I've been a huge fan of Robbie Conal ever since Mark asked me to profile him for The Happy Mutant Handbook back in 1995. Conal is the Los Angeles-based artist who creates unflattering portraits of (mostly white, male, right-leaning) political and other public figures -- think Reagan, Bush I and II, and their cronies -- and prints them on 2-by-3-foot posters. Then in the dead of night, he and his posse paste 'em up, guerrilla-style, in U.S. cities, in bus shelters and construction sites where, in the morning, folks on their way to work get an eyeful of funny, gritty, cheeky political satire. I first went "postering" with Robbie in San Francisco, and can testify it's some of the most fun I've ever had with my clothes on. I've done it several times since, and still have a gloop of dried wheat paste in the trunk of my Honda.
It's hard to pick a favorite from among Robbie's 20-plus-year portfolio, but a couple come to mind: Kenneth Starr, at the zenith of his power, smiling smugly from inside the caption STARR F**KER. Or the late Jessie Helms, the self-designated arbiter of artistic taste, portrayed on an artist's paintboard as an ARTIFICIAL ART OFFICIAL (thumb-hole centered on his forehead, of course).
Conal draws from a long history of political satirists going back as far as...well, as long as there's been politics to satirize, and a couple of great books have chronicled his work in this context. But as you'd expect, now and then Robbie needs to cleanse his, er, palette, and he does so by painting wildlife: cats, mostly, and frogs, dogs, and more. His excellent new book, Not Your Typical Political Animal, co-created with his wife, Deborah Ross -- a powerhouse in her own right -- collects all these critters from over the years into one bestiary, tracing the history of their role as muses for the artist and his own background as a latchkey kid raised, as he says, "by Manhattan museums and Siamese cats."
The beasts are definitely not all cute. Robbie's work is as unflinching as it is funny, though the presence of animals leavens some of his political gut-punch. Like most of us who work at home, Robbie serves his felines, who get top billing here. But frogs, who first appeared in a two-sided poster designed to raise awareness for the endangered Ballona Wetlands in L.A., and bunnies (remember A BOMBIN' NATION?) make a stand, too. And lest he disappoint his fans, the book also includes a series of diptychs featuring politicians and their pets. (And yes, J. Edgar Hoover did look like his Boston Terrier.)
Besides fine art, there's plenty to read, here, too. If you've ever heard Robbie speak, you know how much he loves wordplay (he's the master of puns) and Political Animal deftly captures the artist's original voice. Compassionate, whip-smart, playful -- turns out this political animal can purr as well as snarl, and the essays in the new book perfectly complement its images -- loveable yin to the yang of Conal's biting visual commentary.
If you live in L.A., don't miss Robbie's appearance at Skylight Books in Los Feliz on Sunday, March 21, 2010 at 5:00pm.
Selected images from Robbie Conal's Not Your Typical Political Animal (click for bigger):