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September 6 - October 4, 2003 at Robert Berman Gallery, D-5 Projects, Santa Monica

by Bill Lasarow

“Homer Pollock's Art Historical
Performance. . .", 2003, o/c, 29 x 50".

"Starry Night Urban Sprawl",
2003, o/c, 52 x 65".

"Clown Kids with Cigarettes",
2003, o/c, 42 x 27".

“Kiss Kid in Kar",
2001, o/c, 70 x 48".
Ron English will never be accused of subtlety, and he can take a bow for straight shooting. Be assured however, his version of taking a bow would be something like launching himself from a bungee platform, middle digits extended in our direction, and a gargantuan smile plastered across his moon-shaped puss. The point is, this guy will either get you to applaud or make you very pissed off, but he will never back off from his stylish iconoclasm for an instant.

When you encounter this eye candy that smacks one with accusatory attitude, don’t be surprised if you first react with a chuckle only to quickly segue into a flush of guilt or anger. You may be tempted to join in the finger pointing, but don’t forget that English aims for the solar plexus--yours included.

Billboards are really what English does, not unlike our own Robbie Conal. If Conal’s witty visual puns poke moral comeuppence at their subjects, this New York counterpart goes after his moral targets with hammer and tong. Since his formative years in Texas, English has papered over urban billboards with his own didactic satires--an entirely illegal act for which the artist is wholly unrepentant--hundreds and hundreds of times. He may be a skilled draftsman with graphic chops galore, but when he calls himself a “Popagandist,” well, that’s what he primarily is.

The use of McDonald’s and Joe Camel corporate imagery is more or less pushed aside here in favor of toying with high and pop culture icons. Homer Simpson plays the role of Jackson Pollock in Homer Pollock's Art Historical Performance. The artist’s infamous act of urinating in Peggy Guggenheim’s fireplace in the midst of a high society salon gathering is commemorated. The viewing angle places us in the back of the fireplace looking up at a blissfully happy Homer, with the varied reactions of the claymation-styled Simpson-world people presented like an open book.

This approach to art about art is not about aesthetic preference, it’s more just choosing another target. Among the sendups: Manet’s Dejuner Sur l’Herbe (recast as Peanuts on the Grass, featuring a nude and shit-faced Charlie Brown) and van Gogh’s Starry Night (renamed Starry Night Urban Sprawl by English, with King Kong astride McDonald’s Church of the Holy Golden Arches).

The recent passing of former MOMA Director Kirk Varnedoe reminds us of his very first, perhaps most controversial show there, High and Low, which sought to demonstrate how low-brow culture provided grist for many of our most accomplished artists. English takes such intense moral postures that he is open to the same criticism heaped on Varnedoe over 15 years ago: the points are made with a heavy hand, and the pop can outweigh the thought.

When the lecturing is relatively restrained, more varied emotions make for a richer tone. Clown Kids with Cigarettes and Kiss Kid in Kar dress up decidedly not-so-sweet youngsters in the trapping of mass entertainment and grown-up vice. Not unlike one’s reaction to English himself, you feel as though you want to give the kids a hug and lock them in their room in about equal measure. There is little doubt that is just the way English wants it.