Dolly Parton has often been cited as a true inspiration by her fans and by other singers—but now she's also a verifiable muse to pop surrealists. On Sept. 12, Hollywood's World of Wonder Storefront Gallery unleashed DollyPOP: Art Inspired by the Queen of Country, Dolly Parton, an assemblage of Dolly portraits by visual artists from around the country.
Curated by Marc Malkin, a senior editor and columnist at E! Online, and WOW producer Steven Corfe, DollyPOP's opening-night party featured bales of hay, live chickens, and Dolly impersonators. This scene of high camp was fitting, for these works of art are not your typical representational portraits—these are lowbrow-art interpretations of Dolly's pop-culture majesty. Thus, if you were to tour the gallery on Hollywood Boulevard, you'd see Dolly as a Velvet Elvis, Dolly in a Lichtenstein-esque comic book panel, and Dolly starring as the Martian Girl from Mars Attacks!—she is truly all things to all artists.
Brooklyn painter Tom Forget specializes in re-imagining pop-culture figures ranging from comic-book hero The Phantom to tough guy Lee Marvin, and describes himself as a casual Dolly fan drawn to her personal story: "That blend of country austerity from her poor roots and ultra-stylized '70s Nashville glam is really a pretty exciting dichotomy to explore. Plus, she's just a hell of a songwriter."
In "Dolly Cleans Up the Town," Forget casts Dolly as a Wild West sheriff, complete with six-shooter raised against a canyon sky at dusk. Why?
"I wanted to show Dolly as a survivor in a way," writes Forget in an e-mail. "She's been around for so long and weathered so many different trends, that she just seemed to me like this battered gunfighter, especially given her poor country roots. But I also wanted to do something a little exploitative, kind of country T&A, like you'd see in 1970s hillbilly action movies. So it ended up being this mixture of dignity and exploitation. She's tough, but she's sexy, and it's on her own terms."
Jason Mecier describes himself as a mosaic portrait artist; he takes everyday objects (candy, yarn, assorted junk) that pertain to a particular celebrity like Anna Nicole Smith or Charo and lays them out into a portrait. Based in San Francisco, Mecier says he finds himself fascinated by Dolly's outsized image: "I love real people who present themselves as cartoons. I've always been a huge fan. She is a living legend."
Mecier has two portraits in DollyPOP, one constructed out of candy ("She is an obvious icon. I was inspired by the phrase ‘hard candy Christmas' and wanted to make a portrait of her all out of candy."), the other out of household objects ("I was doing a series of up-close portraits and thought she was perfect for my ‘pink and purple' study.")
Paul Richmond's "The Dollypop Guild" is perhaps the biggest attention-getter at the show. In vibrant Technicolor hues, it portrays Dolly as Glinda the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz, encapsulated in a pink sphere of magic as she wields her sparkling wand. In the distance, a sign for Dollywood points down the yellow brick road, promising sanctuary. Standing in ruby slippers is the artist himself as a young boy, watching the delightful spectacle.
"In a campy, over-the-top way, this piece represents the magic and inspiration I found in Dolly during a difficult time in my life, a time during which I felt incredibly alone," writes Richmond in an e-mail. "The amazing and somewhat poignant outcome of the DollyPOP exhibit is that I've met many others who connect with the painting, having walked that same yellow brick road themselves."
Richmond, who lives in Columbus, Ohio, says he found inspiration in Dolly as he grew up "as a little repressed gay boy in the Midwest." He often incorporates his own personal narratives in his work, reflecting his journey to self-acceptance—and Dolly provided help along the way.
"After watching The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas as a child, I decided I wanted to grow up and be like Dolly," Richmond writes. "This wasn't exactly an acceptable aspiration in my hometown, but I was drawn to the flamboyant entertainer because of her over-the-top persona and seemingly abundant self-confidence. Throughout my life I struggled with my desire to fit in, all the while knowing that I was very different from my peers. I saw in Dolly a kindred spirit, someone who chose an offbeat path and made it work."
When it came time for his Dolly tribute, Richmond had found his perfect muse, and the result is a dazzling meeting of artist and subject: bold, colorful, playful. But this wasn't the first time he had devoted a piece to Dolly.
"I had the pleasure of meeting her as a child and presenting her with a drawing that I had labored over for months," Richmond writes. "She was incredibly sweet and the experience was a milestone of my young adult life, helping me learn that I could set goals and make them come true. When I found out about the DollyPOP show, I knew I wanted to try and portray that experience and the inspiration I found in her at such a young age."
DollyPOP runs through Oct. 8 at the World of Wonder Storefront Gallery in Hollywood (6650 Hollywood Blvd., Suite 400).