Cabinet of Horrors: The Satirical Portraits of Robbie Conal
Track 16 Gallery
Through December 10
By Nancy Kay Turner
Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming –Oscar Wilde The Picture of Dorian Gray
European and American artists such as Daumier, Hogarth and even Rube Goldberg have a long history of producing scathingly humorous and politically pointed images skewering both the power elite and the lumpenproletariat. With his adversarial portraits, Robbie Conal joins this grand group of social critics who use imagery to savagely skewer (though no actual blood is shed) hypocritical groups in power.
Conal burst on the art scene in the mid-eighties with his thickly encrusted abstract-expressionist monochromatic oil paintings of then President Ronald Reagan, his cabinet and other governmental figures implicated in the Iran-Contra scandal. Conal’s innovation was to combine bold text as used in both advertising of the time, along with his inventive vigorously painted oil (almost three- dimensional) renderings of figures gleaned from newspaper pictures (courtesy of the AP news.) Adopting the guerrilla art tactics of graffiti and street artists, such as Shepard Fairey, Conal and his merry band of pranksters, he peppered the streets of major American cities with his posters (often around major art institutions for good measure.) One of my personal favorites of that era is a portrait of Jesse Helms. The southern senator was was an avowed enemy of the National Endowment of the Arts and vilified the contemporary art that it supported. He wanted to cut off all funding. Conal painted (in color by this time in the early 90’s) the Senator, with a painter’s palette in the background and the text reading “Artificial Art Official.” A hallmark of Conal’s work then was his tendency to pun and use alliteration in the text.
So Conal is gleefully back at it with his “Cabinet of Horrors,” depicting Trump’s inner circle. The title itself is a reference to the nineteenth-century practice (before there were museums to do this for us) of wealthy individuals creating a “cabinet of curiosities” in their homes to show off medical anomalies, bones, stones and other exotic objects. So too is Donald J. Trump’s “Cabinet of Horrors” filled with creatures whose demeanor and character rival all of history’s creepiest villains.
This group of twenty-two medium sized adversarial portraits seems more regimented than earlier series, with almost all figures seen from the shoulders and in a frontal position against a flat background. The three images of Donald Trump are among the strongest. Trump in “Bully Culprit (Donald J. Trump),” 2016 is pointing at us, mouth agape, black block lettering against a light background. In “Can’t Even” (Donald J. Trump),” 2016, Trump painted all in black and white is smirking and mugging for the camera. The third image has a little more pizazz as it depicts Trump in a Russian “ushanka” – a Russian fur cap that has ear flaps that can be tied-with “Hammer & Pickle (2017) as the text.
In the portrait of Stephen Bannon, 2017, Conal starts playing around with a more painterly text, letting the paint drip like blood in a horror movie. The text reads “President Evil” with the letter “P” in red and the rest of the letters in black now form another word “resident” (can now be read as ”resident evil”.) “Evil” is painted red and dripping onto a black background. The actual portrait of Stephen Bannon is both accurate and beautifully painted, with the coat left as a contour line. This is one of the most successful pieces and a worthy successor to earlier works from the nineteen eighties.
Satire requires a delicate balance to work – a sense of surprise is necessary as is a certain amount of graphic precision. Some of the works here however, veer into such exaggeration as to lose the sense of accurate portraiture that makes the portrait even funnier. For example, The Sarah Huckabee Sanders, 2019 portrait with the text “A Twists Of Fake” falls flat. She looks like a bad Halloween mask, while the Betsy DeVos, 2017 “Learning Swerve”, 2017, with the word “swerve” veering stupidly but predictably off the page works better and the likeness is on point! She is definitely a deer in the headlights. The monochromatic image of Kellyanne Conway, 2019, in profile with a Pinocchio length nose queasily entitled “ Knows Job”, is almost as nasty as she is. The cast of characters, as one might imagine, includes both family, friends, cabinet hires and fires, and the newly minted Supreme Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh (Breaking Bad.) Perhaps we have seen this rogue’s gallery of people in power so much and have developed such an antipathy to them, that satirizing them is incredibly difficult. Rather than see them skewered, many of us would prefer for them to just disappear.
However, in the back room are some earlier Robbie Conal paintings and portraits. It is instructive to see the all-male Supreme Court in the painting from 1992 “Freedom Of Choice” with Clarence Thomas holding the word “From,” which substantially changes the meaning. There have been changes on the court since then with judges now who represent more religious and gender diversity. At the same time, we see how long these battles over reproductive rights have been raging and it reminds us of the French epigram “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose” (the more things change, the more they stay the same).
The pictorial social critics from the seventeenth century to the present shared a desire to elucidate the hypocrisy, the prevarications, the follies, and the general disregard for the populace by Royalty and the “duly” elected officials through devastatingly pointed caricature and criticism. With internet memes, fake news, bots, we are living in a time of wild fabrication and exaggeration that make satire almost redundant and the social critic’s job almost impossible. Sadly, Lord Acton’s epigram from 1877 “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men,” sums up our sorry state of politics. And there is almost nothing funny about that.
Track 16 Gallery
At The Bendix Building
1206 Maple Ave, #1005
Los Angeles, CA
Hours: Wednesday – Saturday 12-6pm and by appointment
Parking: under building [entrance on 12th St] or street