When culture-jammer and street artist Ron English climbed up a ladder to a billboard and re-worked it so that a toe-tagged corpse lay next to the corporate logo of Kool cigarettes, he secured my admiration. When I saw his billboard of Picasso’s Guernica with a bright-orange NEW WORLD ORDER plastered over it, I felt like I’d found a long-lost brother. When I watched documentary footage of him liberating a billboard and pasting the message “Let’s Get Drunk and Kill God”—while hostile Christians threatened to kick his ass—I wished I were him.
Curator Andrea Harris-McGee has that documentary (or at least scenes from it), playing on a video loop at Orange Coast College’s Frank M. Doyle Arts Pavilion in an exhibition of the master’s work, called “Status Factory: The Art of Ron English.” Currently available for streaming on Netflix, the documentary, POPaganda: The Art and Crimes of Ron English is a great introduction to the artist and his methods.
Not that you won’t “get” English immediately upon entering the OCC space. His progressive politics and jeering distain for most things corporate is writ large in nearly every piece he does, whether it’s a sculpture, a painting or his new series of collectors’ toys displayed at the recent Comic-Con. But the film preps you a little for the inevitable shock of walking into the gallery and seeing your cherished childhood memories (Charlie Brown, comic books, Mickey Mouse, KISS and a host of animated commercial pitchmen) trashed.
His particular skill is for cutting, spindling and mutilating pop-culture images, calling them on their bullshit by re-imagining the imagery and then introducing his version (as opposed to the Big Business-approved version). Status Factory is more than just a pun on satisfactory; its jaundiced view of American consumer culture is a colorful, wickedly juicy gob in the face of Madison Avenue. That’s not to say it’s all about anarchy, though. There’s a deep strain of anguish on display here: English may be laughing and shaking his head at what he sees around him, but even a cursory look at the work reveals it to also be a brokenhearted, hysterically open-mouthed cry of pain.
As example, let’s look at just one of his themes—how we prep children for future exploitation—through several works that have nothing to do with each other on the surface, but provide an alternative narrative when looked at together. The empty-headed appeal of the children’s show TheTeletubbies is the starting point for Telegrinnies, its primary-color foursome smiling, the rictus pulling back to reveal a naked skull underneath, a sacred heart and ribcage replacing the usual television screens. Casper the Friendly Ghost makes an appearance in the painting The Resuscitation of Immortality, a repeated image floating through the mind of its heavy-lidded Frankenstein’s monster, surrounded by a graveyard of recycled nostalgia: cartoon characters with skulls for faces, green army men, women recoiling in horror, more comic strips and the most famous zombie of all time, Jesus Christ, thrown in for good measure.
Now that we’ve given our children false hope and a sense of immortality, let’s make them violent: The green toddler Hulk in English’s painting American Infantile pouts and grimaces in steroidal rage, as it stands in front of an American flag, the stars and stripes built of seemingly innocent children’s comic-book panels interspersed with explosive war comic imagery. Further that by giving them war toys and costumes (Camo Clownboy, et al.), as child-sized mannequins in Emmett Kelly make-up hold gaily colored rifles, dressed in DayGlo camouflage. A full wall is devoted to a massive, chilling canvas of kids re-enacting Picasso’s famous anti-war painting mentioned above (a trope throughout the exhibition) and, finally, perhaps most poignantly, life-size skeletal versions of green army men (Dead Soldiers) lying on the battlefield of a rainbow flag (The Color of Change), a single soldier still retaining his skin (Dead Soldier Standing), screaming in terror.
I’m not going to detail the work any further, because, frankly, it’ll just ruin the joy of discovering its humor and depth all by yourself. With the promise of more than 100 pieces on display, I hope those tasty tidbits will make you hungry for more.
In fact, if you’ve never heard of English, I’ll admit to being a little jealous. While he may now have his own line of toys, paint rock N roll album covers for Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash, and get displayed in major museums, I’ll never forget the excitement I had when I first saw images of his billboards. I felt thrilled that someone was saying what I felt. That he did it in a way that made me laugh my ass off. That he was giving hell to “The Man.” That the work was public work and money clearly wasn’t the motivating factor. That he got arrested for his art.
Remembering that excitement, I’m anxious to hear what you think. You have such an adventure awaiting you.
“Status Factory: The Art of Ron English” at the Frank M. Doyle Arts Pavilion at Orange Coast College, 2701 Fairview Rd., Costa Mesa; occartpavilion.blogspot.com. 11 a.m.-5:00 p.m. Tues.-Fri., and 5-8 p.m. Wed. Through Dec. 17th. Free.
This review appeared in print as “The Skull Beneath the (Corporate) Skin: Orange Coast College shows the work of Ron English, culture-jammer extraordinaire.”
Dave Barton has written for the OC Weekly for over twenty years, the last eight as their lead art critic. He has interviewed artists from punk rock photographer Edward Colver to monologist Mike Daisey, playwright Joe Penhall to culture jammer Ron English.