Pop art

Music - John Harris on the Stone Roses guitarist who is making a splash as a painter

In the wake of Brit pop, the once iconic Manchester band The Stone Roses have come to seem slightly tragic. Because their career was one of spectacularly unfulfilled potential (they released just two albums in a decade), they are often seen as having played John the Baptist to Oasis's altogether more messianic Gallagher brothers. The Roses may have taken the pioneering step of mixing a very north-western arrogance with music that took its lead from the 1960s, but it was Noel and Liam who took this vision to the place it deserved.

It would therefore be easy to assume that Oasis's proud lack of intellectual sophistication was shared by their predecessors. But while Noel Gallagher once declared that "books are rubbish" and cried "Student!" when one of the group confessed to having read Iain Banks's The Wasp Factory, The Stone Roses were always more cerebral. The band's two core members, singer Ian Brown and guitarist John Squire, were grammar school boys turned dole-ite autodidacts: their lyrics contained references to the events of May 1968, republican declarations and an abundance of biblical motifs. In a questionnaire they once completed for NME, they listed their favourite books as Georges Bataille's Story of the Eye, Luke Rhinehart's The Dice Man, and The Fall and A Happy Death by Albert Camus.

Squire, moreover, was a talented artist who worked briefly at Cosgrove Hall, the animation company responsible for such TV programmes as Chorlton and the Wheelies and Dangermouse. His more painterly work, redolent of Jackson Pollock, adorned the sleeves of Stone Roses records. At the band's peak, Squire's splashes and streaks became a kind of logo: when they sought to wreak revenge on an ex-associate in 1990, it was inevitable that they covered his office in paint.

After a return from a four-year hiatus, Squire quit the band in the spring of 1996, sending them into the tailspin that culminated in their dissolution later that year. Having formed the short-lived Seahorses, Squire stepped back from the fray, finally re-emerging in 2002 with a debut solo album Time Changes Everything.

Its successor, Marshall's House (released this month), offers yet more evidence of Squire's singular place on the British rock scene. Although more immediate and brazen than its predecessor, it is also what used to be known as a "concept album". Each song takes its inspiration from a painting by the American artist Edward Hopper, celebrated for his spare evocations of Depression-era ennui. Squire's appreciation of Hopper is in keeping with his ongoing desire to fuse pop aesthetics with something more profound. "He painted American scenes and American people . . . superficially light, and awkward and ordinary, but there was something disturbing about some of the characters," Squire has said. The result is a cycle of songs with such unlikely titles as "Yawl", "Riding a Swell", "Cape Cod Morning" and "Lighthouse and Buildings, Portland Head, Cape Elizabeth, Maine".

The release of Marshall's House is accompanied by a retrospective exhibition of Squire's own work at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts. His Pollock-inspired canvases will be familiar to anyone who owns the first Stone Roses album: in Waterfall, he makes a garish statement about American cultural imperialism by fusing the styles of Pollock and Jasper Johns; in Bye Bye Badman, a daubed French tricolour appears near three slices of lemon, a reference to the use of the fruit as an antidote to the effects of tear gas. The song of the same name reflects this theme: "Choke me, smoke the air/In this citrus sucking sunshine I don't care . . ."

More recently, Squire has moved into sculpture, collage and the occasional work of Brit-art-influenced pop conceptualism: his Surfboard for Brian Wilson, created in 1995, is covered with titles of Beach Boys songs - an ironic tribute to their leader who, notoriously, couldn't surf. ("In the true spirit of a gift, I know it's something he'll never use," Squire explained.) The work went for £10,000 in a charity auction and later turned up on the sleeve of an early Travis single.

Rather disappointingly, Squire's retrospective lasts only three days, although it will surely be packed with people who don't normally visit art galleries. He is good friends with the Gallaghers - perhaps they'll show up for a private view.

John Squire's retrospective is at the ICA, London SW1 (020 7930 3647) from 14 to 16 February. He plays the same venue on 9 February. Marshall's House (North Country) is released on 16 February

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Those WMDs - The blame game