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Jan 17, 2007

Ron English Interviewed by Tristan Eaton

Hello people, Tristan Eaton here.

Vinyl Pulse recently asked me to write some words on a regular basis for their awesome blog and yes, I'm honored. But, instead of hearing me blab about what toys are awesome and what toys suck...I decided it would be much cooler to interview some of my favorite artists on a regular basis and chat about what's awesome and what sucks...together!

So, to begin this series I tracked down the Texan Billboard King himself: RON ENGLISH

For those of you who don't know Ron, a quick summary might be necessary.

In short, Ron English is a legend. A pioneer in billboard piracy, pop-surrealism and now he's pioneering the world of designer toys. Some of you might know his art from the cult classic indie flick 'Super Size Me' or you might even have some of his bad ass toys on your shelf...most notably his satirical series of chubby Ronald McDonald figures.

Born in Dallas, Texas 1966, Ron English "paints, infiltrates, reinvents and satirizes modern culture and its mainstream visual iconography on canvas, in song, and directly onto hundreds of pirated billboards. English exists spiritually somewhere between a cartoon Abbie Hoffman and a grown-up, real-life Bart Simpson, delivering a steady stream of customized imagery laden with strong sociopolitical undertones, adolescent boy humor, subversive media savvy, and Dali-meets-Disney technique. Dedicated to finding the sublime in the everyday and breaking the momentum of the didactic approach to art and life, English offers up an alternative universe where nothing is sacred, everything is subverted, and there is always room for a little good-natured fun."

And yes, he's also a super cool guy.

Anxious to pick his brain, I got right down to business:

Hi Ron!  I'm curious about your opinion on this strange world of 'Art Toys'. We've all seen a huge rise in the production of art based toys over the past few years, some of these toys seem to be great works of art and some seem to be...just great toys. There are a few artists out there who have embraced the medium as a viable extension of their work and have been able to make toys that support their goals as fine artists. Your toys so far have been controversial, heavily loaded with concept and continue the themes in your paintings. With this in mind, I'd like to know if you feel like the medium of toys or 'vinyl' can be an acceptable medium for artists today? is it art? Or is it just a toy? And while on this topic, are there any artists out there right now that you think are making toys that are great works of art? If so, who are they?

You can erect a basketball hoop in every neighborhood on the planet but it won't cultivate a generation of Michael Jordans. What expanding the network would do is facilitate the discovery of and nurture the growth of the next Michael Jordan. Who is merely filling in the gaps of the ever increasing demand for designer toys and who is raising the bar on the medium? When does it become art?

Having world renowned artists get in the game has certainly raised the stakes. Creating a three dimensional version of a character from a painting by Mars-1, Camile Rose Garcia or Scott Musgrove is pretty much a no brainer. Their paintings are great, their toys are great. I think it really gets interesting when the artist really embraces the medium. Kaws and Kozik for example. The toy has become the great work of art, not a souvenir of the great painting.

Are they just toys? Sure, the same way Guernica was just a painting and Michael Jordan was just a basketball player.

You've appropriated thousands of billboards over the years with the 'Billboard Liberation Front', and are seen as a godfather of this art. What were some of your favorites and can you tell us about some of the action packed adventures along the way? Arrests? Fights? Injuries? Good ol' law breaking fun?

For someone who spent years committing felonies like it was my full time job I actually have few tales to tell. The reason being I did treat it like a job. I wore workman's clothes and did the deeds in broad daylight. People saw what they expected to see, men at work. Now that's not to say the effort was adventure free. There were arrests, fights, injuries and loads of fun, mostly in the 1980's before I conquered the nuances of appearing legit.

A typical day in the early 80's. I'd put together a crew of mostly fellow art students in Austin Texas where I was in graduate school for a billboard raid in Houston. I had painted three billboards to post, Charlie had painted one incoherent poster, my sister Susan had painted one of a dinosaur skeleton with the caption "Where's the Beef?", Stuart had one of a guy getting his penis ripped off by a tornado and Mike had the most outrageous offering: a pregnant earth mother being raped by a missile. At the last minute Mike begged off the adventure asking us to post his crowd pleaser for him. Another artist, Sam, who neglected to paint his poster, came along for the ride.

