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A Conversation with Fida Touma, Deputy Director General of the A.M. Qattan Foundation, on the Occasion of the Fourth Qalandiya International, Palestine, by James Scarborough

A Conversation with Robbie Conal on the Occasion of his Exhibition "Robbie Conal’s Cabinet of Horrors" at Track 16 Gallery, by James Scarborough

INTRODUCTION.

Since the Reagan administration, Robbie Conal has made and distributed more than 100 street posters that lampoon more-than-deserving politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen, and televangelists. His themes have included the environment, censorship, war, and the Supreme Court (but, alas, not the current Kavanaugh kerfuffle). He’s been called “America’s foremost street artist,” and with good reason. His bleak, zombie apocalypse Cabinet of Horrors features almost two dozen routine abusers of power, authority and trust: Donald Trump, his Cabinet, and his inner circle of trusted advisors.

Conal was born in New York. His parents were both union organizers. He graduated from the High School of Music and Art, got an BFA from San Francisco State University, and an MFA from Stanford University. Awards include a National Endowment for the Arts Individual Artist Grant, a Getty Individual Artist Grant, and a Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Individual Artist's Grant (COLA). He now lives in Central California.

Gallery hours are 12 – 6 p.m., Wednesday – Saturday. The exhibition runs from October 13 to November 10. The Gallery is located at 1206 Maple Avenue, #1005, Los Angeles 90015. For more information, call (310) 815-8080 or visit here.

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JS: You once said that Barack Obama’s presidency, coming off the heels of that of George W. Bush, represented a “shift in the zeitgeist.” What does Donald Trump’s presidency represent?

RC: An evacuation of the bowels of the zeitgeist.

JS: Over the years, really, only the names of your subjects have changed. Their hilarity of their presentation, that’s the same. So is their right-on marriage of image to text. And so is the alchemical way they transmute timely satire into timeless truth. (I’ll never be able to unsee your depictions of Sean Spicer, Ivanka Trump, Stephen Miller, Ben Carson, Kellyanne Conway, Mike Pence, and, especially, Rudy Giuliani.) What has changed since you began? Specifically, how does your work function in and respond to an era of social media-enabled Fake News?

RC: Everything’s gotten much-much-much faster and more global! The news cycle. The necessity for immediate response. The internet has become the only platform capable of delivering the back and forth...I still use the anodyne “sweat equity” approach—hitting the streets with my amazing volunteer guerrilla crews; still the most subversive, unmediated, fun method of public address available to a little old artist. But I’m also compelled to be on every app possible to deliver my “concerns” about public issues to the public.

JS: If you were an ancient Roman philosopher, would you be a Cynic, a Stoic, or an Epicurean?

RC: I’d be dead. (Actually, I’m an optimist—you can’t do this stuff for over 30 years and not be, unless you’re just plain crazy. Well, I guess you—I—could be both!)

JS: Is your work meant to be cathartic?

RC: Well, that’s a little part of it—like, as it pours out, it just happens to be for me personally. But I’m not trying to produce a catharsis for viewers of my art. Their relationship with it, on the streets or in a gallery, is truly between them and it. Once the art is out of my hands, it has a life of its own.

JS: At an operational level, how do you choose the sites in which you’ll place your work? How much is planned before you set out, especially with the way the work will interact with its surroundings? I’m thinking of an image I saw of Rudy Giuliani postered over an ad for the film, “The Predator. The Hunt Has Evolved,” and an image of Trump’s rogue’s gallery poster over an ad for the TV show, “Happy Together.” Were those two images place there on purpose?

RC: Hahah! Far as I know—yes! I’m not the only one putting these things up around the country, but we do have a little “secondary textual serendipity” contest every time we hit the streets. Our volunteers seem to enjoy placing the posters adjacent to commercial advertisements that amplify our concerns (and make fun of the advertising the same time).

As for the general demographic plans for postering coverage: in the olden days I used to make detailed plans to cover specific areas of each city, but I learned better. Considering that our wonderful volunteers take quite a risk in coming out on the streets to help us (it’s illegal), do it for free and have their own reasons for doing so, I now just let’em go—wherever the hell they want. Usually they’ll go back to their own neighborhoods—proudly. I love that!

JS: What are you afraid of? Seriously.

RC: The withering of whatever semblance of democracy that we have left.

JS: Was there a conscious choice of the exhibition’s timing, chiming in as it does in a time slot leading up to the midterm elections? (Please say yes.)

RC: Yes.

JS: Over time, has your relationship changed with graffiti crews and students/activists?

RC: Well, graffiti crews now consider me to be “grandpa.” Students and activists think I’m a fuzzy-wuzzy old relic—kind of affectionately, I hope.

JS: You once said that colloquial American English “... is probably the most subversive form of communication on the planet…” What did you mean by that? Was this said before the explosion of social media?

RC: Yeah, I meant American slang. Though English slang is totally awesome as well. (You know, in England, where most of Great Britain used to be.) I did say it before the explosion, but it’s still true.

JS: Is Los Angeles in 2018 as good a city for street art as it was in 1984?

RC: Much-much-much better! Everywhere is.

JS: If you taught a course on guerrilla postering, what would the syllabus contain? Could such a course be taught?

RC: I taught art at the university level for 30 years. No matter what subject I was teaching, guerrilla postering has somehow always been a subtext. I don’t know how that happened.

JS: Would you ever retire from guerrilla posturing? Why or why not? Certainly not for lack of material, right?

RC: I’ve tried to retire many times. Shit keeps happening. There’s no retiring from the world.

JS: To ask the prior question in a different way, what continues to motivate you to make these images, turn them into posters, recruit people to put them up at night?

RC: It’s the only way I have to express myself in public about public issues I care very much about.

JS: There’s an immediacy to this work. That’s a given. Legible, stark, a compositional jackhammer. Makes sense, given how it’s meant to be noticed, seen, and digested as you pass by in a car. What’s the takeaway you’d like your work in this show to elicit in such a context?

RC: I’d just like to tickle viewers into thinking along with me about this horrific administration—and, since humor is my weapon, maybe provide them with some acerbic laughs. A way to get through the day—or darkest night.

JS: Apropos of nothing and in conclusion, did you really play semi-pro baseball?

RC: Yes. I was the hippie second baseman for the Lumsden Cubs in Saskatchewan in 1970. Baseball in Canada is hockey on dirt—hey, we did pretty well.

 

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