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."
FOR THE RECORD:
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.
PATT MORRISON ASKS