Old Friends John Doe and Michael Mogavero Combine Paintings and Poetry to Reach the "Promised Land"
The exhibition at Bale Creek Allen Gallery celebrates a 47-year-old friendship
To understand what's so special about the exhibition "Promised Land," opening this week at Bale Creek Allen Gallery, it helps to go back to Baltimore and the Washington, D.C., area in the early Seventies, when Nixon is sweating through Watergate and John Waters is shaking up Charm City with Pink Flamingos. A guitarist meets a drummer, and they hit it off and play in a band together – original songs mostly, but they aren't above playing covers for a gig at a D.C. Holiday Inn. (There's a fun story there, but maybe later.) This goes on for a few years, then when Tricky Dick is long gone and the bicentennial is in full swing, the two go their separate ways – the guitarist to L.A., where he starts a punk band; the drummer to NYC, where he starts a career in art. But they've gotten pretty tight, so they stay in touch. Eventually, one moves to Austin, and then the other. And at some point, the guitarist finds – get this – an old set list from their Bawlmer bar band days, and on the back of it is a poem the guitarist wrote at the time about some of the drummer's paintings. And he shows it to the drummer, who then says wouldn't it be cool for us to team up now on, say, a show at an art gallery, with your poems and my paintings hanging side by side. So the drummer finds a guy with a gallery who, because it's Austin, is also an artist and a drummer, and the guy's all in on the idea of the show. So now, 47 years after they started playing music together, the guitarist and the drummer are showing art together. And the show is titled "Promised Land."
A Band, a Bond
The guitarist is John Doe, musician best-known as a co-founder of the seminal punk band X, and the drummer is Michael Mogavero, painter of international acclaim with a long history teaching art at the University of Texas. To look at them in their mid-60s, you might not see the guys who were playing Fells Point bars in the Me Decade, but you can easily see the friends they were in those days, when, as Mogavero recalls, Doe "would come over to the studio a lot in the evening, and we'd have beers and chat and talk and drink." They have that ease of fast friends when they're together, even when it's on a Zoom call. It shows itself when Mogavero refers to their band playing "a lot of little clubs" back in Baltimore, and Doe corrects him: "They weren't clubs, Michael. They were bars." That gets a laugh from Mogavero. Doe keeps going. "They were bars. We played on the floor at the end of the bar." "Fair enough," Mogavero replies. These are guys who suffered through the lean years together, who "slept on each other's couches for a long time," as Mogavero says, and still recall just what it was like.
Their closeness reveals itself even more tellingly a moment later when Mogavero, making a point about Doe's importance as an artist, says, "In my humble opinion, John is one of the most crucial songwriters working today." The extravagance of the praise causes Doe to laugh, and he takes advantage of it to say wryly, "That is the basis of our friendship right there." Everyone on the call breaks up, but underneath the laughter, Doe softly adds, "Thank you, Michael." The generosity of his friend's gesture will not go unacknowledged.
Actually, Doe already revealed the basis of the duo's friendship when describing their meeting. "We met through friends that were going to the Maryland Art Institute," he says. "And it was, 'Oh, you play drums. That's interesting. I play music – OK, let's play together.' And then it worked out because Michael really loved songwriting more than just being a drummer. And that's rare. That's something that I learned from him. If you have a drummer who likes songs and listens to songs, it's better than just a drummer who wants to play as much as they can. That gets tiresome really easy." So from the outset, he felt from Mogavero a respect for his own art, and clearly he respected Mogavero's, enough to write a poem inspired by his paintings.
Mogavero sees it the same way. Before Doe, he says, "I had never met actual songwriters, people who actually wrote songs and took it so seriously. And I think we saw a lot of parallels between [our] studio experience in terms of art and music, and in terms of originality and creating and the process and the back-and-forth of trying things out." That not only drew them to become friends as young men, but as the years went by, the friendship continued and grew because "we both always had a deep respect for what we were trying to do with our particular art."
The bond between Doe and Mogavero goes deeper than mutual respect, though. Both are drawn to the power of discord in art. Mogavero explains it this way: "I know for myself in terms of strictly formal issues, in my own putting together a picture, the idea of orchestration, the idea of composition, the idea of rhythms, the idea of how colors and surfaces and textures and how images play against each other – not just with each other but against each other – and how harmony and dissonance can meld together to find a new moment, a moment of uniqueness, [are very important]. I'm not really one of these, 'Ooh, everything blends nicely, and all the colors go [together.]' ... I like the dissonance of things, yet I still find elegance somewhere. And I've always, always felt that about John's songwriting; the music and the lyrics and the juxtapositions that he's able to orchestrate have always been intriguing to me."
That quality of dissonance and conflict has had an influence on "Promised Land." Doe mentions seeing it in Mogavero's images and finding corresponding elements of it in his writing, so the poems and paintings can relate to one another (though whether they're playing with or against one another is best determined by the viewer).
