Robbie Conal: Political animal


I’m always flabbergasted by the foaming fury with which some people regard the painter and guerrilla poster artist Robbie Conal. Over the years, letters-to-the-editor writers have said, “Conal is a cancer on society” and, “He should be behind bars, not in an art gallery.”

Patt Morrison Asks: In the Robbie Conal Q&A on Saturday’s Op-Ed page, artist John McCracken was misidentified as James McCracken. —

They were mad mostly because of what wasn’t in an art gallery. For a quarter of a century, Conal has slapped the powerful in the face by slapping up grotesque caricatures of them in public places. Both George Bushes, Ronald Reagan, Robert McNamara, Al Gore and many more are in Conal’s rogues gallery of evildoers. The posters, wallpapered all over town, are a perfect medium for L.A., where everything is apprehended through the car windshield.

I really like his work, and a Conal lithograph hangs in my dog-art collection: the side-by-side, bi-species bewilderment of Nixon and his cocker spaniel, Checkers. It’s one of the images you’ll find in “Not Your Typical Political Animal,” a book midwifed by Conal’s wife of 19 years, designer Deborah Ross -- and inspired by their cats, past, present and future.

Your studio had a biblical flood in the last big rain. What posters did it destroy?

It destroyed half the bad guys. I did a poster called “Patriot Inaction” -- George W. Bush as a skeleton drowning in a flooded cemetery in New Orleans. So now he’s double-drowned.

Will you redo it?

Not unless he rises again.

This book, “Not Your Typical Political Animal” -- what do your cats think of it?

That’s the most important question. [They are] rather pleased in their divine-guardian way. My parents had Siamese cats, and they let the cats take care of me; they were busy saving the world from capitalist greed. The thing about “Not Your Typical Political Animal” is, I never would have copped to it -- that I do pussycats and puppy dogs -- because of my street cred: “I’m not showin’ no warm fuzzy side; homey don’t play that.” But homey does. I’m a Red Diaper baby with Siamese cats.

You’re from New York -- what is it that California has to offer artists?

Even after a hundred years in Cali, I’m still a New York street kid at heart. I find myself longing for concrete and broken glass. I love L.A. -- quite as much as I long for NYC. Yes, they’re superficially dialectical opposites, but when you draw blood, they’re very much the same. The competitive cultural ambition, for instance.

That being said, New York’s visual arts cultural hierarchy is still mostly vertical. L.A.'s visual arts hierarchical landscape is horizontal, or at least closer to it. Which is a bit different from the kind of pressure young artists might feel in N.Y. For sure there’s more creative elbow room in L.A.

Wordplay is as much a part of your art as the visuals -- “False Profit” with the caricatures of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, for example. Where does that come from?

A very chatty family. Dinner was a news quiz. Both my parents were union organizers. I worked for my father when I was 8 or 9, cutting out articles and filing them in this very arcane filing system. The ones that were starred, I had to read and get quizzed on.

I wonder about the influence of computers on art. I know that sometimes, just because someone buys a computer, he thinks that makes him a writer. Does someone who gets a Mac think it makes him an artist?

There’s a lot of that. It doesn’t bother me. Human beings have incredible talents, and I think we’re hard-wired for [making art]. The pyramid of distribution for creative production is very steep and pointy still, and the Internet’s democratizing in its way, and I love it for that.

You think you can do drawings and art because you’ve got Photoshop, and it’s not so good -- that’s OK. The downside is that actual drawing is so sexy; it’s a thrill to see something coming out of the paper. To me that’s like magic.

Are you still doing guerrilla postering -- like the time I accompanied you for a television piece, when you made a scofflaw out of me?

I’m trying to retire. I’ve done it for a long time. The karma has built up. President Obama represents a little shift in the zeitgeist. We’re taking it as a license to address other subjects that are important, aside from that one niche of [visual] character assassination of politicians, bureaucrats, televangelists and other people dangerous to democracy.

IsObama on that list?

He’s not, [but] I’m a realist about him. The posters [could] rise up at any time inside me and just kick me into the street, literally.

Is every kid with a spray can and a grudge an artist?

No, but every kid with a spray can and a grudge has a legitimate gripe. And whether using a spray can to express it is the most articulate and useful way of entering the cultural dialogue is up for grabs, but it’s not like they have so many choices. I think that’s part of the gripe.

