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Robbie Conal: Meet the Godfather of Guerrilla Street Art

Robbie Conal MittWit
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"Men with No Lips" by Robbie Conal is featured in the exhibition "So Many Bad Guys, So Little Time: Robbie Conal's Satirical Street Posters (Plus a Dozen Knuckleheads)" at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo.

At 71, Los Osos resident Robbie Conal is the self-described "grandpa of guerilla street art". His seriocomic posters skewer politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen and other public figures with grotesque portraits and pun-laden slogans that toe the line between playful and pointed.

Yet Conal, who has collaborated with the likes of Shepard Fairey and Mear One, said he didn't originally set out to paper the streets of Southern California. "I never really wanted to make posters. At a certain point I felt compelled to make them," he said.

Conal looks back at three decades of pop culture commentary in the solo exhibition "So Many Bad Guys, So Little Time: Robbie Conal's Satirical Street Posters (Plus a Dozen Knuckleheads)," running Jan. 19 through Feb. 19 at the Harold J. Miossi Art Gallery atCuesta College in San Luis Obispo.

The career retrospective ranges from Conal's classic posters -- picture a "Terminator"-style Arnold Schwarzenegger ("Achtung Baby!"), a cross-eyed John Boehner ("Wealth Care") or Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney channeling "Austin Powers" ("Secretary of Offense") -- to "The '90s Decade," a mixed media collage that combines images of the movie "American Beauty," cartoon character Homer Simpson and political power couple Bill and Hillary Clinton, plus several smiling sperm.

"The '90s Decade" by Robbie Conal.

Also on display are a dozen entries from Conal's colorful "Knuckleheads" series featuring grinning, be-glittered skulls paired with pithy words -- "Sweet," "Shred," "Game Over" and "R U Serious?"

"For me, it's like deja vu all over again," Conal said, surveying the gallery walls. He recently moved from Los Angeles to the Central Coast with his wife, Deborah Ross, who designs titles and logos for film, television and branding.

Conal, who spent a dozen years teaching drawing and painting at the University of Southern California, said he's happy to be back in a college community. "Those are my people. My [target] age group is 9 to 26, and after that, I'm a little annoying," he said with a chuckle.

Conal can credit the cultural institutions of New York City with kickstarting his own arts education.

His parents, both union organizers, too "busy saving the world from capitalist greed" to babysit their precocious little boy. So they'd hand young Conal some subway tokens and send him off to explore the city's celebrated art museums.

Whenever the guards at the Museum of Modern Art grew tired of chasing around Conal, the 9-year-old would scoot down Fifth Avenue to the flagship branch of the New York Public Library and "look up all the surrealist books with crazy stuff in them," he said. "'Guernica' was my buddy."

"Patriot Inaction" by Robbie Conal.

"When I was a kid all my heroes were New York abstract expressionists" such as Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning and Roberto Sebastian Matta, he said. Meanwhile, his parents introduced him to Francisco Goya, Jose Guadalupe Posada and the great Mexican muralists.

"I learned so much that I didn't even know I was learning," Conal recalled, and he compounded that knowledge with a formal arts education. After graduating to New York'sHigh School of Music and Art at age 16, he headed west.

Conal's early exploits in California read like a hippie bildungsroman. He peddled marijuana, mushrooms and synthetic mescaline to put himself through San Francisco State University, got kicked out of school just a couple credits shy of graduation in 1969 for taking part in student protests and headed to Canada, where he briefly played semi-pro baseball for the Lumsden Cubs in Saskatchewan.

Back in the Bay Area, Conal worked the graveyard shift as a Yellow Cab taxi driver alongside ex-cons -- ever fearful that the Zodiac Killer might lodge a 9mm bullet in this brain.

He eventually returned to the classroom to study abstract expressionism, graduating fromStanford University with a master's of fine arts degree in 1978. "When I got out of graduate school, even though I still loved that art, I couldn't do it for myself. It didn't mean much to me anymore," said Conal, who moved to Los Angeles in 1984.

"Mittwit" by Robbie Conal.

"I wanted to make art about these social and political issues that I care about," he continued. "It took me five years of making awful art... to work myself into those nasty little black-and-white paintings."

He's referring specifically to "Men with No Lips," a quartet of oil paintings depicting then-President Ronald Reagan and three members of his cabinet created in 1986. "They were so unforthcoming about what they were doing in the name of representative democracy" that Conal portrayed them with pursed mouths.

When those paintings went on display, Conal got to wondering: "'How do I converse with as many people as possible? How do I do that? Not by hanging [my work] in a gallery.'"

So he recruited the help of a printer -- he happened to be the first baseman on Conal's Mar Vista softball team -- to turn the paintings into posters.

"We broke the piggy bank and... printed up a thousand of them," said Conal, who then persuaded his best friend to help him post the posters around Los Angeles.

In the decades since that momentous decision, Conal has seen the Southern California guerilla art scene explode. "Street art is unstoppable. It's unbelievable how it's blossomed, and rightly so," said the artist, who will be honored in April at the Liberty Hill Foundation's annual Upton Sinclair Awards Dinner in Beverly Hills.

