Fly in the Ointment: Ron English. By Francesca Gavin
How do you paint protest? Ron English is a pioneer of rebellious art. Rather than create something didactic, what makes his work so interesting is its inventiveness, skill and sheer humour. Whether it is advertising or the History of Art itself, English twists and tweaks icons and imagery to suit his own satirical point of view. He hijacks images and makes them his own. Ron English is a fly in the soup.
English was not the first artist to twist advertising images–Situationism, Punk and Pop were ahead of him there–but he was a pioneer of culture jamming. His arena was the advertising billboard, ad-land’s biggest and brashest brainwashing gallery. While studying photography in North Texas State University in the early 1980’s, he began to photograph cut-outs of figures, which he would insert into billboards. Over three decades he attacked the imagery of major advertisers, notably tobacco and fast food companies. Ronald McDonald became obese. Children dressed as clowns smoked cigarettes or drank alcohol. He made the viewer aware of manipulations that for a long time were invisible.
English presented new methods and alternative styles that didn’t obviously draw on graffiti’s heritage, but instead were intertwined with the processes of advertising itself. He was one of the first street artists. ‘It is a response to what you see around you,’ English explains, ‘because it is very one-sided. Advertisers own all the advertising space and they have the money. The illegal billboards provide an alternative side to the story and make it more of a dialogue.’
‘Hitting’ billboards was a way of not only subverting the imagery but attacking the methods of advertisers. This isn’t just about the aesthetic approach, bold statements, or even the spaces where advertising is dominant. English goes to the misshapen heart of advertisers and beats them at their own game. ‘There was a very successful advertising campaign by Pepsi which was just stunningly brilliant. There was a cola company in Brooklyn, set up by some black entrepreneurs that decided that they were going to promote their product to their own community. It was just a small start up. It wasn’t a big threat to Pepsi. They were thriving in a micro-economy in Brooklyn. Some ‘genius’ at Pepsi put out an ad campaign with signs around Brooklyn suggesting that if you drunk this alternative cola, then you would become sterile. Although most people probably thought it was nonsense… but did they really want to risk their future family for a soda? The basic concept of what I do, is that I can’t go out there and match them ad for ad–but what I can do is to taint their ad. If you have a bowl of soup and a fly lands in it then the soup is unappealing to you.’
One vein of English’s work is to re-work often over-reproduced paintings that have lost their meaning as they have become assimilated into history. English faultlessly reproduces by hand the classical imagery and romanticised scenes of the 18th and 19th century, adding make up in the style of 70s rock band Kiss. The canon of art history is not free from the artist’s desire to force us to rethink what is accepted and ignored. There is something confrontational about English’s ‘Popaganda’. His figures always stare out at the viewer, forcing you to pay attention.
The central thing that ties his billboard interventions to his canvas paintings is satire. English was involved with political activist groups like Earth First but was put off by their dogmatic approach. Humour was a way of getting on the same level as his audience rather than preaching from above. His work juggles that egalitarian motivation and the awareness that art itself is an elite product. ‘You can’t own a painting forever–only for your life time–it does go back into the public domain.’
Many of English’s signature characters play with symbols of Americana. Marilyn Monroe, McDonald’s, Charlie Brown. ‘It gives me a bridge. If I’m doing a show in China, the first thing they want me to do is the McSupersized.’ His work can feel almost plastic, arguably the ultimate material to represent America. His paintings are filled with rounded, glossy and toy-like forms. They still have an anti-establishment feel to them but with less of the direct politics of his billboard work. ‘If you make something on the street then it only has to last a week. It is very immediate. You can make things about political situations that are happening now. Whereas when I’m painting in the studio, I’m really trying to reach across cultures and generations. You have to be aware not to make stuff too jokey–try to think of things that are more universal and have longevity.’
On numerous occasions, English has reworked Picasso’s ‘Guernica’, one of the most powerful political artworks of the 20th century depicting the tragedies of the Spanish Civil War. Although based on specific events, part of the power of the original is how it avoids a literal illustration but instead focuses on the issues of war itself.
English suggests that Picasso’s Guernica, rather than forcing people to be aware of the specific events, is more like a ‘cartoon’ to ease their fears of war. ‘Some people say that it really helps you understand what happened to these people, but actually, I don’t think it does do that. You can’t comprehend what actually happened in certain historical situations because it would overwhelm you. I think that most people would argue that Picasso was trying to show how horrific the event was, but I would argue that he was trying to help us to assimilate it and not be so freaked out about it, so we can continue on with our lives.’ In English’s interpretations ‘Guernica’ becomes even more cartoon like, full of Simpsons or Snoopy characters.
Buoyant unreal breasts are another recurrent motif in English’s work. Cowgirls with bovine heads and udders, Marilyn with Mickey Mouse faces for breasts. It’s less about titillation than exploring how imagery and ideas about the body become quickly accepted and absorbed into culture. ‘I don’t think I have an obsession with breasts! I think I have an obsession with people’s obsessions. I am very disturbed by breast implants. High heels bother me. Maybe I have an exaggerated sense of empathy. His depiction of breasts also delves into the American subconscious. ‘People are very disturbed by breasts. They are really upset if you have a painting with breasts in it and worry that a kid may walk into the room or something–but aren’t breasts the first thing that children are obsessed with in their life! Then they become offensive… how does that happen?’
English’s methods give his work a sense of strange unreality. He creates a life-sized version of his fantastical characters and landscapes, blowing up toy characters, which play with the viewer’s perception. ‘I never let go of photography and I still wanted to keep using it, so I build sets with models and light them with coloured lights and paint from them. Sometimes it is kind of fun. If I make a pond and I put little fish in it, it’s going to look like a real pond. I hope there is always an element of you feeling like you are like a little kid in the backyard, digging a hole and living in your own weird little fantasy world.’
This current exhibition ‘LAZARUS RISING’ draws on the theme of resurrection. In the exhibition, classic characters from America’s pop history–from Charlie Brown to Frankenstein–reveal their darker depths. Underneath cartoon smiles, lies something disturbing. Layers are peeled away. ‘I like Frankenstein because it’s an alternative resurrection story.’ English explains. ‘We go through a resurrection process every year with the seasons, I have already been resurrected by having a kid. I think it’s a way that people can describe a process of life… the poetic representation of reality.’
Many of his most recent paintings are built on top of layers of comic book pages that have been pasted onto the canvas, hand painting parts of them and then painting the main image onto this background. The texture pushes the gloss of English’s style into a new direction-something rougher, less playful. ‘I was actually quite inspired by Adam Neate’s work after our two man show at Elms Lesters last year. His paintings reminded me a bit of Francis Bacon. I always take something back from every artist, after I’ve shown with them. It’s kind of odd when your hero artist is 20 years younger than you, but such is life…’ The layering process was also a response to the Elms Lesters Painting Rooms themselves. ‘I spent some time there last year, so I kind of got a feel for the space. I like the fact that it used to be a painting studio. You can see layers of paint from 100 years of different projects. I wanted to kind of mimic that in the paintings.’
The new work is still largely in the artist’s signature acid palette. In his paintings, objects and characters glow in psychedelic Technicolor. ‘I like things that glow. People do emit an electrical energy. There was one scientist who photographed it; it was a very even kind of light mixture around the whole torso. I think that people understand that there is something going on apart from what people can perceive.’
Underneath English’s wit and weirdness is the desire to paint the soul.
First published in the book Elms Lesters publication RON ENGLISH ‘ LAZARUS RISING’ 2009