Los Angeles

Robbie Conal

Armory Center for the Arts

Robbie Conal has made a career creating caricatures of right-wing political and religious figures like Ed Meese and Dan Quayle that look like portraits of Dorian Grey at his most dissipated. Conal’s work is politically correct, as they say, but in the stalest way; it’s smug in its safety, and weak in its critique. Conal takes for granted that every human being’s head is buried in the sand, and presents us with weary generalities. He mouths the platitudes liberals like to hear the same way President Bush charms middlebrow conservatives.

Conal battles the powers that be by making the bad guys look ugly. To be corrupt, it would seem, is to have jagged facial features, a twisted-up mouth, thin lips, and bags under one’s eyes. Conal’s physical/spiritual creepiness equation adheres to the same rules that TV drama follows, i.e., a white drug dealer must have pock-marked cheeks.

Conal has preached to the converted since 1985, plastering the streets of sophisticated, left-leaning American cities, like Los Angeles, Seattle, and New York, that largely welcome such ribbings, with his so-called guerrilla art. He never seems to venture into less charmed locales, where the posters would actually challenge residents. The postering is done by night, when most people are sleeping, by batallions of art students and other volunteers; it’s a romantic job but someone’s got to do it.

For this exhibition the gallery erected a wall of plywood with the phrase POST NO BILLS stenciled on it to simulate an urban construction site where Conal posters proliferate. There was also a glass case where mementos from the trenches, including a note to a printer about size reduction, and the actual palette used in the Jesse Helms piece ARTIFICIAL ART OFFICIAL, 1990, were presented.

The work claims to speak to the pressing issues of the last five years, from Iran/Contra to Jimmy Swaggart, but Conal’s wordplay is entirely mundane. Image: Tammy and Jim Bakker; headline: “FALSE” under her face, “PROFIT,” under his. You see, Tammy Bakker has false eyelashes, and Jim made money illegally. Image: Ronald Reagan; above his head the word “CONTRA,” below, “DICTION.” For preschoolers, perhaps. . . but for a more sophisticated audience these one-liners fall flat. Some of Conal’s paintings/posters avoid puns and try instead for the telegraphic approach. In other words, the text, “HEAR SEE SPEAK,” is paired with images of Ronald Reagan, John Poindexter, and Oliver North. Conal also makes accusatory artwork aimed at women. He’s not going to pretend that they don’t do bad things, too. WOMEN WITH TEETH, 1986, displays vastly unflattering images of Nancy Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Phyllis Schlafly, and Joan Rivers, baring their formidable incisors. One wonders what Joan Rivers is doing in this otherwise political lineup. The brain-splitting message of these images of women powerbrokers showing their fangs suggests that their cheerful smiles secret baboonlike aggression.

Accompanying the show is a video of how Conal works. It is an idealized treatment of the struggle to make art, that tells a story about guts, bravery, truth, and a belief in one’s. . .belief. We see the artist stirring cans of ink, applying it, getting spots on his jeans. In the middle of the night Conal, as pseudo labor-organizer, rounds up his helpers at Canter’s Deli, telling them where to glue his posters. While it is presumably action that the work intends to provoke, the only discernible effects generated seem self-promotional. Conal’s messages might work more effectively in newspapers, though most political cartoons are decidedly more insightful and nuanced.

Benjamin Weissman