Conal recently spoke with Artbound about his art and his inspirations.

"Read my Apocalips "by Robbie Conal.

You say "Everything's a story." What kinds of stories are you trying to tell?

What I'm trying to do with my art is tickle people into thinking along with me about issues that I think are important. With tickling and a little bit of humor...

As far as I'm concerned, I'm trying not to make propaganda. I'm just trying to express myself.

Is wordplay where the humor comes in?

I love colloquial American English. It's a fantastic medium for expressing all kinds of things it's not meant to express or designed to express.

Let's talk about your portraiture. The expression "warts and all" really does apply to these pieces.

They're adversarial. They're not designed to be celebratory.

The history of portraiture in Western art, aside from giant totalitarian images of dictators or gods, is a way of getting to somebody's soul, getting beneath the surface.

Eighty percent of the information that we receive from so-called reality is through our eyes. So one lovely thing about looking at people's faces is that's the way to get beyond [the surface].

What are you looking for in your subjects?

What is a characteristic expression, and how do I feel about them as human beings and what they're doing. They have a lot of power, and [I look at] how they're using it.

I don't really [portray] many people who I don't think are abusing their power. I chart these guys... My mercury is rising and when it gets to a certain point, I'll start drawing.

"Watching," "Waiting" and "Dreaming" by Robbie Conal.

Not all of your portraits are negative. Talk about the inspiration behind "Waiting," "Watching" and Dreaming," which depict Mahatma Gandhi, the Dalai Lama and Martin Luther King Jr.

9/11 was a horrible thing, but our government's overreaction to it just horrified me. It was like "Oh, here we go. Homeland security? Does it sound like that would translate well into German?"... It was just awful. And then we went and bombed Iraq again.

I was thinking, "Jesus fucking Christ, isn't there any other way to make social and political change besides clamping down on civil liberties here and turning (the Middle East) into rubble halfway around the world?" I thought, "What would Gandhi think?"

So I set out to make those paintings -- "Watching," "Waiting," "Dreaming." But I have this technique that is pretty much tooled for adversarial portraiture. It's for negative [subjects], to paint people I don't like. And I like these people. They're heroes of mine.

I was really nervous making those paintings.

Your wife had a wonderful reaction to the Gandhi painting.

I was working on it and I heard this gasp [behind me]. And I looked and she's crying. I said, "What?" She said, "He looks beautiful. He's such a soulful guy." I said, "Thank God."

"Hug Babies and Drop Bombs" by Shepard Fairey and Robbie Conal.

Is art a release for you?

I'm actually an optimist. If you think about my practice -- making these [paintings], translating them into street posters, gathering up a whole bunch of people, putting them up at night -- it's not like [I'm] doing it for the money. I do it because I'm compelled to do it. And it's narcotic...

People will say, "Have any of these guys seen your work?" It's not for them. It's for everybody else. It's for regular people on the street, [who care] about stuff that I care about, that I have an opinion about.

Why, in your mind, has the street art scene flourished in Southern California?

Angelenos are great surface semioticians. They are fantastic at it. You go to Europe, you're sitting in a cafe and someone says, "Where are you from?" You say, "I'm from L.A.," and they go, "Oooh, Hollywood."

What they mean is, first of all, "Movie stars, oh that's cool," second of all "You're shallow. You're superficial."

It's not like they're wrong, but what they don't understand is, we're deeply superficial. That is the key to my stuff being seen.

"Under Water" by Robbie Conal.

You've been part of the Los Angeles street art scene for so long. Why move to the Central Coast? 

My wife and I have been coming to Los Osos for over 20 years for special occasions. We love it... We thought we'd get a second home here, and then we realized that we're at a stage in our lives that we want to [settle permanently].

She can do most of her work from home, and I have a great studio here. We still go to L.A. regularly for business, at least once every three weeks.

It's wonderful here. Everybody is so nice it takes a little getting used to. Our neighbors, when we moved in, came over and said, "Welcome to Paradise. Don't tell anyone." [laughs]

It is a very arty part of the world. One thing I've been impressed about the Central Coast is everybody makes something. Do-­it-­yourself is huge. Thrift is almost an ethos. If you buy retail, people look at you like you're crazy.

How does it feel to be the O.G. of street art?

Street artists are very conscious of the history of street art and very respectful. It's also a vendetta culture, so if you're in their good graces, you're really good. If you diss them, you're dead...

I've had many people come up to me and say "Oh man, you're Robbie? I've seen your work all my life. I grew up with your art" -- and they're like 40. [laughs] And I go, "Okay. Thanks... I guess."

In this self-portrait, guerrilla street artist Robbie Conal poses with one of his cats. | Courtesy of Robbie Conal.
"6 Knuckleheads" by Robbie Conal.
"Vulnerable Is the New Macho" by Robbie Conal.

Top Image: "MittWit" | Courtesy of Robbie Conal

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