Very little slips past Robbie Conal. Words, their meanings, their usage, take on new significance when one listens to this Mar Vista artist. Not that it should be a surprise, given his signature style — a word and a head.
“I love words, I love colloquial American English,” Conal says. “I think it’s the most subversive form of communication on the planet — the language is capable of turning itself inside out and shaking official English from the bottom up, altering the meaning.”
Words and images — the two go hand-in-hand for this New York son of union organizers. Educated at Stanford, Conal does not make art for art’s sake, he makes art as a means of expressing how he feels, what he sees, and what he thinks should be addressed.
“Words are just vehicles for expression, they’re not actual expression, they’re vessels,” Conal says. “It’s what you put into the words that really counts […] that’s why, combined with images — the images affect the meaning of the words.”
And what for many could be an idle task, a doodle habit, becomes for Conal a compulsion, an active form of resistance.
“I’m not trying to make a million dollars or change anybody’s mind,” he says. “It’s just my means of expression.”
Conal moved to Los Angeles in 1984, when Ronald Reagan — whom he dubs the “Teflon President” — was in office. It was at this point that he hit the art scene by storm, beginning the illicit postering of political and social issues across the country. “Guerilla art,” as it became known, ignited a societal consciousness that Conal felt was present, but unexpressed.
“I’d had experience with [Reagan] as governor of California — we already knew what the country was about to find out,” Conal says. “I think there were a lot of people in major cities around the country who were a silent minority upset with Reagan’s policies, but there was no outlet for that kind of critical expression.
“Putting up Men with No Lips and Contradiction on the streets may be the only positive thing about those posters, that those people didn’t feel so alone in their frustration and resistance to his policies.”
These pieces, among others, will be on display as part of No Spitting No Kidding, beginning Saturday, October 18th, through Saturday, November 22nd, at Track 16 Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave. C1, Santa Monica. An opening reception is scheduled from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday, October 18th.
The exhibit, timed to coincide with the presidential election, will be a retrospective of Conal’s work, featuring pieces dating from the 1970s to the present.
The pieces themselves will not be limited to Conal’s poster campaigns. On the contrary, the works will mostly include his oil paintings, magnificent works of mixed media that present a complex image designed to make the viewer reexamine his or her view of the world, past, current and future.
Spectacularly large, two of Conal’s works-in-progress take various elements of pop, political and social culture and combine them in a juxtaposition that might not seem natural to the viewer but to Conal seems perfectly complementary.
From Royal Reagans’ Alf, Smurfs, Death Star and corgi, to W’s Dumb Down Decade’s image of Dick Cheney with pink glittery bunny ears, a Darth Vader-dressed Condoleezza Rice with garish jewelry, Karl Rove with a skunk on his head — “because he’s a stinker,” Conal says — to the famous “Mission Accomplished” photograph of President George W. Bush in a flight suit, and the American Idol judges, well, “they’re not finished yet,” Conal says.
“I tell my students, ‘If you’re going to do a project that’s about a subject you care about, make it modest, make sure you can get it done,'” he says. “The next project will be ontological, the next project will save the world.”
The exhibit will also include Conal’s baseball images, charcoal-on-canvas drawings, and other works from his collection.
“Come to the gallery, have a one-on-one relationship with the real-life painting and stand there for a while and have some interaction,” he says. “It’s a party in there, you have skunks trying out for American Idol, you have Condi as Darth Vader with bling.
“If I want a lot of people to see [my art] I reproduce it and stick it up all over the place, but the more subtle and nuanced, complex ideas I have about how our culture works are reserved for a different arena of reception.”
Information, track16.com/ or robbieconal.com/.