Robbie Conal: I know Mear One as a whirling dervish. Painting, drawing, piecing, print making, poster production, T shirt lines, stickers and everything else I forgot to list. Always up to making and thinking about more things than I can even get my mind around. (In fact, after writing those 3 sentences—conjuring the Mearski—I think I need a nap.) So….I figure you must be hooked into world history and current events, like you have a social media I.V. drip going directly into your brain 24/7. Or, perhaps you even consume information the good old, old fashioned way…like, have you read any good books, lately?
MearOne: I haven’t found the time to read any books this past year but the years prior I was on a bit of a reading binge. I studied world history and human psychology from the writings of philosophers like Richard Tarnas, Robert Anton Wilson, Ken Wilber, and I enjoy reference books that explore the mind and place of humanity in reality. I have always enjoyed cryptic Scientific, Philosophical, and Spiritual literature from the late 1880’s through the 1940’s. My family has roots in Art, Music, Astro Physics, and this seems to be a very interesting time in the subject matter that inspires me. I enjoy Anthropology and Archeology too – as an artist I can find an endless story to create and build upon, one you don’t find in traditional public school teachings.
RC: Of course I’m interested in your reception habits and preferred sources of information, but I want to ask you about your big pieces about big subjects—you make more of them than pretty much any street artist I know. How do you choose a subject to do a big “piece” about—like not necessarily doing a commission, but something more on your own.
M: For the work I create, my personal views and understanding of politics and humanity are worked into a extreme story that I can create to illustrate the issues that desperately need to be discussed. I search for truth to interpret this world that is insane. There seems to be a secret side of life that the average, complacent American victim has no idea about, and is partially responsible for. I believe the powers that be are mindlessly manipulating society to satisfy our addiction to greed and power. There are deeper levels of secret organization who are invested in harming upon the uninitiated and poor worldwide.
RC: Also, how did you develop (or evolve) your major pictorial form—the one (or 2 or 3) you use for the big pieces? (Which seems to me like a contemporary melding of classic social & political muralists’ heroic populist representation, teeming with images, use of deep illusionistic space and cracking open Pandora’s Box just enough to let loose some spiritualized microcosmic sci-fi galaxy spinning.)
M: My subject matter stems from what is happening right now and sometimes incorporates the past but shows how they are linked and perpetuated. My paintings are philosophical perspectives on reality and I use real world current issues, juxtaposed with ancient myth, symbolism and my own imagination of the future in order to express a multidimensional way of conceiving of life responsibly and artistically. This is my way of looking into larger fields of time and how the human experience plays itself out. In addition, my work speaks about the unheard and lesser known ideas surrounding our culture like Social Conditioning, Political Power, The Higher Self Psychology, and The Material and Non-Material universe. I use current issues to discover their connection to past events and draft out a diagram of how time may be more akin to something like a four dimensional spherical reality as opposed to linear. There is something happening here and I want to know. There is a saying that goes something like, “If you long for ease and comfort than settle for it, but if your quest is for truth than you must search, and search you will.” And so here I am searching through my work to find what is true.
This event sounds amazing. Between the hype in New York, London, Los Angeles and Paris, Vienna has enthusiastically been trying to put itself on the map in the global street art scene. The history of the city is one that has shown support of international street art for years but all that suddenly seems fairly small-scale in comparison to this festival. Cash, Cans & Candy has invited some of the big names of street artists (Shepard Fairey, Faile, Retna, Roa, Robbie Conal, Jaz, Dan Witz, etc) as well as some newer or lesser known talent to paint 800 meters (a half mile) of wall space around Vienna.
Shepard finished his wall at the end of May. Kicking the festival off with Shepard was probably a smart move in setting the tone for the rest of the events. The space he was given to work with definitely suited his style and the image is beautiful but I don’t think he incorporated the existing architecture as much as he could have. You can catch Faile painting their wall on June 20th.
The gallery exhibition of the same name at Galerie Hilger Next looks worth seeing. They’ve posted photos of a number of the exhibited works here.
The festival closes September 13th. To keep up with the ongoing events, including talks, tours, workshops, performances and block parties, check out the Cash, Cans & Candy Facebook page.
RJ Rushmore: What was it like to have your artwork, voice, and likeness featured on The Simpsons?
Robbie Conal: It was like being Knighted by the Queen of England. (In case you were wondering, that’s where Great Britain used to be.)
