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Robbie Conal and the Art of Character Assassination

View this slideshow for photographs of the installation and opening reception of "Robbie Conal: No Spitting No Kidding."

 

 

Walking into Robbie Conal’s Westside studio on a recent Thursday afternoon, I found the guerrilla poster artist and political hell-raiser wearing green surgical gloves and standing before a brightly lit wall hung with several of his enormous triptychs, diptychs and paintings, all at varying stages of completion for a career retrospective currently at Track 16 Gallery. His clothes and skin were splattered, slashed and smudged with enough paint to make him appear as if he himself had been Jackson Pollocked into existence by some brilliantly joyful ­enthusiasm.

After he asked me to busy myself by looking around while he finished up with some things, I took my time to examine a pair of photomontages painted over with hilariously asinine images of electric-blue Smurfs, Simon Cowell praying beneath a skinny neon halo, the floating disembodied heads of many of the most despised American politicians of the past 30 years, Jack from Jack in the Box, the “Mission Accomplished” banner, the Death Star, ghetto-gold typography, J.R. from Dallas, innumerable skunks and just about every other stray image of American pop and political culture that anybody alive during the past half-century might be able to think of.

Invited to sit for what would turn out to be a four-hour conversation on everything from Conal’s 10-month stint as a methed-out graveyard-shift cab driver in 1970 at the height of the Zodiac killings in San Francisco to his spiritual devotion to cat portraiture, I turned on my tape recorder and asked, “What is the longevity of glitter?” noticing that some of the pieces he was working on were completely covered with the stuff. All I could picture was the heartbreaking oxidization that had turned so many of the newsprint and paper collages from the 1920s and ’30s into artless wads of dead leaves.

“It isn’t about longevity, man,” laughed Conal, slapping me hard on the back and looking, like L.A. itself, much younger than his age. “It’s about living! It’s about NOW!”

We were off.

 
L.A. WEEKLY:I figure that when you first began postering, few people really understood exactly what you were up to, but now, since you’ve created this huge body of work, people will actually invest time to contemplate your significance.

ROBBIE CONAL: Yeah, the art happens when the viewer is looking at your stuff and trying to figure out what box it goes in — maybe a new box has to be built. And that only takes 10 or 15 seconds and then they can forget about you. But when you’re postering for 25 or 30 years, you can link all that time together and reach some kind of critical mass that people can’t shake.

 
An art gallery certainly provides a completely different viewing experience versus a street corner.

It’s a completely different mindset. Those moments between receiving the image and figuring it out is where an artist does his job. In my case, this has always been both the curse and the blessing about living in L.A., where people are so receptive to superficial signage. They either don’t mind it or they don’t notice it.

 
Bob Dylan once said that the best place to hang art is above the urinal at a gas station.

He’s not wrong.

 
You grew up in New York in the 1950s, and your parents, who were union organizers, dropped you off at museums while they worked instead of getting you a babysitter.

I didn’t get dropped off — it was New York. I got a dollar bill and two subway tokens.

 
What did you get from that experience — a deep appreciation of art or a deeper appreciation of self-reliance and personal independence?

It was both, really. It all started with an Ensor painting, Death and the Masks, which I saw when I was 9 or 10. It was a painting that wasn’t on my itinerary [of things to see], because I was mostly into knights and armor, the stuffed horses, the pyramids, the tribal costumes from New Guinea made out of woven reeds and mud — scary shit, powerful because it was to scale and not two-dimensional illusion, like painting. Anyway, that Ensor was so freaky, like one of those things that’s so grotesque you want to see how long you can stand there before turning away.

 
Intellectual heroism — maybe that’s where your dissent came from, practicing the ability to look at something head-on without turning away.

Yeah, it’s fun. After that, the Abstract Expressionists became my guys. Still are.

 
I always thought the smartest thing your work did was to force the public against its will to consider ideas about dissent and to look at images of protest.

The kindest thing you can say about me is that I’m a conspiracy.

 
By embedding your work into the landscape, literally, you help prevent radical notions of free speech and liberal politics from becoming antiquated.

Creating signage that is out of place and doesn’t belong because it isn’t selling anything, particularly in a consumer culture, is important. The nature of reduction and what it doesn’t include is ample justification for why it’s there.

 
Did you ever worry that your vilification of certain politicians and religious leaders read as reactionary?

Was it character assassination, you mean?

 
Yeah, like responding to the vitriol of Bush and Reagan with your own vitriol, which pretty much amounts to a “Fuck you!” “No, fuck YOU!” type of conversation, and how that kind of back and forth really does nothing to deepen anybody’s understanding of anything. I mean, isn’t the problem with political discourse in this country that it’s too simplistic and ridiculously shallow, anyway?

That’s a really good point — that [what I do] might add to the problem, in the sense that it’s polarizing.

 
Do you see yourself as a bomb thrower or a bomb diffuser? Are you providing an emotional release for people who feel too disenfranchised to say “Fuck you!” to the ruling class? By putting a face on what pisses people off, are you helping to keep us all sane by letting us know that we’re not crazy?

Or alone. Listen, using satirical critique and portraiture as an interrogation of somebody’s morality is fine. And, sure, examining a politician’s corrosive essence can be depressing as hell, but these fuckers are trying to take over the world, and that kind of thing really hurts my delicate sensibilities — it really does.

 
Let’s talk about your Track 16 retrospective. What’s going to be in it?

A lot of stuff that nobody’s ever seen before — or that they’ve only seen as reproductions. The show is really about providing that one-to-one, contemplative art experience of being face to face with a real painting by a real person. That’s how I received some of the greatest shocks and insights of my life — a tiny kid standing in front of Guernica. Reproductions are okay, but a real painting gives off some kind of narcotic effluvia that makes you unsure of how the rest of your day is going to go.

 
Sure — it’s like the difference between live music and recorded. There’s an emotional, visceral athleticism that’s lost in reproduction.

There’s nothing like looking at real paint that’s been pushed around.

 
What is only hinted at by your posters is how thick and sculptural the actual paint is — an effect that really underscores the ultimate Robbie Conal experience. You have these giant political icons whose strength derives from how frightening and bullying their reputations are, and you’ve made them vulnerable. In fact, they’re rendered almost like fruit, like rotting fruit — they’re not even animal anymore.

That’s great, man — that’s success! I can only hope that’s true.

 
Really, you render them harmless. Rembrandt ruined his career draining the significance out of the upper class, and you’ve made yours doing the same thing.

Good — I hate those fuckers.

 
ROBBIE CONAL: NO SPITTING NO KIDDING | Track 16 Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Bldg. C1, Santa Monica | (310) 264-4678 | Oct. 18-Nov. 22


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