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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Ron English

I'll bet this is a billboard image you won't soon forget , Ron English's Marlboro Boy.
Uncle Ron--Ron English
Just when you've come to the certain conclusion that painting is totally irrelevant in today's social media/mass media world, along comes Ron English. He's so relevant that an irreverent protest idea conceived one night can be seen painted (or silkscreened) the following afternoon by thousands on a pirated urban billboard. Pirated? How do you pirate a billboard? You simply climb up to its lofty heights and paste your message or image over the existing advertisement (or sometimes a blank space, or on the side of a building). It's not for those squeamish about heights or getting arrested. It's called "subvertising," and it has made Ron English the man he is today.

Red Marilyn, Ron English
But just who is this Ron English, and what has he done with my pop culture? Ron English is from Dallas, Texas, born in either 1959, 1960, or 1966, depending upon your source. We can assume he was there but just can't remember what year it was. That, alone says a lot about Ron English. Ron English makes me laugh. Few artists today can do that. He also makes me think--and more importantly, rethink. Like me, he's no great fan of McDonald's, cigarettes, Coca-Cola, beer, guns, breakfast cereal, sugar, Wall Street, and virtually anything with the words "King Size" on it. He and Michael Moore are really good friends (he was interviewed in Moore's film, Supersize Me. More recently he has been the subject of a short documentary on his own, Popaganda, the Art and Subversion of Ron English (click the clip at bottom).

Grade School Guernica, Ron English
Harmonic Scream, Ron English
Then there's Ron English the painter. If you want a glimpse of what art will be like during the remainder of the 21st century, look at Ron's contribution. You'll see humor, a touch of anger, excellent technical prowess, lots and lots of Andy Warhol color, and Post-modern pop--irreverence, but never irrelevance. He's been dubbed "Today's Andy Warhol." Indeed, there is a lot of Warhol in English. His mouse-breasted Red Marilyn is pure English, but there are several versions that are pure Warhol ala-English. English sees nothing sacred in art history, as his Edvard Munch inspired Harmonic Scream (right) or his take on Leonardo's Last Supper peopled with Disney characters would seem to indicate. Like many artists, he has favorite images (one might be tempted to call them "hang-ups"). Mickey and Marilyn are a couple, along with Tony the Tiger, Joe Camel, a corpulent Ronald McDonald, and Picasso's Guernica. His Grade School Guernica (above), came first, then his Cowgirl Guernica, his Graveyard Guernica, Guernica Aerial View, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Guernica, The Bombing Begins in Five Minutes, and enough others to make Picasso's head spin over in his grave.

Ron English's "subvertising"--creating friends and enemies at the same time.
Abraham Obama, 2008, Ron English
Like any good Postmodern artist, there's also Ron English, the entrepreneur. He has his own line of toys, backpacks, lithographic prints, posters, books, videos, and of course, paintings in major galleries around the world. His original 2008 print Abraham Obama (an edition of two-hundred) has skyrocketed in value from $200 to $2000 in the past five years. The painting fused the likenesses of Lincoln and Obama into a pop image known to drive Tea Party conservatives mad (madder).

Unlike so many artists today, Ron English has found his voice--a voice with a message. It's loud. It's liberal. It's sometimes ludicrous, but make no mistake, you will remember his message, whether you like it or not. From his silly little cartoonish trolls to his angry outrages aimed at corporate America, the comparisons to artists of the past such as Warhol, Gericault, Picasso, Lichtenstein, even Norman Rockwell, are all telling in describing perhaps the first really important artist of the 21st century. Yet, at the same time, such lavish comparisons are also limiting, an attempt to package Ron English and his art for human consumption. The problem is, with every food product he vilifies, every billboard he "liberates," every painting masterpiece he lampoons, the transparent packaging pops open as the artist, in effect, "supersizes" himself.


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