Ron English interviewed at his studio, Jersey City, 12th Feb 2008 for Elms Lesters Painting Rooms
This essay was first published in the ELMS LESTERS book
“Everybody indulges in some weird little behaviour and what the artist does is isolate that behaviour and make it huge, take it all the way.”
The Popaganda anti-bandwagon continues to push art to its transgressive limits. Over 20 years plus, it has tanked on through American visual culture, taking no prisoners amongst the blind followers of corporate branding and the pusillanimous acolytes of the Christian right, moving east like a gargantuan SUV – driven by Jesus, gas pumped by Mohammed – guzzling the fuel of hypocrisy, purveying “subvertisements” through the medium of “Abject Expressionism” to clued-up gainsayers worldwide.
Ron English is nothing if not uncompromising and his relationship with the Fine Art community has always been an ambivalent one.
“Some of those in the art world who came round to my work later used to be hostile and argue that I should just take my work to West Broadway where they sell schlock art and sell it to ‘commoners’ because they’d be impressed with the flash. But ironically that isn’t the case, because the imagery’s too strong and nobody wants a bunny with three breasts, so it’s like I’m cutting myself off both ends.”
This isn’t an artist who has ever been tempted to make things easier for himself. Even though his own “weird little behaviour” has developed into a visual aesthetic that is instantly recognisable and widely regarded, he continues to exploit the mismatch between effortless style and edgy content in his paintings. It’s an effective strategy, wrong-footing viewers and making them reconsider the way they might absorb imagery from advertising without critically engaging with it. The root of this confrontational stance traces back in part to the first New York neighbourhood English inhabited in the Eighties.
“I used to live on Avenue D and 3rd Street and drug lords patrolled the streets with uzis. They would blow up motorbikes in turf wars. It was very, very harsh and so was my art. I remember that when I first moved to New York to paint I couldn’t afford certain colours so I figured out how to do these glazes with lesser colours to create the effect of the colour I wanted. When I moved to Tribeca and had a big space, my work softened up.”
Now based in Jersey City, “the armpit of New York”, as close as you can be to Manhattan whilst being in another state, English still sees himself as the “weird cousin” of the subway graffiti writing community.
“When I first moved to New York I looked up Daze and Crash and Futura and befriended them. [English went on to name his son Mars and daughter Zephyr to acknowledge his respect for two other graffiti icons he befriended later.] I didn’t go and paint a subway train because I felt they’d already staked out their turf. Any turf wars the graffiti writers might have between themselves they would never have with me because they’re not interested in the front of a billboard, there’s not enough longevity. Maybe the back would give you 12 months, but on the front, the best scenario you’ll get is a month, so I’ve never felt like I’m in any competition with them.”
To add to the many hundreds of these ephemeral interventions English has made over the past quarter-century, his recent pirated billboards have made effective satirical use of the artist’s cowgirl character. Proudly displaying their plentiful bovine growth-hormone-induced four-nippled mammary glands, the cowgirls have featured in spoof McDonald’s billboards, seeming to boast about using the hormone in their milkshakes. (Ron and Ronald don’t get on.) In January 2008, on the Las Vegas strip, billboards carried the empty reassurance: “If you believe, it doesn’t have to be true”. Meanwhile, on the highway into town from the airport, carnivorous gamblers were met with the provocation, as English explains, “of a cowgirl holding two guns with her boobs out advertising Raquel’s Topless Steak House – people wanted to know where it was!”
These days, English is also happy to collaborate on politically engaged street painting projects, spending Christmas 2007 in Bethlehem embedding his work into red-and-white hazard warning stripes he rollered onto the Israeli-built wall with the message “Pardon our Oppression”, a laconic rejoinder to “forgive us our trespasses” perhaps.
“To me, graffiti’s like a sport and sometimes I go out with people who knock up pieces, but I don’t take pictures of it any more than I would show you pictures of me playing softball on Sunday. Art is two things: where you’re a professional artist maybe at a level where you’re making a statement that deserves attention, but then there’s also the aspect of art where it’s fun.”
Only the previous week, Ron and his wife had attended an art workshop together to make a stuffed angel mermaid for one of their children and really enjoyed it. The experience only underlined his conviction that everyone should be able to access art practically in their daily life. He laments the tendency of people to feel that they’re not going to be good enough at art to enjoy it, “which people don’t feel when they play softball in the park”.
