Legendary artist Robbie Conal wears many hats along with his favorite “Enemy of the People” T-shirt — painter, activist, satirist, teacher, progressive icon and, of course, all-star among L.A. Weekly alumni. His “Artburn” feature ran from 1997 to 2003 or so, but he'd been contributing writing and illustration for years before that. A lot of incredible work lit up the pages during his tenure, but for our 40th anniversary, we look back at a particularly incendiary moment — the Herculean undertaking that was the L.A. Weekly Daily, a run of special editions brought out each day of the 2000 Democratic National Convention, which was happening in Los Angeles.
That was the year of the infamous police batons and rubber bullets incidents in the fenced-off area behind Staples Center, dubbed the free speech zone but more colloquially known as the protest pit, and it did get violent and ugly out there. “When [the Democrats] came to Los Angeles for their convention,” Conal writes in the notes in his Weekly covers anthology ARTBURN, “the Weekly went daily, and so did I. Five covers in four days. Tipper had her own pull-out section on Al's day. You go, grrrrl! She's such a rocker. (Or just off her meds.)”
Sue Horton had been the editor-in-chief since 1994, and at that time Bill Smith was ruling the design and art direction roost. Conal recalls his entire run with the paper fondly, but the DNC project still ranks among his favorites. “I had a frenzied blast doing five covers in four days,” he tells me. “It was just me and Sue Horton and Bill Smith and a cloud of charcoal dust!”
The other subjects for that week's worth of, as Conal calls them, “adversarial portraits,” were Gray Davis, Al Gore, Joe Lieberman and, of course, Bill Clinton. Smith writes, in his notes for the 2003 ARTBURN book, “Clinton, whose exploits now pale in comparison to the current [George W. Bush] regime … became a favorite whipping boy over the next couple of years, appearing no less than four times if you count the cover of the DNC special issue.”
Conal tells L.A. Weekly how he chose his cover subjects for the week. “Al Gore and Bill Clinton were obvious,” he says. “Tipper was my call. I've had it in for her and for Susan Baker (James Baker III's wife) ever since their campaign from 1985 to the late '90s to control what music American kids listen to. They started a group called the Parents Music Resource Center (known as 'Washington Wives') to produce smack on popular music lyrics. Yeah, that went well!”
As for Lieberman, Conal calls him out on the hypocrisy of his “whichever way the wind blows” positions. “Joe Lieberman became a sycophant to anyone with real power, just so he could hoover up whatever crumbs came his way.
“And in L.A. we knew Gray Davis only too well. He was a take-money-to-do-nothing-about-big-corporate-corruption kinda guy,” Conal says, reminding us that “Gray's the guy who gave us Arnold. And in relation to California's electric energy crisis in 2000-2001, I could see Gray Davis saying, 'Is it OK if I just do nothing? I'm having a rolling blackout.'”
As Conal wrote in 2003, sagely and prescient, in the end he values the merging of art and humor as “just one way of turning anger, disappointment and sometimes utter disbelief at the unconscionable doings of our political and cultural leaders into a form of silly — satirically joyful — resistance.”