COAT OF PAINT

Jon Planas was a fixture on New York City's club circuit in the late Eighties, a party boy with a flair for fashion and flash. He became known for the painted jackets that draped the famous forms of Madonna, Cher, Cyndi Lauper, and Deborah Harry, to name but a few of his celebrity clients. Both Donald Trump and the late Malcolm Forbes bought his paintings. He rubbed elbows with Keith Haring; and even Andy Warhol, the pale god of pop, said some nice things about him. And now Absolut, the hip vodka, has added Planas to its pantheon of "Absolut Artists of the Nineties." The March issue of Art & Antiques will feature Planas' painting in Absolut's advertisement, which will also appear in the April issue of Connoisseur. Planas hopes the cachet attached to Absolut's popular campaign will help revive a stalled career.

Jon Planas, you see, has now washed up like a piece of flotsam on the barren shores of Phoenix, far from the glitter of the Big Apple. No longer does he sell his jackets for $2,500 each. Instead, he has been reduced to showing his work at, of all places, Scottsdale's Arie Luyendyk Gallery. Luyendyk, who won the Indianapolis 500 in 1990, shows almost exclusively sports art, low-rent Leroy Neimanesque depictions of racecars and basketball players.

Lyon Jamieson, Luyendyk's director, read about Planas in a local magazine and asked the artist to do some jackets with automotive themes. Planas got a copy of Car and Driver, painted some jackets and threw in some of his painted furniture and canvases for a February show. Not surprisingly, most of the jackets sold. Nothing else did.

I met with Planas recently in his midtown Phoenix apartment. After talking with him for several hours, reading his press clippings and looking at numerous slides of his work, I realized he was much better at selling himself than making art.

Planas got started with the jackets almost by accident. He was going to a formal dinner with a friend in Honolulu, and his friend joked about his looking like a waiter in his white tuxedo. "So I thought I'd paint on the back of it and make it a work of art. It was really a defiance. I did a tropical forest on the back and wore it for the evening, and it was a smash hit."

Hollywood producer Alan Carr was one of those impressed by the altered tuxedo, and later had his private jet fly a tuxedo out to Planas in Honolulu. "I can make a living doing this," Planas decided. When he returned to New York, he hit the secondhand stores and stocked up on sport coats and tuxedos. After painting them, he would wear them to the clubs. The club scene in New York is a true subculture, with a strict protocol and hierarchy of people, fashion and buzz words. To gain entrance is a measure of cool. And once in, you become legitimized as a trendsetter. Word got around the club scene about this kid with the wild wearable art, and his stuff began to sell. People responded to the Day-Glo colors, the Egyptian- and pre-Columbian-style designs, and the originality of transforming the mundane sports jacket into something arty.

Meanwhile, he made the rounds of avant-garde publications and promoters, trying to get mentioned in Interview and Details and the Village Voice. Pretty soon his list of clients read like a roll call of rock musicians, and the impetus fed itself.

He also knocked on a lot of gallery doors in Soho, to no avail. "In those places," he explains now, "it was Catch-22. It was like you had to be famous before you could get known." Many artists, however, have been discovered by Soho galleries. Indeed, there was a time when Soho galleries themselves were unknown.

Planas aptly describes himself as a chameleon, which we should remember is a type of lizard. At various times in his career, he's billed himself as a designer, a painter, a performance artist and a Renaissance man. He also says he is the founder of a "new movement in art" which he calls, variously, transcendental art, intergalactic art, and instinctual conceptualism. "I work from within," he explains, "inspired by my instincts and by my own roots."

He was born in Peru, but left at age eight, and has lived most of his life in New York City. (He is now thirty.) But he connects his pseudoprimitive symbols and bold graphic lines to the Incas, the Nazcas and other pre-Columbian cultures. But then what about the fact that the sphinx and other Egyptian images figure prominently in his work? "These are timeless images. The riddle of the sphinx is the mystery of life, and I'm trying to express that."

But the mystery is how anyone can take seriously someone who peppers the conversation with statements like, "My art is based on feelings," as if that were unique. And if someone commissions a jacket, Planas might "go into this dreamlike state with the client, and we talk about it." And he will segue into New Age vocabulary quicker than you can say "instinctual conceptualism." As for the artwork, it divides into two groups. When Planas sticks to bold geometric lines, bright colors and easily outlined shapes, such as lips and eyes and zigzag arrows, then his work is good graffiti. But when he tries to do anything else, with shading, modeling and expression, the work goes nowhere. It's as if he needs those strong lines to shore up his modest talent.

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