On a wall in Culver City's Overtones Gallery hangs a series of charcoal on canvas portraits of the famous, ranging from former Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to Microsoft's Bill Gates. Walking in there is not unlike entering "an evil steakhouse," cracks artist Robbie Conal.
"I had to restrain myself from taking a marker and inscribing 'Dear Toots, loved my prime ribs ... Bubba,' " he said, alluding to the owner of Manhattan's legendary Toots Shor restaurant and President Clinton -- one of several Democrats portrayed.
"It was a little scary, a rogues gallery, of sorts," he added. "I threw in that huge painting of Bob Marley as an antidote. His 'Stir It Up' was not only a love song but about changing the world."
Change is also what the 58-year-old Conal is about. A transplanted New Yorker (and onetime semi-pro second baseman in the Canadian leagues), he has skewered the powerful since 1986. A fan of Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, he decided to channel the abstract expressionist training he received at Stanford University graduate school into a more representational mold.
Guided by political painter Leon Golub and his feminist-artist wife Nancy Spero, he found his niche: "acerbic, adversarial portraiture." What motivated him was the ascension of Ronald Reagan and viewing Michelangelo's "The Last Judgment" -- art dealing with the human condition -- at the Sistine Chapel. Unifying his "arty, psychedelic side" with the political genes passed down by his union-organizer parents made him a "whole person," he says.
"Robbie quickly became the best-known and most notorious poster artist in the country and he's done a lot to bring attention to the tradition," says Carol Wells, executive director of Los Angeles' Center for the Study of Political Graphics, which owns more than 50 pieces by Conal. "He's very self-deprecating. He says he's just having fun. But he makes people laugh, deflating politicians so we don't feel quite so powerless."
Running through Oct. 11, the Overtones exhibition is the first compilation of material appearing in "Artburn," Conal's monthly L.A. Weekly column. It's also timed to the publication of a book of the same name featuring the drawings and topical posters he and his "predawn attack teams" have plastered around town.
The portraits hanging in the gallery have a second life when he takes the original drawings and adds his cryptic commentary via computer -- the stage of his work depicted in "Artburn." Wordplay is central to their power, colleagues say.
Drawing on colloquialisms, he creates one-liners that turn official English against itself. Thus "Artificial Art Official," etched on the portrait of Jesse Helms, becomes a nod to the senator's attack on the National Endowment for the Arts. "Internal Affairs" is scrawled over Clinton, referring to his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
"Guns 'N' Moses" adorns the portrait of "The Ten Commandments" star Charlton Heston, former president of the National Rifle Assn. Conal also serves up "Martha Stewart Lying," playing off the name of the mogul's magazine. And a portrait of Arnold Schwarzenegger -- turned out within days of the actor's gubernatorial bid announcement -- has "Achtung, Baby!" floating above red, battery-operated "Terminator" eyes.
Documentarian James Otis ("Secrets of the CIA") owns half of the 25 portraits, including Lewinsky, Hillary Clinton and Harris ("The Grinch That Stole the Election"). Eighteen months ago, he commissioned a "Peaceful Warriors" triptych, marking a change of direction for an artist unaccustomed to portraying those he finds admirable.
"Robbie's art is a record of American culture -- the good, the bad, the ugly," Otis says. "He's a modern-day, nonviolent revolutionary -- Gandhi with a paintbrush. Using art as a weapon is common in places such as Latin- and Central America but very rare up here."
Inspired by Otis' triptych, actor David Arquette asked for one featuring his heroes -- Marley, John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix. A native Angeleno and a former graffiti artist himself, Arquette first became aware of Conal in the mid-1980s.
"I loved his Reagan painting 'Contra Diction' -- the thickness of the paint, the swirl of the hair, the way the wrinkles came alive," he said, referring to a piece targeting the illegal diversion of arms profits to aid Nicaraguan rebels. "And that strong and vivid imagery was backed by a wonderful satiric edge. Speaking your mind is a form of civil disobedience which Robbie stretches to its limits."
These days the lackluster economy and turmoil in Iraq are fanning Conal's creative flames.
"[Cartoonist] Paul Conrad gave me a picture of him at a drawing board after Reagan won a second term," Conal recalls. "He's flashing the peace sign: 'four more years, four more years.' Crises are terrible for the world at large but fuel for any satirist."