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‘Guerrilla’ Artist Given City Grant : Art: Once scolded for defacing public property, Robbie Conal gets $10,000 for billboard on Oliver North/Joseph McCarthy.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The City of Los Angeles is spending $10,000 to bankroll a new public art project by a “guerrilla” artist whom officials once reprimanded for defacing public property.

Robbie Conal--a Venice painter known for plastering the streets of Los Angeles with sardonic portraits of public officials--has been awarded a $10,000 individual artist grant by the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs to create a massive 14-by-48-foot diptych.

Scheduled to be erected on Sept. 11 at an undisclosed Los Angeles billboard site, Conal’s artwork juxtaposes ominous portraits of Iran-Contra figure Oliver North and anti-communist crusader Sen. Joseph McCarthy pausing to consult with attorneys Brendan Sullivan and Roy Cohn during televised congressional investigations. The two monochrome images are divided by a black on yellow caption that reads: “DOUBLE SPEAK DOUBLE SPEAK.”

“I view this billboard as a great opportunity for me to participate in the cultural discourse of the city on a higher level,” Conal said Thursday. “Up above the streets, that is.”

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Adolfo V. Nodal, general manager of Cultural Affairs Department, cited the Conal project as a prime example of his agency’s current campaign to dissuade street and graffiti artists from exhibiting their work illegally.

“There are positive elements in street art and we’re attempting to provide alternatives for creative people who work in that medium,” said Nodal, who is scheduled to host a city conference on graffiti and street art on Sept. 14. “In Robbie Conal’s case, he’s a bona fide artist with an international reputation.”

In the past five years, the 46-year-old Conal and his team of “guerrilla” volunteers have posted more than 70,000 unauthorized satirical broadsides around the nation aimed at such public officials as Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, former Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III, Vice President Dan Quayle and, most recently, LAPD Chief Daryl F. Gates.

One postering escapade in 1988 so irritated the Los Angeles Bureau of Street Maintenance that officials threatened to prosecute Conal for violating local graffiti ordinances. No charges were filed, but the city billed Conal $1,300 to cover the cost of removing his “CONTRA COCAINE” placards from traffic signal boxes and other public utility devices.

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Stuart Haines, chairman of the Mayor’s Committee for Graffiti Removal and Prevention, voiced concern about public funding of the Conal project.

“It’s hard to believe that the city would patronize somebody who has been known to deface public property,” Haines said. “I don’t care if they call it art or freedom of expression or whatever, why should the city fund a guy who is known for violating graffiti laws, especially when there are so many other artists who could use the money?”

But Los Angeles City Councilman Joel Wachs defended government financing of Conal’s piece.

“I think it is very responsible for the city to provide exceptional artists like Robbie a meaningful alternative to display their work in a legal manner,” Wachs said. “While we do not approve of the unauthorized display of his art on public property, that does not mean we do not recognize his talent. If you ask me, I’d rather see Robbie Conal on a billboard than a cigarette advertisement any day.”

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Conal was one of 15 Los Angeles artists awarded $2,400-$10,000 grants by the Cultural Affairs Department as part of a program designed to provide artistic services to the community. The group was selected from among 83 visual artists who applied for the city grants. Awardees are determined by an independent panel of artists and art professionals from the community. All grants are subject to approval by the Allocations Committee, the Cultural Affairs Commission, the City Council and the Mayor.

Some other projects funded under the program include an outdoor sculpture for Echo Park, artworks for bus benches, kiosks and shelters a series of portraits to be displayed in shopping malls.

“It has never been my intention to have an adversarial relationship with the city and I’m grateful to the Cultural Affairs Department for working with me on this,” Conal said. “In terms of public address, the city is allowing me the opportunity to go a little deeper than one-liners about issues that I see as problems in American government.”

Conal’s huge diptych is being manufactured by Metro Media Technologies, a high-tech Hollywood billboard company, in conjunction with Pixmil, a Del Mar digital-imaging firm that specializes in large scale reproductions and has done work for artists such as Frank Stella and Jonathan Borofsky.

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This is not Conal’s first foray into the billboard medium.

Last August, 3M National Advertising Co. caused a stir when the corporation demanded that a giant anti-censorship piece created and paid for by Conal be removed from a 3M-owned West Hollywood billboard site because it was “too controversial.”

But the billboard--which featured a taunting depiction of North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms accompanied by the caption “ARTIFICIAL ART OFFICIAL"--was reinstalled the day after its removal upon order of 3M executives who had been deluged by protests from the West Hollywood art community.

The “DOUBLE SPEAK” billboard is scheduled to go up just five days before confirmation hearings for Robert M. Gates, President Bush’s controversial nominee for Central Intelligence Agency chief, are set to convene.

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Questions about the CIA’s role in the Iran-Contra scandal resurfaced last month after Alan D. Fiers admitted that he and other senior CIA officials--including his superior Clair George, who reported to Gates--knew about the arms-for-hostage fiscal diversion before then Atty. Gen. Meese revealed it on Nov. 25, 1986.

“The idea behind ‘DOUBLE SPEAK’ is to remind the public that there are still demagogues like North and McCarthy out there circumnavigating Congress and the law of the land in the name of national security,” Conal said.


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