Q&A With Artist Robbie Conal
Robbie Conal was born in New York City in 1944. He studied art at San Francisco State University and obtained his MFA at Stanford University before moving to Los Angeles in 1984. It was during this time in the 1980s that he combined his art with his social concerns: politics, power and the abuses of both.
Realizing the limited opportunities for art institutions to showcase his work, he transferred his paintings to posters and showcased them on the streets of Los Angeles and other major cities in the U.S. with the help of his volunteer “guerrilla army.”
His books include Art Attack: The Midnight Politics of A Guerrilla Artist, Artburn, and his latest with Deborah Ross, Not Your Typical Political Animal.
Sundance Channel caught up with Robbie at his studio in California to discuss his background, influences, work, and future projects.
1. Where did you grow up? Did you always want to be an artist?
I grew up on the “upper left side” of Manhattan in the 1950’s.
The only things I could do well at all — or even wanted to do — were play baseball and draw.
2. Who are/were some of your artistic influences?
My parents considered the major museums in Manhattan to be day care centers for me. My best friend was Picasso’s Guernica, then in residence at the Museum of Modern Art. I loved Goya, Daumier, Jose Guadalupe Posada, James Ensor and the N.Y. School Abstract Expressionists — but the most important artist in terms of influencing my own art was my “art dad”, Leon Golub — and his wife, Nancy Spero.
3. If not for art, what direction would you have taken in life?
Both of my parents were intellectual union organizers and I was a little guy — so failed minor league 2nd baseman was not an option. Urban post-psychedelic space cadet had possibilities.
I have a theory: everyone has a homeless person inside them.
To mangle a famous one-liner, “It’s the stupid economy!”
4. What drove you to political satire?
Aside from my family background —
I was raised by communists and Siamese cats — my anger at abuses of power and of the democratic process itself by our elected representatives in government. I was in California during Ronald Reagan’s disastrous tenure as Governor — a foreshadowing of his Presidency. In 1980, when he became President, I flipped out.
5. As the father of guerrilla postering, can you tell us about how you got started doing it?
By the time I left NYC for San Francisco (I was almost 19), without even knowing it, I pretty much knew the history of art about political and social issues, including protest art. But it wasn’t what I did—at all! Until just after I got an MFA at Stanford in ’78, I had been doing some variation of Bay Area Abstract Expressionism all through grad school. Satchel Paige once said, famously, “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.”
I looked back.
The so-called “ethics” of the political economy of capitalism had curdled — and what was left had me surrounded. It had suffused the cultural economy as well. I loved Abstract Expressionism, still do, but it ceased being meaningful as a vehicle of my own personal expression. I needed to be specific. Not express some ABSTRACT angst. Make public art about public issues. I had NO IDEA how to do that. It took me 5 years of making truly awful art to make the transition to guerrilla street posters (which, by the way, are made from original paintings and drawings). The guerrilla street postering was my low tech solution to a conundrum embedded within the cultural economy: Mass distribution. No way (on purpose).
So… How does a “fine artist” reach a public audience of regular people with art about specific public social and political issues? All the political art history I’d ingested as a kid (albeit through osmosis) came back to me.
I knew all about them except: How to make one. However, the true revelation was that I’d have to escape the friendly confines of the “art establishment” to reach my intended audience.
6. What your most successful guerrilla postering campaign?
Ha-hah! It wasn’t even mine. In terms of distribution: My wife, Deborah Ross (an extraordinary film title and print designer) and I did a poster for Southern California Planned Parenthood in ’91, “FREEDOM FROM CHOICE”, about the Supreme Court decision (Rust vs. Sullivan) forbidding doctors in federally funded family planning clinics from even mentioning the word “abortion” to their clients. The campaign went national. Members of Planned Parenthood got 25,000 of the posters up on the streets of 73 U.S. cities in 2 weeks. They were awesome!
7. Have you ever been arrested for guerrilla postering?
8. Do you ever criticize left wing figures in your art?
Who is “left wing” who has enough power in the U.S. to seriously abuse it? I’ve done Bill Clinton. Al Gore. Do they qualify? That’d be shocking to me, actually.
9. Are there any right wingers that you agree with?
Ha-hah! Now you’re tempting me to jeopardize my street cred.
10. What is your opinion of the current administration two years in?
Sadly unlike almost all of my good friends, I’ve always been realistic about Obama and his administration’s tactics—and values. He’s an American politician, right? Speaking of “right,” do we remember the alternative? Obama just about inherited the end of the world. Good night and good luck to us all.
11. Obviously you didn’t love Bush or Reagan. Was it hard spending so much time staring at them and working on them as frequent artistic subjects?
There’s certainly a cathartic element to the process, but — honestly — it was cumulatively toxic for me personally.
12. Tell us about your animal portraits? Are they more soothing to work on?
Yes. That’s pretty much the whole gambit: Connecting with them on a soulful level — healing. I’ve gone over to “the furry side.”
Another theory of mine, if you’ll indulge me:
The planet, “Gaia” (a living organism including all life forms on the Earth), is sooner than later going to consider the cost benefit ratio of keeping humans on the planet a deficit. Label us miserable parasites and scratch the itch. Kick us off.
13. What subjects that you haven’t covered yet would you be most interested in pursuing?
The intersection of politics and popular culture.
Animals as sweet avengers.
Happiness. It’s underrated.
The joy of life. (Consider the alternative.)
14. What’s with all the frogs?
15. What materials do you use?
Everything. But mostly oil paint on canvas. On paper I use acrylic, oil pastel (don’t ask), charcoal and as much glitter as I can get away with.
16. What are your thoughts on digital/electronic tools in the artistic process?
I just say, “Thank you.” Every day.
17. What’s next for you?
More work with the Sundance Channel website. Animation is my dream.
(I need help. Can you hear me now? HELP!)
Be sure to check out Robbie Conal’s latest work:
And don’t miss Robbie Conal’s Digital Exhibition on SundanceChannel.com: