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Inside the Radical Visual Art of George Clinton, Godfather of Funk

George Clinton
George Clinton
Photo courtesy of George Clinton

George Clinton isn’t merely the Godfather of Funk.

Sure, he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1997 (alongside 15 other members of Parliament-Funkadelic, the iconic outfit he founded) in recognition of the inextricable groove he wove into the modern cultural fabric. And in the 65 years since he started his doo-wop group, the Parliaments, while straightening hair at a barber salon in Plainfield, New Jersey, Clinton has innovated an exuberant, sci-fi-influenced sound with Parliament-Funkadelic, released ten acclaimed studio albums as a solo artist, and contributed to dozens of albums and songs, working with everyone from Red Hot Chili Peppers and Snoop Dogg to Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar.

He's so respected among his music peers that he and Parliament-Funkadelic received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019.

But the 79-year-old’s reach extends far beyond music, infiltrating pop culture, film, fashion, and more. On Thursday, September 17, the legendary funkmaster will introduce fans to his visual-art practice, taking viewers on a tour of his home studio and recent works during a virtual talk presented by Pérez Art Museum Miami.

“Like everybody else, being in lockdown got me contemplating about how COVID got us all sitting still long enough to distinguish, deprogram, and recalibrate ourselves,” Clinton explains about his most recent endeavor. “Next thang ya’ know, I’m infected by relentless creative notions, delighting myself while randomly rendering all kinda bugs, biological entities, and various viruses.”

With his “Lockdown" series, a collection of mixed media on canvas works created during the pandemic, the artist offers “visual depictions of numerous thoughts, feelings, and emotions, representing where we’ve been, where we’re at, and where the Funk we’re headed.”

Reminiscent of his music, Clinton's visual works are “all about rhythm." In tandem with the moment in which they were produced, the pieces explore everything from groupthink and the proliferation of misinformation — a form of what Clinton has dubbed “Socially Engineered, Anarchy-Induced Chaos (S.E.A.I.C.)” — to "biological malware" and the Black Lives Matter movement.. (Last month, the man who penned the million-selling hit “One Nation Under a Groove” delivered a hopeful address at the March on Washington.)

“The art of music empowers us to explore and express different concepts to help navigate life. Visual art does the same,” Clinton tells New Times. “With the rhythm, it takes to dance to what we have to live through, you could dance underwater and not get wet.”

Although the "Lockdown" series is new, it’s by no means the artist’s first foray into visual mediums. The iconic Mothership centerpiece stage prop he created for Parliament-Funkadelic is on permanent display at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

“Filling up tons of sketchbooks naturally led to fueling up canvases throughout the decades,” Clinton says.

His works, which like his music, draw on science fiction, outlandish fashion, psychedelia, and surreal humor, have been exhibited in Los Angeles, Chicago, Art Basel, and Tokyo, among others.

“A creative mindset is a couple of joints and good music," he says. "When the creative juices start flowing, I’m ready to create in any environment, with or without the joints.”

Along with a blunt here and there, viewers who tune into Clinton’s talk with PAMM director Franklin Sirmans can expect an intimate look inside the artist’s studio. And for anyone who might be following Clinton on Instagram (he’s rather prolific there, too), there’s a good chance you’ll score a firsthand peek at his whimsical and ever-growing collection of hand-painted birdhouses. (Anderson Cooper will feature them in a CNN segment later this month.)

“Nothing is more relaxing and serene than painting birdhouses,” Clinton insists.

Viewers might also be surprised to learn that despite an oeuvre exploding with color, Clinton is colorblind. Overton Loyd, a longtime friend and collaborator who created the cover art for the Parliament album Motor Booty Affair back in 1978, has been coaching Clinton on how to pay attention to tones and values that work well together, regardless of hue.

“Not unlike the way that tones, values, and harmony work in music,” Clinton notes.

Loyd also arranges tubes of paints on a table with designated sections, laid out from "warm" to "cool." This has helped Clinton comprehend color theory intellectually, allowing him to paint more “freely and intuitively.”

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“Like Warhol and Basquiat, every now and then, [Loyd] will tag one of my pieces in the Collab Lab, pushing both of our ideas to another level,” Clinton says.

A handful of pieces in the "Lockdown" series feature Loyd's signature bold, pop-referential caricatures, which imbue the works with an added layer of social critique.

“In the midst of everything that could possibly undermine us, more than ever, we must flex our capacity to think," Clinton says of the overarching inspiration behind "Lockdown," referring to one of the series' most salient pieces. Because, as he reminds us, "It still ain’t illegal yet."

Live Virtual Art Talk: George Clinton in Conversation with Franklin Sirmans. 7 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, September 17; pamm.org. Admission is free with RSVP.

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