Jason Mecier Makes Pictures of Celebrities’ Junk

His new book, Pop Trash: The Amazing Art of Jason Mecier, looks at the bombastic, jubilant work of San Francisco’s master of assemblage.

For most people, a junk drawer is like an Island of Misfit Utensils, but for artist Jason Mecier, almost every drawer is a junk drawer. His studio in the front room of his house in the Mission is full of drawers and boxes, many of them full of detritus and organized by color.

“These are all my bins,” he says.”Purple things, blue things, silver, I have everything sectioned off.”

A big box on the floor is full of candy, one of his favored media, and under the table he works on are boxes from celebrities who sent him their junk.

“Mostly it’s Phyllis Diller,” he says of the comic who died in 2012 at age 95. “Every week, she would just mail me stuff. I have one of her wigs, one of her paintings. I traded her my first portrait of her and she gave me that one.”

He points to a strangely proportioned depiction of a woman wearing a necklace strung with martini olive.

“It’s the ugliest painting in her whole house,” he says. “It’s called Harry’s Hick Hooker. It’s literally the ugliest. I was thrilled! I was like: ‘I get to have that one?!’ ”

Mecier assembles portraits out of used items or foodstuffs that he shellacs, and while his work is certainly garish, it is by no means ugly. Rather, it is dazzling like a Byzantine mosaic or a Chuck Close, causing you to wonder how David Lynch’s unkempt hairdo could be so immediately recognizable when fashioned out of cigarette butts on a coffee-bean background. Or Betty White made out of Red Vines.

Mecier certainly doesn’t think he makes ugly art — although to call it classically beautiful in some Aristotelian sense feels off somehow, too. And his remixes of iconic celebrity images — Pamela Anderson with blonde hair made of candy boxes, a mashup of rainbow-suspenders-wearing Robin Williams with Mrs. Doubtfire hair, mostly built from Mike & Ikes — have now been collected in a coffee-table book.

Pop Trash: The Amazing Art of Jason Mecier (Chronicle Books) is a not-quite-comprehensive compendium of his large-scale pieces, some of which take more than an entire workweek to put together, including an hour at the end to scrub off glue-gun filaments with a toothbrush. To kick it off, he’s got a window display at the Castro location of Dog Eared Books and he’ll be on Mornings on 2 on Thursday, July 26, one day before the official opening party at Secession Art & Design. In Los Angeles, a signing-and-art-show at La Luz de Jesus will lead into another event at Sweet Hollywood, a candy shop where he has a standing display.

Naturally, as the artist, Mecier had creative input into Pop Trash, but he marvels at how the publisher’s wisdom improved things, chiefly the 9-by-11 size of the book (which he’d initially imagined as being larger).

“They said, ‘No, it needs to be this size, so you can see it at the cash register. If you have it oversized, they’re going to be filed on some shelf and people aren’t going to see it,’ ” Mecier says. “They made it so cool. Just for fun, there was going to be a spread of Einstein and on the other side it was going to be Honey Boo Boo and the president, a juxtaposition of smart and stupid.

Betty White. Artwork by Jason Mecier

“With Trump, they said, ‘We just impeached him from your book,’ ” Mecier adds, “and I said, ‘Thank you, fuck yeah.’ ”

It was a pre-presidency Donald Trump from the Apprentice days, incidentally. Editors also downplayed an image of a beaming Farah Fawcett, once ubiquitous in the pop canon but now less identifiable to the kids today. By his own admission, Mecier likes “cartoon people” or individuals with a huge personality. They don’t even have to be celebs he’s particularly fond of. For instance, Chronicle suggested including Harry Styles and Benedict Cumberbatch to increase the book’s appeal in the U.K., and Mecier has also been commissioned to do a portrait of Clint Eastwood.

“He’s not my favorite person in the world, but he’s super-recognizable,” he says. “A built-in image of a rugged cowboy. I like things with a built-in concept.”

Anderson, the Baywatch star and one-time Playmate of the Month, is perfect, although she wasn’t the easiest. Mecier had to rip off her boobs about 10 times — “It’s half the portrait!” — before placing them to his satisfaction.

He’s had a few mishaps over the years, one involving an X-Acto knife and a Kate Pierson piece. There have been lean times, but right now, his list of commissions has enough work to last through September — and many celebrities own or have otherwise been photographed with their likenesses. (Snoop Dogg liked the version of himself made out of weed, largely roaches, that he had Mecier make a Martha Stewart out of pasta that will show up on a forthcoming episode of Martha and Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party.) His goal is to be the guest bartender on Andy Cohen‘s show one night. 

“Not the main guest, but they’ll plug your book once or twice,” Mecier says.

Pop Trash is family-friendly, he hastens to add. He doesn’t really do erotica, although one work showing Richard Simmons eating a banana felt a little dirty. It’s a craft, what you might call an aesthetic of tedium, hot-gluing sequins and spraying licorice with shellac so that it lasts years longer than its shelf life. For the book, Mecier borrowed some pieces he hadn’t seen in years, and performed minor repair jobs here and there.

Nancy Sinatra was my first Fillmore poster and my friend Jaina bought it,” he says of one 25-year-old piece. “Some bugs ate off the Top Ramen and peanuts. I just touched it up a tiny bit and I’m surprised it still looks that good.”

Does he ever snack on the candy while he’s working?

“I usually just have one piece,” he says. “After a while, it just starts to look like art supplies.”

Pop Trash: The Amazing Art of Jason Mecier, $29.95. Opening party, Friday, July 27, 6-8 p.n., at Secession Art & Design, 3235 Mission St. Free; further info here.

Tags: ,

Related Stories