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Art And Politics Mix For Artist

June 27, 1987|JANE GREENSTEIN

"Speak," say the bold black letters accompanying Lt. Col. Oliver North's grim mug on black-and-white posters that have proliferated on construction sites, public utility boxes and vacant buildings throughout Los Angeles.

The posters are the work of Los Angeles-based artist and L.A. Weekly art critic Robbie Conal, who is determined to break out of the institutionalized art circuit and confront the public with his art.

Conal, who describes himself as a "very political person," insists that he's not cashing in on current political events, though many of his subjects are now embroiled in the Iran- contra scandal.

An avid viewer of the Iran- contra hearings, Conal says he's not concerned with indictments, only accountability. "I just want to know what they were doing in the name of representative government," he said, then added with a laugh, "It's going to be a great summer."

Since October, 1986, Conal has been papering the city three nights a week, from midnight until 2 or 3 a.m. His labor--along with a $3,000 personal investment--has resulted in 2,400 posters of North and other public figures displayed from East Los Angeles to Santa Monica. Another 700 posters are scattered in Manhattan (Conal's hometown) and Washington, D.C. (home to most of his subjects). Conal's next stops are Houston and Austin, Texas.

Along with "Speak," Conal has created two other posters reproduced from his looming, 8 ft. x 7 ft. oil paintings of public figures. Poker-faced portraits of President Ronald Reagan, former chief of staff Donald T. Regan, Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III compose his "Men With No Lips" series. "Women With Teeth" features Nancy Reagan, former U.N. Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Joan Rivers.

He refers to the works as adversary portraiture rather than satire, conceived out of respect for the power possessed by politicians and other media icons.

Newspaper photographs of "guys with suits and ties and real sour expressions on their faces" inspired Conal to create the coarse, fleshy paintings that are the basis for "Men With No Lips."

"I realized I was looking at the Reagan Administration and it was all the people who had power over my life and our lives," he said in a recent interview at his Venice studio. "All these guys look the same--they all have this (tight-lipped) expression on their faces. (I'm addressing) the abuses of power that (are) generated almost by the pursuit of it.

"I was determined not to make caricatures. I was thinking about them as paintings of power, (about) how people are affected by their headlong pursuit of power and how they exercise it, sometimes abuse it."

He produced "Women With Teeth" as a companion piece to "Men With No Lips." "I think it ("Women With Teeth") probably started from trying to analyze how Nancy (Reagan) operates," he said. "The thing that I noticed was this emblematic smile that was both a symbol of the power and kind of a social screen, a mask. It's just this false smile and behind it lurks her power. And also, just metaphorically, the teeth were potent."

Conal said he included Rivers because, "she's the kind of person who has changed so much about herself in her pursuit of power."

Conal began painting politicians and other media figures in 1984, six years after earning his master's degree from Stanford, where he trained as an Abstract Expressionist. He said his foray into political painting is fueled by "encroaching adulthood," although he refused to reveal his age.

The poster project is Conal's attempt to take his art outside of what he views as an elitist museum/gallery system, he said. "Instead of just staying in my place as an artist who is supposed to feed into the gallery system, feed into the museums, I want to try to formulate a new discursive formation that engages a larger audience. I believe you can make art about anything that's meaningful to you."

Although Conal began the project to reach beyond the conventional art community, he has attracted its notice. In the past five months, he has shown his work at the Robert Berman Gallery and was offered a part-time teaching position at Otis/Parsons, which begins in the fall.

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