Robbie Conal is to protest art what Bob Dylan used to be to protest music – an eviscerating force to be reckoned with.
The son of a pair of Marxist-Leninist union organizers (he recalls "dinnertime quizzes about use value"), Conal was raised in New York City during the fifties as your typical "red diaper baby," i.e., the spawn of political radicals. He enjoyed San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury wonderland during the midsixties, taught at the University of Connecticut, and eventually moved to Los Angeles in 1984, where he began making – and, just as importantly, distributing – the provoking art for which he would become justly renowned.
Conal is a guerrilla poster artist, the Banksy or Shepard Fairey of his day, just to name to current political artists he has obviously inspired. He specializes in detailed close-ups of the wrinkled, thin-lipped white men who so often lead us into wars and other foolish pursuits from within their cosseted bastions of power. After creating his witty yet powerful images, Conal enlists a "volunteer guerrilla postering army" to distribute them throughout the streets of Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, wherever.
Simpsons creator Matt Groening has postered for Conal in Los Angeles alongside Tim Robbins and Daryl Hannah. "I've been a fan of Robbie's for years," he says, but I always avoided postering because I was a wimp. Finally, I thought I should give it a try. It was really fun. It was in conjunction with a theatrical version of 1984. Robbie has done this so many times that he gives a speech beforehand, like a flight attendant. He tells you how to act and asks you not to be impolite or wreck property." You can watch Conal's "Guerrilla Etiquette and Postering Guide" here.
"What I like about him," continues Groening, "is that there's a real idealistic, old-fashioned sensibility at work, a link to the agitprop art of yesteryear. It's very easy to stay in the world of fine art, and that he's taken his art to the street for 30 years is remarkable. There are even people who've done their own anti-Robbie Conal posters."
A true believer in collective action, Conal, who teaches painting and drawing in the University of Southern California's Roski School of Fine Arts, likes to gang up with fellow travelers such as Los Angeles Latino-rock rebels Ozomatli, for whom he has designed a noble rooster logo. His posters aren't always excoriating. You may have seen his optimistic depictions of Barack Obama sporting the motto "climate change" during the last presidential election.
In fact, Conal's something of a pussycat, at least judging by his new book, Not Your Typical Political Animal. In it, Conal describes his life and politics through the animals he has shared them with, including his cat Boudou. Conal takes off from his animal affiliations to describe other non-poster works, including painting featuring frogs and fish, and a series of elaborate, collage-y works representing each of the past four decades.
Are Conal's postering days coming to an end? He implied they might be when I spoke with him recently. He even told me about his idea for his final poster, which was inspired by a conversation with his aging mother, who used to organize New York City's furriers.
"She'd say, 'How are you doing with that postering thing that isn't quite a living? That isn't quite specific enough, and with no lips. What does that mean?'
"I'd say, 'I'm doing alright. Here's an article from People magazine about me.'
"She'd say, 'You know, Robola, People magazine is not the people. Do you think the American people understand what people with no lips means?'
"I'd say, 'I don't know, Ma. It's art. Gives them room to interpret.'
"She'd give me that look, standing about five feet tall in her tweeds, ready to go to work though there's no job. I'd say, 'What text would you use? What would satisfy you?' And she goes, 'Uh, let's see. Oh, I know: SMASH THE POWER OF THE CAPITALIST STATE.'
"So that's gonna be the text of my last poster."