Robbie Conal's Mixed Media Musing
Art Connoisseur

Art: A political poster artist expands his palette.

Robbie Conal, the king of political guerilla poster art, dreams of one day painting portraits of his family's three cats.

And in these dreams, there are no hidden metaphors or deep meanings lurking menacingly in the background. Just the friendly felines.

"I'm desperately trying to find an excuse to paint some things that I actually like," the genial Conal tells a visitor to his Los Angeles home.

Toward that goal, Conal has completed the first two oversized, mural-like "Ghosts in the Machine" mixed media pieces out of a planned series of six. Call Conal the David Halberstam of the visual world – four of the montages of oil paintings-on-photographs will represent a single decade from the '50s to the '90s. The tumultuous, schizophrenic decade of the '60s gets split onto two separate canvases.

"This is not art as a machine gun. It's more reflective," Conal says of his new formal. "It's kind of meditations on the decades and all the people behind the scenes pulling the strings. And I get to deepen the critique and paint a few things other than ugly old white guys in suits and ties – unload my head a little bit."

The six Ghost pieces will commingle popular cultural moments and watershed political events. Advertising icons and – think cats – nature images will also figure prominently.

That artistic blueprint is obvious in the two Ghost works that just made their public debut in nearby Santa Monica, at the Track 16 Gallery. Part of the "First Annual Post-Impeachment Group Show," Conal's "The '50s" piece measures 40" x 100" and features black-and-white yin-and-yang photographs as the base of the work. To the right is a shot of the McCarthy Hearings. To the left is a still from the television show "Father Knows Best." Affixed to those photos are images of Speedy the AlkaSeltzer boy, a yellow smiley face, a biblical plague of frogs, and some familiar-looking Conal renderings of disembodied political heads of state. Here the domes belong to Bobby Kennedy, Ronald Reagan (from his "Death Valley Days" gig) and Conal's forever foe, Richard Nixon. There's also J. Edgar Hoover in a leopard-spotted pillbox hat and long, dangling earrings – that's the work's fleshy, flashy centerpiece.

The "1968" piece features photos of "The Brady Bunch" and a Selective Service draft card protest. Caterpillars, butterflies, a troll doll and Lizze Borden the cow represent the environmental and economic elements, Lyndon Baines Johnson is the centerpiece. The floating faces belong to Robert McNamara, William Westmoreland and, as always, a certain Republican ex-President. ("Nixon's going to be in every one of them," Conal says. "He's my evil muse.")

Conal expects the Ghost series to be completed by tiger middle of the year 2000. Subject matter remaining to be covered includes Watergate, Iran-Contra, Clarence Thomas, "The Cosby Show" and, oddly, jellyfish. So, why the sinuous sea creatures?

"Because our politicians are so wishy-washy," Conal says. "Also, they are fun to paint."