The Other Drummer
After the two friends had agreed to collaborate on a show for a gallery, Mogavero told Doe, "I think I have a guy I might approach." The guy was Bale Creek Allen, whose eponymous gallery is nestled among the dozens of studios and exhibition spaces in the Canopy complex on Springdale. In the 4½ years it's been open, the gallery has shown an array of artists as expansive as Texas, starting with the late Daniel Johnston and running like I-10 through Austin fave Julie Speed, Lone Star legend James Surls, contemporary art giant Kiki Smith, hometown hero Bob Schneider, his writer/performer mother Jo Harvey Allen, and Allen himself. See, the man doesn't just show art; he makes it. He draws. He paints. He sculpts. He photographs. He ... neons, or whatever the verb for making neon art is. And, yes, he drums. (Allen comes by his inclination toward making art – and all kinds of art – naturally, as he is the offspring of two of Lubbock's creative tornadoes, Jo Harvey and Terry Allen. It may also have something to do with his bent toward exploring Texan-ness in his work.) All of this helps explain why Mogavero thought Allen would be a natural to show their work.
And he was right.
Though Allen didn't know Mogavero personally, when he heard the pitch, "there wasn't a second of hesitation," Mogavero says. "Bale jumped all over it in a second and said, 'Absolutely, let's do this.'"
For his part, Allen says, "It was kind of a no-brainer. Just the idea of the show sounded so interesting to me." Of course, it didn't hurt that he already knew Doe: originally from the distance of a fan, having seen X when he was growing up in Fresno in the Eighties, but, in the past two years, up close, from Doe visiting his gallery.
Ultimately, though, it was what both artists brought to the table that won Allen over. "I have a lot of faith in these guys," he says. "We sat down and looked at things, but I didn't have a whole lot to do in curating. It's their work and their sense of it I felt comfortable with. 'Whatever you guys come up with, I'm down with,' 'cause I just knew it would be good."
Allen may be understating his role in the show, as he's the one of the three who had mounted two dozen shows in this space that, according to him, isn't even 400 square feet. ("It's like [a] 19-by-19-foot square with a glass window.") "After that many shows," he says, "you start to really get a sense of what works spatially. So we kinda homed in on that, talking about literally how we wanted each wall to look, just in terms of how many pieces we wanted up."
"I think we all had some input on the choices," Doe says, "because Michael had many more images than we could hang in the gallery." After determining which of Mogavero's pieces worked well in the space, Doe says, "I would either find pieces of writing that I felt connected with those images or write something specifically. There were a couple that were written during this whole process. It's like if you have more than enough songs for a record, which ones are the best ones, which ones fit together, which ones make it complete?"
That left the question about how Doe's writings should be presented. He wasn't necessarily the person to decide.
"John, I don't think you'd really done a visual art show per se, have you?" asks Allen.
"Oh, hell no," comes the reply.
In the end, the choice was made to have Doe write them by hand. "And they're really beautiful," says Mogavero. This show, a celebration of exceptional artists and their enduring friendship, "just all kind of slowly but surely fell into place, and I'm proud of it and thankful to John and to Bale that this is all going to happen."
“Promised Land” is on view Dec. 11-Jan. 4 at the Bale Creek Allen Gallery, 916 Springdale, Bldg. 2 #103. For more information, visit www.balecreekallengallery.com.
The Fun Bar Band Story
When John Doe and Michael Mogavero were first getting to know one another in Baltimore in the early Seventies, they played in a band together, and we were curious to know more about it. Here's what we learned.
Austin Chronicle: Were y'all getting gigs around that area?
John Doe: I guess. I don't remember. Here and there.
Michael Mogavero: John and the other guy were really the impetus for finding the gigs, so to speak. We played a lot of colleges. I remember George Washington University and even the Maryland Institute, the art college in Baltimore. With that, we had kind of a built-in audience. And then we played down in the Fells Point area of Baltimore a lot, with a lot of little clubs, and a lot of the John Waters gang was there.
JD: They weren't clubs, Michael. They were bars. [Michael laughs] They were bars. We played on the floor at the end of the bar.
MM: Fair enough.
JD: And then we also had one learning experience where we played the rotating restaurant of the Holiday Inn in Washington, D.C., and played cover songs. We had found a booking agent that solely booked cover bands, and we played, like, Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" and John Lennon's "Imagine." And that was totally bizarre because there were these people, well-to-do people, who would go to this restaurant that turned around as you ate and got drunk, and there were high-class prostitutes and government workers, you know, middle-management [types] up there meeting call girls. Meanwhile, we're playing "Imagine."
MM: And John, if I'm not mistaken, we had a two-week gig, and we found out later that the quote-unquote "manager" was making more money than us.
JD: Oh really? I don't remember that.
MM: Yeah, it turned out he was making more profit from the venture than we were getting until we confronted him.
Bale Creek Allen: That prepared you for the rest of your life, right? They make more money than you [laughs].