What will Coney Island look like in 10, 20, 50 years? The proposals and renderings for its redevelopment look like the kind of place The Jetsons would take Walt Disney — less mom and pop freak show, more Astro and Mickey.
Instead of trying to imagine Coney’s future, though, Robert Mars is commemorating its past. The Sunset Park artist (who contributed a book of prints to The Sampler) works within the school of California Pop Art, where Americana icons of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s loom large. Using photography, old newspapers, vintage maps, brown paper bags and acrylics, his first body of collaged paintings focused on the ghosts of the highways: all those old neon motel signs, muscle cars, and every individually owned liquor store, auto body shop, and bowling alley that stands out from the sea of big box stores.
But a specific sense of place is also lost in the process. So when he returned recently to New York after spending years on the West Coast, he realized another American icon was in danger of disappearing.
“Growing up as a kid I would go to Coney Island,” he says, “and this summer I must have ridden my bike there three times a week. I started to realize how special it was to me. Then there was all this talk of making it into condos, so I started to document it. I feel like it’s a part of America that’s dying…but I can preserve it in my own way.”
His palette reflects this feeling of fading: his burnt oranges call to mind rusted signs, and the yellows, blues and greens are muted or bleached out, as if they’ve also weathered the years.
Tomorrow in Portland, Oregon, at a design store/gallery called Life + Limb, an exhibit of Mars’s Coney series opens, but we’ve created a slide show of his selected works (click on the Wonder Wheel to start it), since many of these smaller paintings are studies he will be turning into large-scale, 3 x 4 foot paintings next year. (We’ll let you know when they’re ready to show.) Mars also works on commissions — a graphic designer recently asked him to turn the Kentile sign in Gowanus into a triptych, which was right up his alley. Just make sure, if you do approach him, that you stick to his preferred eras.
“There’s nothing new about my work,” says Mars. “It would be weird if I dipped into the ’80s.”