If you’re talking to me about my work, the higher crimes of the Bush administration, Arnold Schwarzenegger, are much more significant than my little misdemeanors, municipal code violations. It’s a minor form of civil disobedience, to get your attention, to say “Hey, this is serious,” to get my two cents out to regular people. Graffiti -- there’s a much larger systemic blame.

You’ve been stopped by the police several times for postering.

In 2003, the night of the big antiwar march, we were in New York putting up Gandhi/Dalai Lama/Martin Luther King Jr. [posters] and got stopped. Usually I can talk to any law enforcement person. . . . I was actually in handcuffs in the back of the undercover car, and the [officer driving] said, “I’m embarrassed to be doing this with you.” They put me in jail for six hours.

Depends on how the cop is feeling. D.C. cops stopped me putting up Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. They asked: “Can we have two for the station house?”

Collectors buy your lithos; your oil paintings are exhibited in museums; and yet the idea of a poster is as a transient thing.

That’s one of the charms of ephemera -- it’s meant to be disposable. They’re an immediate response to a situation, and the only people who make posters that aren’t advertising something are the people at the bottom of an issue; they’re made out of desperation.

I’m street enough, but I went to art school, all the way to an MFA at Stanford. Only part of my art is designed expressly for the street. The decade paintings [vast, vividly elaborate works about each decade of his life] -- I had a big show at Track 16 gallery, and all the decade paintings there sold, which is amazing.

Your caricatures are like the picture that Dorian Gray kept hidden.

That’s the idea, that art can take the surface and have it reflect the lower depths. Essentially what I did is take all that Abstract-Expressionism painterly technique and smush it into faces.

The image the artist creates is half the job; the other half is the viewer’s reaction.

That’s right. Try to leave it a little open-ended for a viewer to enter and participate. Even on the street, you see something and you’re not sure what it is, you’re trying to parse “Read My Apocalips” [a Bush poster from a 2004 painting] -- that’s where the action is. Art works best when somebody’s trying to figure it out.

At a party, David Hockney said to you, “Oh, you’re the nasty boy who makes all those nasty portraits of bad men, aren’t you?”

That was him being very sweet. He had two miniature dachshunds under his arms when he said that to me. That’s a compliment that he recognized me, identified [me] at all.

Shepard Fairey, who did the Obama “Hope” poster using an Associated Press photo, is involved in lawsuits that raise questions about copyright, intellectual property and what’s called “fair use.” What do you think of that whole matter?

We’re friends, and I value that. The jury has not even convened. There is an issue, and Shepard has copped to that. No matter what anybody says, in the heat of making stuff, and coming from the subculture -- that’s not even on the radar screen, that it’s somebody else’s photograph, that they make their living doing that. It’s like, “Where can I get stuff. I’ve got something on my mind” -- unless you’re a pro, and that’s not where street art comes from.

My lawyer is an expert on artists’ rights, and she’s written a book on intellectual property. She said if you’re going to take an image from a [photo] service, explain the usage and they will make you a price and [you should] pay it, because it’s respecting the photographers. It’s their job; they get a royalty. It’s like if you’re covering somebody’s record. I’d want [the songwriter for] Little Anthony to get some money if I’m going to do “Tears on My Pillow.”

The other side is how much it needs to be altered to be considered parody.

There’s sometimes an emperor’s new clothes sensibility to some art -- as if it’s just seeing whether someone can get away with anything by calling it art.

I’d like to turn that around, because I have such respect about how hard it is to make a good creative anything. Artists I thought were terrible -- Clyfford Still, James McCracken. I just didn’t get it.

McCracken has a slab leaning against the wall with 27 candy-coated coats of paint. I said: “That’s nothing!” And I’m visiting the Whitney [Museum] and I turn a corner, and I see this pink thing vibrating against the gray walls. I go rushing over, and it’s a James McCracken. It’s undeniably great.

Clyfford Still -- I just hated his whole attitude toward people, and women particularly. I didn’t like his art, these giant paintings with a palette knife. Try a brush! And I was at the Whitney and there’s this giant purple thing that’s fantastic. What the heck is that? Clyfford Still. I felt, once again, “Robbie, you idiot.”

This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. An archive of Morrison’s published interviews is online at