Under cover of night, Robbie Conal’s Governator portraits hit the streets of Sacramento
Robbie Conal has an almost savant-like ability to bring to light the inner ugliness in any subject, rendering it in the most starkly expressionist terms imaginable. Specializing in unflattering portraits of zealous white men with rapacious appetites (for wealth, fame, power, women, etc.), Conal has carved out an unlikely niche market that is uniquely his.
So, when Sacramentans woke up Memorial Day weekend to find disturbing portraits of Arnold Schwarzenegger illegally pasted up all over the downtown area, it soon became evident that the guerilla artist had struck in the governor’s adopted hometown. The posters display a frightening caricature of a red-eyed Schwarzenegger framed by the headline “Achtung Baby!” and a quote (“I was always dreaming of very powerful people, dictators and things like that”) that’s attributed to Schwarzenegger in the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron.
After pleasantly requesting the spelling of “achtung,” a spokesperson for the governor’s office got back to SN&R saying Schwarzenegger would have no comment on the poster, but Conal was more than pleased to learn that his latest Sacramento subversive art show went off without a hitch. “It’s always a thrill when the kids say they want to do something and they actually do it,” said the 50-something Los Angeles-based artist, who sent up 100 posters at the request of some Sacramento-based volunteers but was not on hand to take part in their installation.
Though Conal’s political art shows up in prestigious museums and onscreen in Robert Altman’s The Player, people know Conal best for the countless urban bus shelters, electric-grid boxes, telephone poles and freeway onramps that have been plastered with his unflattering images. Throughout the years, Conal has graduated from using wheat paste to a premixed acrylic wallpaper adhesive—“I give all my volunteers the good shit,” he said—which has made him the bane of numerous departments of public works. (Sacramento’s own department has been broken up into three departments, and the appropriate spokesperson could not be reached before press time. But their still-active Web site provides a helpful link to the city’s graffiti-abatement program at www.pwsacramento.com/maintenance/graffiti.html ).
The subject of an award-winning PBS documentary, Post No Bills, Conal originally made his Schwarzenegger rendering during the recall campaign (Conal’s work appears regularly in the LA Weekly and on the Web at www.robbieconal.com). “Personally, I think he’s the American dream turned into a nightmare,” said Conal, describing the celebrity politician as “a power-mad Austrian bodybuilder on steroids who came to America to make his fortune and [engage in carnal relations with] a Kennedy.
“I mean, you take somebody like Ronald Reagan, who was our last actor-governor. At least he was in politics for 20 years,” continued Conal. “Arnold’s been in politics for 20 minutes. And it’s scaring me. He’s got this juggernaut behind him that will try to parlay this into changing the electoral laws in our country to make it possible for him to run for president.”
In fact, the star of Bedtime for Bonzo played a seminal role in turning Conal into America’s most wanted guerilla artist. Weaned on surrealism and situationists, Conal went public with his political art for the first time via portraits of Reagan and his presidential Cabinet in a series called “Men With No Lips.”
“I was in my studio having steam coming from every orifice of my body as I read the newspapers about the Reagan administration, and then I looked down and saw what I was painting,” recalled Conal. “And it was nasty little black-and-white oil paintings of ugly old white guys in suits and ties.”
Few of Conal’s subjects seem to share his sense of humor or, for that matter, his unusual upbringing. “My parents were union organizers who thought the major museums in New York City were day-care centers, basically, for me,” said Conal of his latchkey youth. “They’d leave me a brown-bag sandwich and a dollar and two subway tokens and say, ‘Come back when the museums close.’”
In fact, Conal revisited his old stamping ground just a few months ago. “I got arrested in New York in March for putting up Gandhi, the Dalai Lama and Martin Luther King,” said Conal, who finally got around to doing portraits of some people he actually admires. “We were in the east village around 1:30 in the morning, and plainclothes cops jumped out of taxi cabs, busted us and took us to jail.”
Conal believes the “zeitgeist has changed” since 9/11 and that authorities are “more panoptically paranoid” than ever. “They’re trying to demonize dissent, and they’re doing a pretty good job, especially at the point of enforcement,” he said. “They don’t seem to distinguish between free-speech high jinks and terrorist cells.”
But while American free-speech zones appear to be getting smaller and smaller, Conal’s has yet to fall victim to personal paranoia. “In fact, to do this you have to be kind of an optimist, I think,” said Conal, who’s about to tour with an anti-Bush art show featuring himself and younger political artists Shepard Fairey and Mear One. “I am paranoid about the executive branch of the government and its designs on world domination. But I’m not so paranoid about the streets.”
But what some may see as vandalism, visual pollution or even psychological terrorism, Conal sees as “a minor form of civil disobedience” that’s actually valuable to the “middle-class young people” who tend to disseminate his work. “It’s demystifying in the sense that we’re all afraid of the cops, whether consciously or subconsciously, and I don’t think that’s a good thing in a democracy. I think you should know your local police and have a local relationship with them,” said Conal, who appears to have fostered many such relationships. “A lot of people are afraid, and understandably so, of the justice system—all the way from John Ashcroft on down to traffic-court judges—and I don’t think that’s a positive thing. I think we should engage our legislative and judicial process as citizens, and this is one—maybe eccentric or mischievous—way of doing it.”