Shabby Chic

John Nelson, 48, renowned outsider artist, creates primitive acrylic and collage-on-wood-panel works inspired by puns and word play that strike his fancy. Nelson’s new show, “VACANCY (at the Madson Hotel),” is a collaboration with writer Eric Susser about a metaphorical transient hotel where sad, sick people (representing you and me and our “lostness”) roam the halls, pining for bourbon and Slim Jims.

Why MapQuest can't get you to the Madson: The Madson is a hotel of the mind. I'm presenting it in a multimedia kind of event with video animation, drawings, and set design, which is how I started in visual art, so I'm revisiting my past while I'm moving forward. And then there are these text-heavy paintings, very graphic, pinned to the wall. There's a series of 13 photo-based pieces, the first time I've ever used photography, that I've manipulated digitally and colored. I've tried to create a sense of drunkenness, a feeling of tunnel vision that fits the character of the pieces. I'm so jazzed. I've turned a corner and I'm working in areas I've always wanted to work in.

On visiting a hotel of the mind: I used to have a studio down at the Faux Café, which is right next to the Madison Hotel and the St. James Hotel and all these transient hotels that really intrigued me. I started doing a show about the Madison, but then I changed it to the Madson, an imaginary hotel that exists only in the mind. As I worked, this became a character-based piece about a nondescript kind of lost boy who represents everyone from a 15-year-old slacker who lives in the park to a typical old wino character. The idea is to have the show touch on the universal ways in which we're all lost.

What's cool about a shabby rented room: For me, the fantasy is about how, if my mate kicked me out, there would always be a place to go. The Madson is that place, and as long as it had cable TV and GameBoy and a bar down the street, that's all I'd need. That's the fantasy, but the reality of it would be nightmarish. The only way to go to this place, then, without giving up my life, was to do it in my art. So I created a show that romanticizes the transient hotel.

On the joys of exploring an imaginary hotel bar: I did a lot of research. [I went to transient hotel bars and] drank lots of Miller beer and Sunnybrook bourbon. You can't really talk to anybody in these places, because you're an outsider. It's all the people who live in the hotel who go there. It's not real chummy. It's mostly all old guys sitting on their barstools, and no small talk. There's a sense of something sickly about it. And that's where the show went from being about the Madison to the Madson, because I realized the story was one of personal struggle, and this is a place full of people who are not fully here, they're not mentally healthy. I don't want to make fun of them, but I want to show their truths.

From 13 Days and 13 Nights, one of the show's two accompanying texts: "Supplies [for this show] were purchased at the Madson Mini Mart: a notepad, two pencils, six bottles of bourbon, a case of Schlitz beer, 33 Slim Jims, 16 boxes of Premium Saltines, and an unspecified amount of Cheez Whiz."

On the profundity of writers: I've always been visual; I don't feel profound enough to write. Because I feel sort of inadequate in the arena of writing, I bring in writers, like Eric Susser, to provide the words. It adds more texture to my work, because you have the words and the visuals, and sometimes they appear to be in struggle, rather than one being an illustration of the other. It's a friendly struggle, though. Last time Eric and I worked together, it was more of collaboration. This time he's writing poems based on my images. The book that accompanies the show will be nine of Eric's poems and nine of my images. Eric's poems are slightly disturbing. They all seem to be about getting ripped on acid with your mother while she's buying you new clothes.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela