Thom Lessner arrived in Philadelphia without any formal artistic training or experience. He had come to skateboard a path fairly common among senior members of Space 1026, the artists’ collective and gallery located in Chinatown that became his artistic home. It was there that Lessner began to paint, draw, and print the colorful portraits of cultural icons that would become his trademark style.
For Lessner, a native Ohioan, his first few years in Philadelphia were a slightly harrowing education in silk screening, the art world, and the city’s scene. He already knew plenty about rock music; high school had impressed upon him the glory of 80s bands like Hüsker Dü, Metallica, and Van Halen. His adoration of these rock gods is candid and contagious, and his flawless grasp of his subjects’ visual conventions and stylistic vocabulary can only be due to respect and careful study.
Lessner is especially adroit at contextualizing the rock stars, famous athletes, and other public figures that are featured in his work, including Neil Diamond, Andrew W. K., Allen Iverson, Mr. T., and members of his eighth grade class. Individual personality is preserved, and Lessner’s soft style of drawing takes the edge off a subject’s self-serious pose: Diamond is done up in smooth deep mahogany tones and a piercing sexy gaze, while an exposed swatch of chest hair reflects the contemporary moirés fashions of his time. Lessner’s sense of humor is obvious, but the work also reveals a considered respect for his portfolio of the late twentieth century’s most memorable personalities.
This earnest devotion has helped Lessner’s work find homes in a wide and diverse group of private collections. He has shown internationally, and his work can be seen at museums and at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, where Lessner’s work is part of a room designed to provide respite for younger patients. However, Lessner is probably best known as the face of the Paul Green School of Rock or, rather, as the artist behind its many faces. The School, whose stated mission is to teach youngsters how to rock, was founded in Philadelphia but is now nationally renowned, with chapters all over the country. Lessner’s posters for their concerts, in his signature style, are synonymous with the School.
In the world of rock music, Lessner is a historian, and when viewed as a corpus his caricatures comprise a formidable catalogue of what is and what has been. With a parallel project, Lessner also makes himself a part of that history by actually creating rock music. His band Sweatheart features a cast of costumed Philly characters and is the fulfillment of the promise of high school rock fantasies. Implausible wigs and denim-tinted spandex place Lessner’s band in the canon of rock and roll he has sought to capture in his art. Of course, like his prints and paintings, the project inherently holds a touch of mockery, but also like the rock portraits, it’s undertaken seriously. To accompany the live performances, videos, and new album, he has created caricatures of himself and his band mates in his signature style. He’s already defined, in bold visual terms, what makes a rock god, and now Lessner gets to live the dream, too.