If you don’t know the name Ron English, you probably have heard about the stir he created when he came to Colorado Springs in 2008. As he did in a handful of other cities, he brought controversy in the form of billboard-size images called “Abraham Obama,” a trademark English mash-up of President Abraham Lincoln and then-presidential candidate Barack Obama.The New York artist called it art. But others said it was a political endorsement and questioned the city about its sign ordinance. City officials agreed with English.
English returns to Colorado Springs with a new exhibition, “The Secrets of the Electric Illuminati: The Lyrics, Art & Toys of Ron English,” which runs at the Smokebrush Gallery and Foundation through April 30.
The confusion over what his work means is understandable. It’s difficult to know what to make of English, who is famous for hijacking corporate billboards with his own messages and a kind of genial moxie regarding the sacred cows of pop and corporate culture.Like Ronald McDonald, who English depicts as obese. Or Marilyn Monroe, who, in English’s interpretation, shrugs sexily with grinning Mickey Mouse faces replacing her breasts. Or the duo of cigarette-smoking 7-year-olds dressed as Batman and Robin.
And then there are the comic books, the DVDs, the books, the CDs and the mass-produced toys of his hybridizing imagination.
“He has a quirky sense of humor,” says Holly Parker, artist and director of Smokebrush. “Yet he’s incredibly informed. He’s a high-level observer of the world.”
Born out of the outlaw cultures of graffiti, hip-hop, skateboarding and comic books, English’s work treads hard-to-classify ground. Some call it Lowbrow Art, Pop Surrealism or Pop Pluralism, and English a guerilla artist, a pirate, a culture jammer. The often controversial work is curious, uncomfortable and in-your-face confrontational — sort of like a traffic accident from which you can’t look away.
English forces you to think — maybe even to take a side — after the shock, puzzlement, outrage or laughter tapers off.
“It spurs banter about what is art,” Parker says. “I think that’s such an important thing.
“Is it a political statement? Does it make you feel something? Do you walk by and ignore it, or does it change your life?”
‘Being hated is very abstract’
English arrived on the New York scene in the late ’80s, when his style of artmaking was largely considered unmarketable by the art elite. That’s changed some: He now shows in galleries all over the world and sells work in the six-figure range.
“I don’t think it was a conscious thing,” he says of making street art. “I grew up in Decatur, Ill. There was no such thing as an art gallery. I didn’t know anything about the art world or Rembrandt or anything like that. It was just instinct.”
Street art, he adds, is an authentic democracy. “You don’t need special credentials to be a street artist. You just need to walk on the street and make art.”
English made a name in the underground art world for stealing billboards — that is, plastering over more than 1,000 paid advertisements with his sharp satire and slap-in-the-face critique of politics and commerce. Targets include Coca-Cola, Apple, McDonald’s, Disney and 7-Eleven. And he uses their own trademarks and characters to do it.
“I’ve done them on just about anything you can think of,” English says.
English is plainspoken. But talk to him awhile and you’ll realize just how savvy he is. Smart, too. Not name-dropping smart, but in possession of the kind of intellect that moves easily from Marxism to poetry to corporate culture to Picasso’s “Guernica.”
It’s all fodder for work that is as much propaganda as anything else. His Web site, in fact, is popaganda.com.
On one pirated billboard, Apple’s font and logo are paired with their catchphrase “Think different” and a head shot of crazy-eyed Charles Manson. Jesus holds a beer bottle in another, flanked by the words “The king of the Jews. The king of beers.” Others: “Fox News: We deceive. You believe” and “Jesus drives an SUV. Mohammed pumps the gas.”
Wake up, he seems to be shouting, and start thinking for yourself.
Don Goede, a local artist and musician, describes English’s campaign against Joe Camel, a cartoon character used in Camel cigarette company’s marketing campaigns. His first billboard showed Camel with the words: “Hooked any kids lately?” His last showed Camel in a coffin.
The cigarettemaker actually had hired him to create billboards for the company. On paper they looked fine. But once they were on the billboard, the skulls he’d hidden in the image were pretty clear.
The company didn’t complete its contract with him.
“I don’t think they knew who I was,” he says.
“That’s an example of what Ron does,” says Goede, who met English in 1999. Not long after, Goede published the first book on English. “They’re all showing us the absolute absurdity all around us.”
Oddly, corporations known for protecting their brand, like Disney and McDonald’s, have turned a blind eye to his attacks, English says. Perhaps they worry that a lawsuit would draw more attention to English’s message. Or maybe, as the artist asserts, expressions of free speech, especially ones so blatantly political as English’s, aren’t great targets. He just ignores the cease-and-desist orders.
You can almost hear English shrug. He doesn’t worry about being arrested, the controversy his work often stirs or even the death threats, which he gets on occasion. “Being hated is very abstract,” he says. “It doesn’t seem like anything. What I fear more is, as you go around the world to do it, you getting this bubble. You go places where people are totally into you, and I fear that more. Because I think that can totally mess you up.”
Art for everybody
But for all English’s consciousness-raising about the evils of corporate culture, the hollowness of pop icons and the commoditization of art, he has created an empire that exploits every one of those notions. With the toys, the books, the films that document his projects and process, the key chains and the comic books (Goede says there’s even a TV cartoon series in the works), he is more than an artist.
He’s Disney for the counterculture crowd.
“In the modern marketplace you have to be a brand,” says English, a gray-bearded, shaggy-haired man, who, in photographs, looks like a third-grader thrust up against his prize-winning painting. He seems uncomfortable with attention. “You have to have a Madison Avenue brain to navigate the art world. And at the end of the day, all I really am is a mom-and-pop. I have to compete with huge corporations, and I have to be a lot more clever than them.”
Goede laughs. “He’s a total contradiction.”
He knows English well. They’ve written songs together. Goede writes the music and English writes the lyrics. They formed a band in 2008 called The Electric Illuminati. They’re releasing their first album, “Songs in English,” this fall.
English is ambitious and determined, Goede says. To illustrate his point, he talks about English’s insistence on including his birth date and a death date in one of the books they did together.
“I asked, ‘So why did you do that?’ ‘So collectors will know when the work is going to go up in value.’”
And if he doesn’t die on that date?
“‘Oh, I’ll kill myself,’ he told me.” Goede laughs a little uncomfortably. “I totally believe that. He’s a heavy, heavy guy. He’s a contradiction. He’s a mirror man. He’s confusing.”
“It’s mostly for speculators,” English says. “I’m in the one profession where everyone is waiting for you to die.”
The toys and other lower-priced items — which, by the way, can be had on eBay — are a way to stay connected with the real world, English says. And kids collect his work, which starts at about $5 for a key chain. In fact, they stand in line to have him sign them.
“Beginning art collectors buy them, take it home and put it on a shelf,” Goede says. “I guess I’d really rather see that than a superhero. Something that’s a reflection of society.”
What does it all mean? Goede doesn’t know. “I don’t think he’s figured it out yet. He’s going to have to be gone before we figure it out. Or maybe, he’ll work it out by the end.”
Which, by the way, is some time in 2042.