February 26, 2004
Conal’s the Poster Boy for ‘Art Attack’
You've seen them around town: a poster of a grinning, gnarly Arnold Schwarzenegger with red eyes and the words, "Achtung, Baby," scrawled in German Gothic type across his forehead. It may have made you smile; you may have felt it was in bad taste. Perhaps a bit of both. In any event, you probably thought: There goes the poster guy again.
By now, even if you can't name the artist, Robbie Conal, the style has become familiar: a black-and-white head-and-shoulders portrait made up of an agglomeration of wrinkles, blemishes, receding hairlines -- the polar opposite of air-brushing -- that build to define a recognizable face surrounded by words that amount to an indictment or in Conal's term, an "art attack." Over the years, few public figures of any note, from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton and from Tammy Faye to Martha Stewart, have dodged the brush.
About four times a year, for the last 18 years, Conal and crew go out midnight postering, and thus far they've managed to avoid arrest -- Conal's Web site, www.robbieconal.com, recommends telling police officers that "you're doing an art project." For those who prefer their Conal without a side of potential misdemeanor, his work appears on a monthly basis in the L.A. Weekly since 1997 and has recently been collected in a book, "ARTBURN" (RDV Books), with a foreword by Howard Zinn of "The People's History" (and yes, of Matt and Ben fame).
Conal (the name comes from Russian Jews who fled to Ireland and then to the United States where they conflated Cohen and Connally) grew up on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Conal's art education began early. His parents were union organizers, often out marching or instigating, leaving Conal, an only child, to his own devices.
They would leave a brown-bag lunch for him, a $1 bill and two subway tokens, with a note to go to any art museum in the city until it closed. Such benign neglect was strangely empowering.
Conal attended P.S. 93, P.S. 118 and then the High School of Music and Art. He graduated at 16 and then spent a brief year at Brooklyn College before heading to the West Coast, where, after a more than decade-long odyssey that had him living in the Haight, working the night shift at the post office, getting kicked out of San Francisco State for occupying school buildings as a protest, going to Canada and playing semipro baseball, getting adjudged 1-Y by the draft board (psychologically unfit to serve), returning to San Francisco to drive a Yellow Cab during the graveyard shift (he is currently writing a "comedic noir" novel about the experience) he enrolled in Stanford's master of fine arts program, where his teachers included Frank Lobdell and Nathan Olivera, the tough guys of Bay Area abstraction. But he still hadn't found his way.
With 20/20 hindsight, there were several important landmarks over the next decade that would lead to his decision to start postering.
At that time, abstract expressionism ruled. Conal was one of its adherents until he went to visit a girlfriend who was studying Renaissance art in Rome. She took him to see Michaelangelo's "Last Judgment."
It spoke to him: "Art about the human condition -- the human figure in dire straights." It seemed like something he should be addressing in his work.
The final elements in Conal's journey to becoming a guerrilla poster artist were the election and subsequent reelection of Ronald Reagan. Reagan, you could say, made Conal the artist he is today.
Reading the newspaper during the early '80s, Conal "found steam coming out of my eyes, ears, nose and throat." In "Art Attack," a now out-of-print book that collected Conal's posters between 1986 and 1992, Conal describes his 1986 Archimedes moment: "I'd just stare at Reagan, Regan, Weinberger, James Baker III, Shultz and Casey. Suddenly, I found myself making nasty little portraits of ugly old white men with pursed lips -- okay, no lips. And it came together -- this tight little club of power-mongers were: MEN WITH NO LIPS."
Conal wanted his work to reach the public. That wasn't going to happen by showing in art galleries. Instead, he decided to translate his work into posters and "hit the street."
There was one hitch: Conal knew nothing about making posters. But the first baseman on his Sunday softball team, John Berley, did -- he was a printer.
Conal spent $600 for 1,000 posters that featured four portraits, each with a word beneath the face: Reagan (MEN), Regan (WITH), Weinberger (NO) and Baker (LIPS). Conal and his friend, Lenny Silverberg, went out late one night in Conal's Honda Civic wagon filled with posters, brushes and pots of glue, following a basic route between Conal's studio in Venice (at 5th and Rose avenues) and his mother's apartment in Park La Brea.
Reagan had been dubbed "The Teflon President," because no scandal stuck to him. Conal decided instead to stick it to Reagan. Conal deliberately placed posters at traffic switch boxes, where drivers would see them.
