You've seen his work before. Perhaps in a gallery like Track 16 or wheat-pasted across some L.A. street-side, traffic light switching box. Perhaps you saw 2002's rare “Secretary Of Offense” poster depicting a wrinkly Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney posing as “Dr. Evil,” or if you were lucky, perhaps it was “Read My Apocalips” featuring the drippy mug of an anus-mouthed George W. Bush.
Guerrilla poster artist Robbie Conal made his mark in the art world with his “adversarial portraits of ugly old white men in suits and ties who have way too much power over us and are abusing it.”
Tuesday night, though, the former L.A. Weekly Art Burn mastermind signed autographs at Book Soup and read excerpts from his latest book, Not Your Typical Political Animal, which focuses on his collection of animal drawings.
Not Your Typical Political Animal is Conal's third book and a departure from the politically-charged poster art for which he is recognized. The book/memoir is filled with page after page of drawings of dogs, rabbits, frogs, birds and cats that he has sketched and painted throughout the years. His wife, film designer Deborah Ross (Sunshine Cleaning, Michael Clayton), convinced him after many years of prodding to share his art-as-personal-therapy with the world.
“Over many years of living with Robbie, there was this growing body of artwork that no one had seen,” says Ross who designed the book. “It started as a simple release for him from having to draw these horrible, nasty portraits. The animal drawings became the detoxification process for him. Every time things would get particularly bad, there'd be a lot more of these amazing animal drawings, which then started showing up in his political art.”
Keeping true to his spirit, the book also contains a number of political works interspersed among the self-portraits and charcoal sketches of his cats. He dedicates a chapter to his project of large paintings called “The Decade Paintings.” Each one of the seven paintings focuses on a decade in American history beginning with the 1950s and mixes paint with photo-montages. In “The '50s Decade,” the head of a scowling J. Edgar Hoover, dressed in a leopard-print pillbox hat with matching earrings, floats ominously between a still from Father Knows Best and a photo of Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn at the Army-McCarthy Hearings in 1954.
“Hoover was a cross-dresser,” explains Ross, “and the most powerful, closeted gay person in America. I read a lot about him after my father was blacklisted by the HUAC. He's the epitome of that very strange dialectic of being one thing and needing to be the opposite.”
Another chapter focuses on the wildlife of the Ballona Wetlands in Los Angeles, whose habitat was threatened by real estate developers. There's a funny story concerning frog wrangling for a “frog porn” scene with photographer Al Shaffer, the man responsible for all the source photos Conal has used for his posters since 1988.
Conal's connection to the animals and the environment are what have kept his sanity intact throughout the years of painting angry, white men and has helped him cope with the reality he confronted in one of the first images in the book, a self-portrait titled “I Used To Love Frogs, Then I Turned Into One.”
“I've become the majority of my output,” Conal says reflecting on over 20 years of drawing angry white men. “I look more like the guys I draw and paint than ever before, which is another good reason to switch to painting pussycats.”
Editor's note: additional reporting by Erin Broadley