RJ: Most street artists put up the majority of their work themselves, some are even quite protective about not allowing others to put up their work, like stickers, for them. Why do you reach out to volunteers to put up your posters?
I’m always looking for a communal experience: the posters are my little way of participating in the public dialogue about issues that are important (not just to me). You know, like that rumor called, “democracy.”
Likewise, getting a bunch of like-minded loonies together at, say, Canter’s Deli, in LA in the middle of the night, talking the talk, walking the perp walk—getting up a smack of counterinfotainment on the streets together—is a bonding experience. Those are the only moments in my life when anarchy actually works and I don’t feel so alone (you know, just me and my weird beliefs and my little pieces of paper)—ha! And, of course, we get more up for more peeps to see a minor surprise on their way to work or (these days) looking for it, in the morning.
RJ: Have many of your volunteers gone from putting up work with you to doing postering campaigns of their own?
Conal: There have been a few—plus some great graff writers have joined us, rather gleefully, I might add. MEARONE, MAN1, VYAL. KOFIE, AXIS, and Shepard Fairey to name a few.
Actually, MEARONE, Shep, and I did a guerrilla street poster national tour together in 2004. It was Mear’s, Shep’s and Elizabeth Ai’s idea, not mine.
You might vaguely remember that George Bush’s mafia stole the 2000 Presidential election. That pissed Mear, Shep, and Elizabeth (and a shitload of other people) off! Kind of politicized them— in the sense that it made them pay attention to “party politics.”
They decided that they’d each do an anti-Bush, anti-Iraq War street poster —in their own styles—and take’em on tour around the U.S. before the 2004 election. Then one fine day they came and got me, as in, “Hey, kids! Let’s go get the old guy out of his rest home on the west side and make it a triptych!” And I’m very grateful they did. Called the tour, “Be The Revolution.”
We had a tour launch party at the Avalon in Hollywood, 1,200 peeps showed up, Ozomatli, Culture Clash, the great slam poet Jerry Quickley all performed. My offset-litho printer, Typecraft, Inc. in Pasadena printed up @ 15,000 full color street posters, 5,000 of each of ours—pro bono. We rocked around the country as best we could. It was verrrry interesting.
RJ: What do you think about the street art movement’s popularity over the last few years?
Conal: To be honest, I always thought it was inevitable. My idea of genuine indigenous American art forms is based on a “bubble up” theory of cultural creativity. The “American Dream,” of single family home ownership, keeping your kids “safe,” you know, away from the mean streets of, say, any “inner city” neighborhoods in any big city, pushes families into places like Pacoima, Simi Valley, Orange County, for Chrissakes! There’s nothing for young teens to do out there. “Safe”? A 14 year old red blooded American kid taken out to nowhere with nothing to do? Give me a break!
However well meaning, that’s some idiot’s idea of safe. But give a kid access to some markers and a U.S. Post Office with free mailing address label stickers and all that nowhere time . . . SHAZAM! You’ve got a budding graff/street artist! Likewise: Give a kid a skateboard (and nothing else)—what were they back in the day: a slab of wood and 4 fucked up, salvaged old clip-on roller skate wheels, right?—the kid will live on it 12 hours/day/7 days/week and be able to skate air on that thing. Stacy Peralta makes Tony Alva makes Shawn White makes that kid in Pacoima (or frickin Frozen Tundra, New Jersey, for that matter!) into a world-class creative athlete. Same goes for a kid and a bike—Simi Valley suddenly ain’t so bad. Cause there’s plenty of room for you get on your pony and work out new tricks—the contemporary equivalent of a cowboy/girl and his/her pony out on the range. Instead of becoming a rodeo champion, the kid invents The X Games!
Then there’s the fashion industry: how do you monetize a great graff piecer’s work? Put it on something a fan can walk away with. Like a T-shirt. Make bank at the same time you’re making the fine art world think it’s missing something, and you’re in it. Fine with me, pal.
RJ: The way you start with oil paintings and then turn those into poster is pretty atypical. It seems like the more typical process for activist street art would be to make something in a format that is quick to develop and quick to print (like Shepard Fairey or Emory Douglas). How did you develop your method of starting with oil paintings and turning those into posters?