Even though English’s own work could hardly be more technically skilled, he still feels that viewers who rate art on its technical facility alone harbour a prejudice which limits it. When asked to describe the most technically demanding aspect of making his hyper-realistic paintings to such a high degree of finish, he is typically self-deprecating:
“There’s just a lot of tedium. Once you have the idea and you nail it, it just takes ‘x’ amount of time, but I like to paint. If I didn’t enjoy it I would hire someone else to come do it”.
The works are usually painted from photographs – English studied photography originally – and, if not a portrait, often start as scale models where styrofoam is carved into fantasy figures to form a tableau. Viewpoint is usually face-on, like in a studio photo shoot. A portrait of his son Mars in camouflage with a clown’s face holding a machine gun began, Ron says, as a photo of him posing for Dad “playing dress-up”.
“I make everything stare at you – it may be part of my psychology because of shyness that I make confrontational art, because I’m personally not able to confront you. It’s a very bothersome thing to sit in a room with a painting that stares out. When I was a kid I used to stay with these people down south in Texas and they had this huge matador picture on the wall that just stared and they would make me sleep in the living room and I couldn’t sleep because every time I looked up that thing would be staring at me.”
Propped up against the studio wall is a head-and-shoulders painting of his daughter Zephyr which English says is a big leap for him just to have her looking somewhere other than straight out of the canvas. Then we look at a painting of his Ronnie Rabbit character whose three eyes stare out in different directions, at least one of them following you around the room. In these non-portrait paintings with their Bosch-like hybrid animals and the flattened areas of monochromatic colour, English seems more obviously engaged with abstraction, even though he argues “all art is abstract”.
“Something that doesn’t occur in nature is flat pure colour, so that’s something you can do in painting where you’re not competing with nature. It’s not an intellectual idea, it’s a visceral idea. This stuff is more about pure aesthetics to me. In a weird way that’s who I really am, when I drop all the politics. My real art is just weird. When I don’t try to make it a visual pun or have a political message, that’s what it comes out like.”
This point about visceral compositional drives put me in mind of a conceptual piece by an artist I’d seen at MOMA the day before our interview, a piece entitled What Is Painting? (1966-68) by John Baldessari, where words are simply painted onto a canvas so:
Do you sense how all the parts of a good
picture are involved with each other,
not just placed side by side? Art is a creation
for the eye and can only be hinted at with
Baldessari belonged to a group of conceptual artists that emerged in the late 1960s who emphasised the importance of ideas, language and performative actions over the formal or technical preoccupations of painting and sculpture. English connects with that recent history in American art. Although his technique is highly optically sophisticated, the work is always underpinned by strong ideas.
“I consider myself a conceptual artist. But at the same time I’m like an opera singer and I’m not going to write an opera and not put myself on stage, as a matter of fact I wrote the opera so that I’d have something to sing. I terrifically enjoy painting but then I’m also heavily influenced by the artists like Baldessari, he’s a funny clever guy. He went to some Mall in the Midwest and saw a bunch of women who had really good technical chops but painted the most mundane, banal things and he thought, what if I find something more interesting for them to paint, and it doesn’t even have to be that much more interesting, so he walked around garbage cans and pointed at an old spool in the trash and photographed his hand pointing at it and took it to them and said ‘maybe you could paint that?’ and they did.”
Ron is chuckling.
“I was under a lot of pressure for a lot of years by a lot of people because no one else was doing anything political. I mean I’m super-radical but I don’t think people understand what that means. People might say ‘Wouldn’t Andres Serrano be super-radical?’ [the artist of the infamous ‘Piss Christ’ and morgue series photographs], but in reality that’s not radical, it’s titillating. The most radical thing you can do in this society is say anything against a corporation. Saying something against Islam doesn’t compare. The corporations are the most important thing in this society. A lot of people thought I was completely out of my mind when I went against Camel Cigarettes and did the little kid camels. The RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company was financially supporting the Whitney Museum and that was pretty much like saying you’ll never be in the Whitney. But the artists I know who live their whole lives by the book in the hope of walking through those doors into the Whitney Museum have lived a life subservient to an idea that didn’t work out, while I just did what I wanted. Now they’ve just pulled all their funding, so ostensibly I could go into the Whitney now.”
Oh yes, he’s having fun.
Ben Jones, April 2008