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'Visionary, Not Reactionary': Artists Take Political Commentary To Streets And Skies

Oct 13, 2018
Originally published on October 15, 2018 2:29 pm

After dark on a recent Wednesday, well-known guerilla street artist Robbie Conal and two of his artist friends spent a few hours of political mischief on the streets of Los Angeles.

In the parking lot of Wendy's Donuts in Marina Del Rey, they spot their first target: a traffic light control box, perfectly sized for one of his new posters lampooning President Trump and his inner circle.

Lindsay Sochar and Brian Lauzan take turns on the lookout for police, and painting wallpaper adhesive onto the metal box. Then Conal glues on one of his latest black-and-white caricatures. This one, which he nicknames "Rudy Ghouliani" is stamped with the phrase, "Was it something I said?"

Conal and his crew move quickly, from location to location, laughing and kibbitzing about food while postering. He titled his portrait of White House press secretary Sarah Sanders "A Twist of Fake." Trump advisor Steven Miller is stamped "Staff Infection." The posters are made from original oil and acrylic paintings in a collection Conal calls the "Cabinet of Horrors. " They include Mike Pence, labeled "Stillborn again" and Melania Trump, who is inscribed in pink glitter with "Me Too?" The collection is on display at the downtown LA Gallery Track 16, and will soon go to Washington, D.C.

As for his grotesque caricatures, Conal says, "I paint them exactly the way these people exactly the way they are on the inside. There are so many of them, and they're all so horrible."

The current administration has provided Conal with an abundance of subject material. He says he's finished nearly 40 paintings of characters in Trump's orbit — "more than I've ever done in any year in the last 20 years."

At 74 years old, Conal is considered the godfather of political poster art in this country. He began in the 1980s with a portrait of Ronald Reagan and the words "Contra Diction." Since then, he's poked fun at political figures from both parties.

His latest works include a portrait of Trump, with a self-satisfied smirk and the label "Can't Even," and Brett Kavanaugh, his face puckered in anger, emblazoned with the words "Breaking Bad."

Back on the streets, Conal and his friends joke about the reactions his images have inspired. "Some people write things on them, like 'Why is art so demoralizing?' " laughs the artist.

"People contribute, improve — or sometimes they want it, so they might try to take it," his artist friend Sochar says. "Or they get angry at it and if they don't like it, I've seen a lot of the faces ripped off."

Over the years, Conal and his crews have been arrested for vandalism. But sometimes, he says, even the cops who stop them ask for posters.

Around the country, other artists are expressing themselves through a public art project called "The 50 State Initiative." It features more than 100 billboards that touch on a variety of social issues and topics, from immigration to guns to climate change to national healthcare.

"We believe that it's important at times like these to be visionary, not reactionary, and try to open doors for new ways of conversation," says artist Hank Willis Thomas.

He and artist Eric Gottesman founded For Freedoms, a nonpartisan initiative behind the billboards project. The project involves universities and museums, town hall meetings for public discussions. They've also been giving out lawn signs for people to fill in what freedoms they hope for.

Thomas says the artists were given free rein for their messages. Two of the billboards he created for Syracuse, N.Y., say: "They are Us," and "Us is Them." A billboard in Anchorage, Alaska, projects a photo of Earth shot from space, with the words: "We are the Asteroid."Another billboard in Clarksville, Tenn., depicts a creature that is half elephant, half donkey and the invitation: "Let's discuss."

Artist Carrie Mae Weems's billboard uses a photo from a woman's march with the caption: "Vote. And Continue to Dream." She's not telling viewers how to vote or dream. Even if that may inspire someone to vote differently than she would, Weems says, "That's the chance you take."

"Every single gesture is a gesture towards hopefully, having fuller dialogue, and hopefully, moving towards that greater democracy that we hope to realize," she says. "So you just keep participating and you keep going. As Curtis Mayfield would say, 'Keep on pushing. Keep on pushing.' "

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SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

Artists reflecting on the current political climate are taking their ideas to the streets. For one national project, some artists are making billboards about different social issues. NPR's Mandalit del Barco talked with some of them and also followed a well-known guerrilla street artist as he postered the streets of LA.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: After dark on Wednesday, I met up with Robbie Conal and two of his artist friends as they made a bit of political mischief on the west side streets of LA.

ROBBIE CONAL: There's a box right there. Let's do that.

DEL BARCO: In the parking lot of Wendy's donuts in Marina del Rey, they spot their first target - a traffic light switching box perfectly sized for one of his new posters.

CONAL: Goldie (ph), you looking?

DEL BARCO: Lindsay Socar (ph) and and Brian Loson (ph) take turns on the lookout for police and painting wallpaper adhesive onto the metal box. Then Conal glues on one of his new black-and-white caricatures.

CONAL: Rudy Ghouliani.

DEL BARCO: The portrait of Rudy Giuliani is stamped with the phrase, was it something I said? They move quickly from location to location, laughing and kibitzing about food while postering Conal's portraits of President Trump and his inner circle, what he calls the "Cabinet Of Horrors." They're display at the downtown gallery Track 16. There, he had more time to explain his grotesque caricatures.

CONAL: I paint them exactly the way these people look on the inside. This year, because of Trump and his Cabinet of horrors, I've done almost 40 paintings of them, which is more than I've ever done in any year in the last 20 years.

DEL BARCO: At 74, Conal considered the godfather of political poster art in this country. He began in the 1980s with a portrait of Ronald Reagan and the words contra diction. Since then, he's poked fun at political figures from both parties. Back on the streets, Conal and his friends joke about the reactions his images have inspired.

CONAL: Some people write things on them. Like, why is art so demoralizing?

BRIAN LOSON: Why is art ugly, to demoralize us?

LINDSAY SOCAR: People contribute and prove, or sometimes they want it, so they might try to take it. Or people get angry at it if they don't like it. I've seen a lot of the faces ripped off.

DEL BARCO: Conal and crews have been arrested for vandalism, but sometimes he says even the cops who stop them ask for posters. Around the country, other artists are expressing themselves through a public art project called the 50 State Initiative. It features more than 100 billboards that touch on a variety of social issues and topics from immigration, to guns, to climate change, to national health care. Artist Hank Willis Thomas cofounded For Freedoms, a nonpartisan initiative behind the billboards project.

HANK WILLIS THOMAS: We believe that it's important at times like these to be visionary, not reactionary, and try to open doors for new ways of conversation.

DEL BARCO: He says the artists were given free rein how to express themselves. His two billboards that are up in Syracuse say, they are us and us is them. A billboard in Anchorage is a photo of Earth shot from space with the words, we are the asteroid. Another billboard in Clarksville, Tenn., depicts a creature that is half-elephant, half-donkey and the invitation, let's discuss. Artist Carrie Mae Weems created her billboard with a photo from a women's march with the words, vote and continue to dream. She's not telling viewers how to vote or how to dream, even if it might inspire someone to vote differently than she would.

CARRIE MAE WEEMS: That's the chance that you take, but every single gesture is a gesture towards hopefully having fuller dialogue and hopefully moving towards that greater democracy that we hope to realize in our lifetime. So you just keep participating. You keep going. And as a Curtis Mayfield would say, keep on pushing, keep on pushing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KEEP ON PUSHING")

CURTIS MAYFIELD: (Singing) Keep on pushing.

DEL BARCO: Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.