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Poster boy for mischief

He's known for pointed political images. Yet Robbie Conal is a fine artist -- with an edge.

October 13, 2008|Irene Lacher | Special to The Times

The MAN in the two-tone Ray-Ban glasses looked familiar, but Lawrence Shapiro couldn't place him. He was cheerfully holding out a box of Italian cookies to anyone walking through the door of Bergamot Station's Track 16 Gallery -- which was where Shapiro happened to find himself -- and his shock of gray hair and youthful bounce twanged something in Shapiro's memory. The cookie bearer introduced himself as Robbie Conal.

"I haven't seen you for a long time," said Shapiro, a photographer and former Santa Monica arts commissioner. "I wasn't used to seeing you out of context. I thought you were just on the side of buildings."

It's the rare artist who's told that he's "out of context" in an art gallery, but then Conal took something of a back road to public prominence. Dismissing art galleries as "fancy stores [that] invest objects with a narcotic effluvia of 'high' culture" 20 years ago, he made his name by making midnight raids on cities from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., plastering walls with his instantly recognizable posters born of political rage -- expressionistic, almost violent, portraits of headline-makers coupled with punny epigrams turned on their heads.

But success has been double-edged for Conal. Even now, most sentient beings older than 35 in L.A. remember his poster of Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker staring blankly above the words "False Profit." But many don't realize that he's a fine artist, not a graphic designer, with a complex body of work that's more diverse than his signature pieces alone and a lengthy track record teaching painting and drawing at USC, UCLA and Otis Parsons School of Art & Design, now called Otis College of Art and Design. A broad survey of his artwork -- about 100 paintings and drawings spanning 30 years -- will be gathered in a career retrospective, "Robbie Conal: No Spitting No Kidding," which runs from Saturday to Nov. 22 at Track 16 in Santa Monica.

An ironic venue for setting the record straight? Not really. The truth is that Conal loves art galleries, always has; he haunted them growing up as a kid in New York the way more typical youth do malls. And it doesn't surprise -- or even dismay -- him that the medium and the message of political posters have overshadowed his identity as a fine artist, despite the images' origins as dense, painterly canvases inspired by German Expressionism.

Turning heads

Conal, still boyish at 63, says he knew it would happen. "The art that I made to be posters was made as paintings and drawings. I went to art school [at Stanford and San Francisco State]. I'm a painter so I paint. Expressionism is distortion for expressive effect, so you distort people's features to communicate something about them, whether it's the kind of pressure they're under, who they are, turning themselves into a pretzel psychologically, whatever it is. I paint because that's the way I get to the essence of my subjects, and so I never expect anybody to look at those posters on the street and say, 'Oh, that's a painting.' I'm happy if they go, 'What the hell is that?' I really am."

Or at least he was. Conal's postering heyday in the late '80s and early '90s, taking on Reagan-era icons such as Oliver North, Jesse Helms and the progenitor of Reaganomics, earned him a place of prominence among political satirists on the left. Howard Zinn, the political scientist and author of the 1980 bestseller "A People's History of the United States," called his work "outrageous, bold, unsparing and . . . a welcome offering to the struggles of Americans against war and injustice." In the preface to "Artburn," a collection of Conal's monthly L.A. Weekly columns from 1997 to 2003, Zinn compared him to Honore Daumier, and he wasn't alone. The Hammer Museum grouped Conal with the legendary French satirist along with his heroes Klaus Staeck and Jose Guadalupe Posada in its '93 show "The Art of Attack: Social Comment and Its Effect."

The experience should have thrilled him, validating his life's work to date. It did -- and then it didn't. "It was very humbling," says Conal, whose paintings had been the subject of a mid-career retrospective at Pasadena's Armory Center for the Arts three years earlier. "I had my own room, and they let me sit there for a while before the show opened. I thought, 'These guys are so great, and I'm doing a head and a word, a head and a word.' It was so boring. I'm always doing other stuff but not for public address. And it is true that if you just had 12 heads like this and you saw it, you'd go, 'That's impressive, but I don't really want that in my living room, because these are the guys you want to get rid of.' "

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