As the son of two busy union organizers and a background tied to arts since he was a toddler, it’s no wonder Robbie Conal turned to making political statements in his art.
“I actually grew up in [New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art]. My parents thought it was a daycare center for me. They were busy […] saving the world from capitalist greed,” Conal said.
On Oct. 16, Conal will return to his birth place for a panel discussion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on his newest exhibit, “Infinite Jest: Caricature and Satire from Leonardo to Levine.”
One of the pieces in this exhibit is called “Big Fish Eat Little Fish,” which features four CEOs of major mortgage banks taking an oath, unknowingly ensnared in the tentacles of a red pacific octopus. Conal said the eight-legged sea creature represents how the CEOs put many mortgages “underwater.” The octopus’ attempt to take back a wallet or strangle one of the men is why Conal nicknamed it “our revenging cephalopod.”
Moving west for college, he took art classes at San Francisco State University and received a master of fine arts at Stanford University before carving out a home in Los Angeles during the ‘80s. Here, Conal finally integrated his art and his social concerns in posters he started making about the abuses of power and politics.
Conal told KPCC’s Patt Morrison that these criticisms of authority were expressed in art long ago, in comics made as early as the 14th or 15th century. He said that art gravitates towards having a purpose.
“[It’s like] if you have a wonderful dog. What they really want is a job, and I think art wants a job too. One of the jobs art can do is to address any subject and turn it upside down or inside out and shake it for loose change,” he said.
Conal took to the streets with his compositions, making posters of his paintings and running the streets to slap them on every vertical surface he could find. His “no budget” art movement became its own “volunteer guerrilla postering army” and his iconic, piercingly critical portrait posters serve as poignant one-liners that tweak Los Angeles residents as they drive around the city.
Often, Conal will present a thickly lined political caricature paired with one or two words, a technique he called “mixing metaphors.” By connecting picture elements with text elements, Conal said he can “cut [authority figures] down to size.” In a poster he recently sent to the Occupy Wall Street protesters in support of their demonstration, the words “wealth care” flank a cross-eyed John Boehner.
“Another way to do it is to put a funny hat on him,” he said. “Dick Cheney with bunny ears is not Darth Vader. He’s not so terrifying.”
Conal said he’s excited about a recent surge in the public's interest in street art.
I’m just thrilled that these people have kind of spontaneously decided to come out and express themselves in public about these egregious public issues,” he said. “L.A. […] just turned so many people loose, and I’m grateful for that. It’s kind of like having wild children and being really proud.”
Robbie Conal, American guerilla poster artist