Robbie Conal is happiest when he's pushing buttons

Poster artist's political jabs are meant to stir emotions

Arts: museums, literature

October 30, 2003|By Sarah Schaffer | Sarah Schaffer,SUN STAFF

Growing up in 1950s New York, Robbie Conal had three parents: mom, dad and art.

His union-organizer parents were frequently tied up with, well, organizing, so they left their child in the care of the city's public art houses.

"They were busy. They considered the major museums of New York City day-care centers for me," he said.

On many mornings, Conal would wake up to find only a packed lunch with a napkin-note clipped to the brown paper sack.

It would usually say something like, "Come back when the museum is closed," he remembered.

Those countless after-school hours - time spent in the company of many great masterpieces - would shape the life and work of the nationally known artist.

"I kind of absorbed all of this stuff," he said.

And despite their frequent absence, his progressive and political parents were instrumental as well, though their influence wouldn't play a hand in his work until much later in Conal's life.

It was after years of working in an abstract-expressionist style that the formally trained, adult Conal scrapped high art for a more socially conscious yet equally creative style.

Since then, he has been producing portrait posters that feature both national and international newsmakers.

The first creation, 1986's Men With No Lips, depicted President Reagan and his cabinet and was followed shortly thereafter by Women With Teeth, a group portrait featuring Nancy Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Jean Kirkpatrick, among others.

But the posters aren't just amusing caricatures, they're also political statements.

The expertly crafted, black-and-white faces are juxtaposed with a few carefully chosen words - a thought-provoking phrase meant to conjure controversy and stir emotions.

From politicians to pop icons, no one is safe from Conal's sardonic commentary.

The self-described guerrilla poster artist gets his work and message to the masses by papering the posters across public spaces.

Over the years, he has taken the so-called "urban beautification" project, or, rather, nighttime wheatpaste-and-brush outings, from Los Angeles to Washington and New York City.

Conal and a group of eager volunteers spent one recent night plastering greater L.A. with a depiction of California governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was a poster campaign that angered many and delighted a few, he said.

Fist-shaking citizens are no sweat to Conal, whose work has acquainted him with a number of the nation's police forces. In fact, the Los Angeles resident has lost count of his "point of enforcement experiences" and said he isn't happy unless he's causing some sort of ruckus.

"If I'm not upsetting anybody, I get depressed," he quipped. For the past six years, he's been keeping his mood steady by regularly contributing snarky and biting poster designs to the pages of LA Weekly, the city's alternative newspaper.

The 59-year-old recently put together ARTBURN, a collection of those works, and has been touring the country in support of the effort.

On Sunday, he'll stop by Atomic Books to discuss his art and celebrate the recently released collection.

"[I'll] give a little talk about what I do ... the postering end and the book end of it," Conal said.

He's bringing his posters, too.

Conal won't say whether or not they'll end up on the streets of Baltimore, but anything is possible.

"Let's just say it could happen," he chuckled.

Conal's appearance at Atomic Books will be at 7 p.m. Sunday. Atomic Books is at 1100 W. 36th St. Call 410-662-4444 or visit www. atomicbooks.com or www. robbie conal.com for more information.

For more art events, see Page 43.

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