon, Rothko; a particular favorite is the Dutch expressionist Karel Appel. And Welsh says he identifies with the Art Brut movement, which "embraced the art of children and the mentally ill."
He is not, of course, the first person to make art with such passion -- nor to put the pain in paint -- and readily says so. Welsh vehemently endorses the time-honored art tradition of learning from those who came before. "I like that; it's like a family tree," he suggests. And he's adding his own branch: "I'm tutoring four kids -- ages 18 or 19 -- in art school, online," Welsh says. "I help them with ideas with references to older artists I've drawn inspiration from... It's nice to have younger people who are fans of mine getting into art, where I suspect they might not have otherwise."
As for passion, that cannot be taught, he notes: "That would be like teaching someone how to cry."
Welsh's tumultuous workspace is bedroom-sized and looks like a paintball practice site; cigarette smoke scents the air like acrid incense. A large work-in-progress hangs on one wall; opposite is a tattered chair, beside the north-facing windows, where he sits to contemplate his canvasses. In between is a lot of clutter, including a table laden with tubs and jars of pigment in dozens of colors. Welsh favors acrylic house paint -- "oil is too fucking slow" -- but also uses oil stick and paint pens.
"The thing people are drawn to is the use of color," he says. "I think that's a subconscious effort for me to [achieve] catharsis. I feel very dark inside, and frightened. It's like trying to get out of my own skin."
Welsh disdains the idea of being part of any art "scene," but he nonetheless welcomes opportunities to show his work -- not to mention clear some space in his house. In the last two years he's had two solo exhibitions, and was part of a group show, in the Boston area. The Paradise Rock Club show in 2002 coincided with a Rolling Stone article about musicians who paint -- Welsh was included along with such celebs as Patti Smith and Ron Wood. He does not list the article, or a more recent, similarly themed one in Art News, on his website (www.mikeywelsh.com). "My fame has given me the opportunity to be alongside these people in national magazines, but these things don't make me confident as an artist," he says. "My confidence has to come from my work."
Still, Welsh concedes that his rock-star past may give him an advantage in the future art world -- a Chelsea gallery curator in Manhattan is interested in his work, he reports. "Needless to say, I'm very excited about that," he says. "It proves my theory that these days, with the Internet, you can be the kind of painter I am -- really aggressive -- and still live in a really nice place."
Welsh seems just as pleased about his Burlington shows -- one earlier this year at Opaline, and his current one at 47 Sanctuary Gallery. "Mikey is going to be getting bigger," enthuses Sanctuary curator Joseph Peila. "He's quickly developing his own style. I was pretty flabbergasted that he agreed to show here."
It's hard not to notice Welsh's artwork if you're walking or even driving around the corner of Battery and Maple. Welsh's exhibit is hung in the high-ceilinged, first-floor gallery space at Jager DiPaola Kemp Design, and the vibrant, large-scale paintings are easily visible through the tall windows. Co-owner Michael Jager deems it "some of the best-looking work we've seen here in years." He's one viewer who was initially impressed by Welsh's "fearless use of color." After he met Welsh, Jager says, "I got a sense of how dedicated he is; he really doesn't give a damn what people think -- he would just be raging away creating the work in his studio whether people saw it or not."
You have to go inside JDK to discover a smaller room -- a stairwell, actually -- where some other paintings and modest oilstick drawings, on ripped pieces of paper, are displayed. At $25 or $30 each, the drawings are accessible to less well-heeled collectors, Peila suggests. Prices are not posted anywhere in the exhibit for the paintings, but Welsh says his works are generally $2000 to $12,000. The face paintings on wood panels go for $350 each. Many of these works can be viewed on his website, but with output at Welsh-speed, it's hard to keep the online gallery up to date.
Peila expects to curate a bigger exhibit of paintings sometime next year in Sanctuary's capacious downstairs quarters. He particularly likes Welsh's figurative paintings. "This work, to me, speaks louder than the fact that Mikey was in a band that was well-known," Peila says. "He's just an artist, deep down."