Los Angeles has always been a semioticians' paradise, where people are attuned to every sign, from which car you drive to the thickness of your yoga mat. They noticed. People weren't sure what the posters meant or whose agenda or product they were pushing. But Conal knew he was on to something.
"Men With No Lips" was followed by "Women With Teeth" (Nancy Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Jeanne Kirkpatrick and Joan Rivers). By the third poster, Ollie North (CONFESS), Conal had found his voice, his medium, his métier.
Conal, the former art brat, had tapped into a tradition reaching back to Goya and that referenced Kathe Kollwitz, Georg Grosz and the Mexican muralists Orozco and Rivera. To see Conal's work in art-historical context, you need do little more than walk into the UCLA Hammer Museum in Westwood and check out their collection of drawings and busts by Daumier. Even today, the portraits are simultaneously entertaining and damning.
Over the years, Conal's haiku-like commentary on our times has often captured the zeitgeist. Some of my favorites include a portrait of Reagan with the words: "Contra" above his face and "Diction" below; Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye with the words, "False Profit"; and George H. W. Bush with the phrase, "It can't happen here," written so that "here" is on his forehead.
Among the most notorious is a portrait of then-L.A. Police Chief Daryl Gates' head superimposed on a rifle target. Writ large is a quote from Gates: "Casual drug users should be taken out and shot" -- Conal took a blue grease pen, crossed out "shot" and wrote "Beaten," a reference to Rodney King. Love it or hate it, fair or unfair, it remains one of Conal's most powerful works.
Carol Wells of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, says: "Conal has made the political poster his own."
Conal is unique, she says, in that his work is "half-art, half-protest." Most distinctive, Wells feels is Conal's use of humor. His provocative and at times ambiguous word play is all the more powerful, she says, because it makes you "look at the world a little differently."
Conal's monthly cartoon/column in the L.A. Weekly has allowed him to experiment with larger blocks of text and make more direct commentary on events and subjects in the news, such as Clinton, Colin Powell, Dick Cheney and Stewart.
Part of Conal would like to retire from the art attacks. It's been 18 years, but, as Conal says, "Stuff keeps happening." In fact, as election season heats up, Conal's planning an anti-Bush project, which will be a collaborative artwork with two other young artists, Sheperd Fairey of "Obey Giant" fame, and L.A. Graffiti writer Mear. They plan on doing a triptych, with each doing a portrait with text.
Conal has been criticized for making his subjects ugly. Although one could argue that by 50, everyone gets the face they deserve, or that the face tells the story of the soul, or that "ugly" art has a long history and is part of the aesthetic Conal imbued from his teachers at Stanford. Whether in response to this criticism or not, Conal has recently done some inspirational images that have a beauty rarely found in his earlier work.
After Sept. 11, Conal was approached by Jim Otis, a filmmaker who is devoted to the principles of nonviolence, to do portraits of inspiration. Conal was concerned about the dangers of overreaction to the World Trade Center bombing, or as Chris Rock put it in his current stand-up tour, about "Patriotism becoming hate-triotism."
Conal drew portraits of Ghandi, the Dalai Lama and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., with the words for each, "Waiting, Watching, Dreaming." Once the posters went up, it was as if these modern-era apostles of nonviolence were standing on street corners watching how we behaved.
More recently, guerrilla poster crew member and actor David Arquette suggested Conal do a series about musicians who've inspired us and commissioned a portrait of John Lennon. Bob Marley and others are to follow in the series.
All through my interview with Conal, I kept thinking of that other master of the multiple, Andy Warhol. Although Warhol's work was thought to be consciously apolitical, similarities kept popping into mind. Both artists sought to transmute popular culture and create a dissonance that would serve as commentary.
Consider Warhol's early work, "Electric Chairs," and even his later portraits of "Mao." Warhol was famous for his commissioned portraits -- and his commissioned series, such as "Famous Jews of the 20th Century." Warhol also collaborated with younger artists, most notably with Basquiat.
Despite the similarities, the more I thought about it, the more I realized Conal is the anti-Warhol. Warhol made art of the shallow; Conal makes art by showing us the shallowness of the high and mighty. Warhol, on occasion, made art that had a political dimension. Conal's art is politics.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.