Conal: I’m a painter. I went to art school all my life. When I was 8 years old—in NYC—my parents sent me to The Art Students’ League to (on 57th Street) by myself—to draw dead flowers and, you know, plants and vegetables. Some fruit—an apple, an orange—what they called “still life.” I wanted to draw naked ladies, but the administrators there told my parents I was too young. Theodoros Stamos, an excellent abstract expressionist painter who was teaching there at the time, would sneak me into the “life drawing” classes. He’d say, “OK kid, there’s your naked lady—just sit down, shut up, and draw.”
Actually, that was probably the only thing that could get me to shut up. Then and now.
When I was 13, I went to the High School of Music & Art—a public “specialty” school—pretty much just like LA High School for the Arts is now. They smell exactly the same.
From ’63-’69, I majored in art and psychedelic drugs at San Francisco State. I was an O.H., an “Original Hippie.”
M.F.A. at Stanford (’78) and blah-blah-blah…you get the idea.
So street art, postering, came after all that. But painting is still how I get my torque on the subjects I address. Like Lucien Freud said, for me, “paint is flesh.”
RJ: Although you’re an important figure in the street art movement, you don’t seem to be so pigeonholed as solely or mostly a street artist, unlike many of your contemporaries. Do you think that being an oil painter has helped you to avoid being pigeonholed in that way, or is it something else?
Conal: I’m not sure about that—it might have a little to do with it. Mainly because one of the many, many artificial hierarchical rankings in the history of the Western Art aesthetic is that oil painting is the highest form of art making. Ha! (And I start with paint, so I don’t have to prove to the art world that my choice of medium is “worthy.”)
But, to be honest, I think it’s my perspective on the world—outside of whatever specific venue my art might be inhabiting at any particular moment—street, art gallery, museum, private home, man cave, dungeon. My thought process is always political—and I’ve had both an academic and a full-on mean streets education.
Also, my parents were union organizers in NYC in the 1930’s and 40’s. My Dad was “blacklisted,” by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950’s. That was basically for having different ideas from its august members about systemic political and economic issues, like what government’s job is; what system of government and what economic system could best (and how much it should) provide for the health, education and welfare of its citizenry.
ART has always been my most receivable way of expressing myself about issues I care about. (Meaning, you really don’t want to hear me whining about what I think is wrong with the world, now do you? You’re way better off, if you just look at the nasty portrait of the ugly old white man in a suit and tie. Read the 2 or 3 punny words. Work it out for yourself.) Democracy, with a small “d” being my pet peeve. In the sense that I miss it, want it back (the small amount of it we ever had). I sincerely think the world desperately needs it for us to survive. And I’m a wise guy. So, as for ordnance—the instruments of mass destruction at my disposal—all I got is wise ass humor, sweat equity, and an evil eye.
Photos by Tim Hans; Shepard Fairey, Robbie Conal and MearOne posters courtesy of Robbie Conal
Last night The Simpsons aired the highly anticipated episode “Exit Through The Kwik-E Mart”, which guest starred a few of street art’s all-stars: Shepard Fairey, Ron English, Kenny Scharf, and Robbie Conal. The episode has Bart covering Springfield in wheat-pastes of Obey-esque posters of Homer, which eventually leads him to the likes of the street artist guest stars. If you want a full recap of the episode go here.
What struck me was actually something we all already knew- street art is on the market and has seen some fast and steep increases in its value. It’s just weird to see it satirized on The Simpsons: Bart’s street work leads him to show work in a gallery. Bart jumps on Homer’s car and tags the hood, and as Homer starts to yell at him for doing this, Bart points out that he just increased the car’s value by 50x.
Being on the Simpsons is definitely noteworthy for street art history. But this isn’t the first time art vandals have rocked the cartoon world: Obey Giant was on Family Guy. Invader was referenced on Futurama. Shepard Fairey’s Obama poster was featured on South Park. Banksy directed this cool Simpsons’ intro.
If you’ve seen the episode what did you think? If you haven’t, but still feel the need to insert your opinion, what’s your take on street art getting Simpsonized?
Fun side note from my week: William Parry, author of Against The Wall, spoke at my college today. He’s currently on a speaking tour around the USA, so if you happen to hear that he is in a town near you, I highly recommend going to see him. And here’s the link-o-rama:
Speaking of Shepard Fairey, he will be guest-starring on The Simpsons soon alongside Ron English, Kenny Scharf and Robbie Conal. If The Simpsons had not officially jumped the shark before, this is it. Still, I’ll be watching.