Different Strokes

Robbie Conal puts a kinder face on his portraiture.

May/June 2004

Reading time min

Different Strokes

Alan Shaffer

People who have never heard of Robbie Conal know his work. For nearly 20 years, bands of nocturnal volunteers have plastered the self-described guerrilla poster artist’s portraits on bus stops, brick walls, freeway underpasses and street signs in cities across the country. He calls his art a street-level protest against “people I think have too much power and have abused it.”

The monstrous blemishes, wrinkles and baggy eyes wrought by Conal, MFA ’78, look carved by the very sins of their owners. There’s the image of Arnold Schwarzenegger coupled with the words “Achtung, Baby!” The California governor’s hair spikes upward diabolically; his eyes flash blood red. Conal’s diptych of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker depicts the two criminal televangelists flashing saccharine smiles over the words “False Profit.” Conal has savaged both Bushes, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Donald Rumsfeld, Martha Stewart and dozens more.

Many of the artist’s posters are reproductions of his oil paintings—topographical marvels of thick, gloppy brushwork—that have been shown around the country in exhibitions like “The Art of the Attack,” a 1993 show in Los Angeles. “His work is important, because it has something to say that is relevant,” says Jaime Villaneda, an education specialist at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. “I do believe that art should be political.”

But what if some of the attack goes out of the artist? It happened to Conal on September 11, 2001, as he watched more than 2,000 people die on live television. Not long after, Conal found himself staring at a blank canvas, trying to paint a different sort of subject. One of his longtime collectors, similarly stunned by the tragedy, had commissioned a triptych of Mahatma Gandhi, the Dalai Lama and Martin Luther King Jr.

Usually, the venom Conal feels for his subjects is integral to his creative process. “I take all that rage and righteous indignation thinking about what these people are doing to everything from the institution of representative democracy to the people, and I take it out on them in the studio.” He hopes a dose of humor and sarcasm lightens each work, balancing the anger.

For the new portraits, Conal geared himself up to do something else entirely. “It freaked me out to try to apply my style of representation to a positive image,” Conal says. “Here I am working on this big Gandhi and pretty much shaking in my shoes. I took all my gnarly and painterly techniques and I used them to turn the painting into a facial topography of everything Gandhi had come through.” Indeed, these subjects bear the same deep facial contours and ravines as his previous portraits, but they convey depth and character, not hideousness.

An early indication that the technique worked came one day when his wife, Deborah Ross, entered the studio. “I just gasped,” says Ross, a Hollywood movie titles designer who most recently won acclaim for her work on Cold Mountain. “It was this huge, audible, ‘Oh my God!’ ” Ross gasps again as if the memory still rocks her. “It took my breath away. It’s the emotional impact of his technique and the straightforward, direct look of the subject. [Gandhi] is a figure in our lives who I care about, and I believe in what he stood for.”

When he was finished, Conal put the word “Watching” underneath Gandhi’s face, “Waiting” under the Dalai Lama and “Dreaming” under Dr. King. Conal’s volunteers plastered posters of the work nationwide, just as the country was preparing for war.

About this time, film actor David Arquette was driving along a street in Santa Monica and slammed on the brakes. Passing an arts center, he’d spotted the original Dr. King painting hanging on a wall. “I knew immediately it was a Robbie Conal,” Arquette says. He parked and went inside to ask if it was for sale. “It was the first [Conal painting] that wasn’t a negative character.”

Arquette had been a graffiti artist in the late ’80s, tagging freeway overpasses and walls around Los Angeles. He’d seen Conal’s posters everywhere and recognized in them a kindred spirit. One day he stumbled upon an exhibit of Conal’s. “Seeing the paintings in real life in front of my face, it just blew me away,” he says. “The flat image (of the posters) reads almost like chalk or charcoal. In real life, it’s so intricate, the depth and the thickness of the brush strokes.”

It turned out that the “Watching, Waiting, Dreaming” paintings were not for sale. But seeing them prompted Arquette to contact Conal. The two men got to know each other, and eventually Arquette asked Conal, a huge music lover, if he’d ever painted musicians.

“That,” says Conal, “was a simply beautiful question.” It gave him license to continue experimenting in this new vein. Arquette commissioned a triptych of Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon and Bob Marley. Conal is painting the portraits on canvases six feet tall and lingering over the experience. Before, people had often asked how he could spend so much time with subjects he loathes; Conal says it never bothered him. However, he’s found real pleasure in making this switch.

“It’s a great thing to come to work in the morning, have a cup of coffee, read the papers, go around the corner and spend the day with Gandhi or John Lennon,” he says.

Still, he says he sometimes hears voices asking if he’s selling out, abandoning his unique contribution to both art and public discourse. “One of my trepidations about doing the celebratory portraits is that it’s such a slam dunk,” Conal says. “I think about the history of aggrandizing portraiture. It’s like walking into a candy-coated quagmire.”

Ross is convinced those voices are mainly in her husband’s head. “All of the subjects he chooses mean something to him. I have yet to meet anyone from the so-called left who objects to these pieces,” she adds. “He brings that gasp to each and every painting he does.”

Conal admits he sometimes felt trapped by his signature style long before 9-11. He remembers the time in 1993 when he walked through an exhibit and saw all of his work together. “I thought, ‘Jesus, that’s what I do,’” he said. “Here’s a guy who spends his whole career painting heads of people he despises.”

It’s easy to see how art that “aggrandizes” might run against the grain. Conal is the son of two fiery union organizers in New York, who sent him to public museums as if they were day care centers. A latchkey kid before the term existed, he grew up with the masters, scrutinizing and memorizing their works and techniques. A couple of years after graduating from the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan, he lived as a hippie in the Haight, then eluded the draft by teaching college and playing minor league baseball in Canada. Back in San Francisco and barely making ends meet as a taxi driver, he went to the Farm for a graduate degree.

Conal says the anger that would later fuel his art came from his parents’ political activism, the Vietnam war and the Reagan administration. Stanford art professors taught him discipline while submitting his work to constant, brutal criticism. (Sometimes an assessment could be particularly biting: Conal remembers the day a classmate drove her car into a tree after a bruising classroom critique.) But in the end, he says, “Stanford saved me. [It] really professionalized me,” he says.

The guerrilla artist is still working on how to fit celebratory portraiture into his body of work. “I’m learning that as long as I stick to people I genuinely admire and revere then I think I feel . . . I don’t know what the word is . . . legitimate,” Conal says. “I have to not be afraid to do something nice and to not be afraid of being successful at that level. I have a genuine fear of success on a market level. It comes from being brought up in a socialist household in the most capitalist capital. I could keep a psychiatrist busy for a while.”

Conal isn’t about to abandon the form of art he’s known for. “Right now,” he says, “I’m working on my nastiest poster of George Bush to date.” In advance of the Academy Awards this year, he dashed off a scathing charcoal portrait of Jack Valenti, the head of the Motion Picture Association. But he was quickly back to the Lennon portrait and the time-consuming medium of oil paint.

“This new work just opens up a second front for me, one that gives me great pleasure,” Conal says. “Once you start doing positive stuff, it’s hard to stop.”

Ann Marsh, ’88, is a freelance writer in Southern California.

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