I didn't know my way around Houston so well. Actually not at all. The plan was to drive my truck and Charlie's Cadillac to Houston and hit the first billboards we came across. The plan worked well for the first couple billboards. Well, sort of. Sam wouldn't get out of the car, Stuart just wanted to take pictures of us posting the billboards and I didn't want my kid sister on a billboard, so it was down to me and Charlie. Now Charlie always liked to scale the back of the billboard and hang from the top, which meant I needed one more person on the plank. Stuart seemed the logical choice. This was Stuart's second raid; he was with us one time in Dallas.

He'd painted a poster then, but I don't remember him actually getting up on a billboard. I'm sure he never mentioned anything about being afraid of Heights, but then he actually never said much. Mostly he worried his art professors with acrylic scenes of Candyland Concentration camps accompanied by stoic silence as to their meaning. Personally, I could overlook his disturbing Nazi pop aesthetic; it was the fear of heights issue that wasn't going to fly if he wanted to swing with my crew. Hell, these weren't even that high and he did begrudgingly capitulate. We had Charlie's billboard half posted when some guys from the billboard company pulled up in their truck.

They looked on for a minute then informed us we were using the wrong glue. We were pretty sure they were correct; we were using gallons of rubber cement which didn't seem right but it worked real good. We ignored the repeated concerns of our new audience and began rolling out the next Billboard, which was mine. The first five feet of the new poster revealed a nude elderly woman. Our more legitimate counterparts got the idea and decided among themselves to "get the fuck out of here!".  Straight to a payphone to inform the police, I concluded, and we finished posting my billboard at record speed.

At the next billboard we realized most of remaining gallons of rubber cement had dried up in the sealed cans. Driving around trying to locate [a random] I lost Charlie's Cadillac. Chances of relocating Charlie seemed pretty dim so we got on the freeway towards Austin. Ahead I spotted a strip of super high billboards and pulled my truck up beside the first two. I was betting Charlie would spot them too. Ten minutes later my bet paid off. Charlie roared up, loaded up with more glue. Dusk was closing in, rush hour was picking up so we need to pick up the pace. The billboards towered four stories over the concrete parking lot. The wooden scaffold was rotted with portions dangling in the wind. As I questioned the wisdom of this adventure Charlie monkeyed himself up the ladder, scaling the back of the billboard to emerge at the absolute top. I noticed he'd already left us the glue and rollers on the rotted scaffold. I grabbed the skeleton and penis tornado billboards and cautiously ascended the ladder. Stuart was busy doing his deer in the headlights impression in the parking lot, Sam hadn't emerged from the car. I couldn't spot Susan from my elevated perspective. Charlie erupted into a sailor lingo overdrive rant directed at the stunned reluctant Stuart.

Susan startled me with her appearance behind me on the rotted plank. My pleas for her to get down were countered with accusations of sexism. My incoherent counter argument (something about the parents or my responsibilities as her big brother) didn't fall on deaf ears. Susan could see I was more stressed than Stuart and this argument (which weighed in her favor) could be waged later on the ground. Stuart braced himself and replaced Susan on the billboard.

Susan's poster went up with ease and we climbed around to the other side of the billboard and began posting Stuart's creation. A crowd had begun to gather. This strip of billboards cut through a poor neighborhood beneath the Freeway; the next two were planted directly in the yard of an aging multifamily rowhouse. Before Stuart's billboard was completely posted there was already a neighborhood consensus: it sucked. "Where's the Beef?" was pretty good but Tornado Boy definitely sucked.

As we handed the ladder over the fence into someone's yard the crowd demanded to know what the next one was. "A poem" I replied. I didn't mention the one next to the poem was to be the penis missile. They'd find out soon enough. I noticed some people had brought out lawn chairs. A woman brought us some iced tea. Charlie was introducing himself and my sister to everyone. It was quickly becoming a party.

When I tried to pull Charlie away from his new friends so we could get the job done and get the hell out of there, he refused. After me, Charlie had helped post more billboards than anyone over the last couple years and he figured he deserved a break. Stuart and I could handle it alone. Great. So while Charlie mingled (and flirted with my sister), Stuart and I begrudgingly accepted our fate. I'd never done a billboard with just two people but I didn't see why it couldn't be done.

When I reached the top of the ladder I grabbed the frame of the billboard to pull myself up. I was greeted with a stiff shock. Okay, so the wiring was bad and we would have to avoid touching the frame. I warned Stuart. He took it surprising well. He was actually very calm. Maybe he was in shock. It was more difficult, but we got the poem billboard up. It was my loose illustration combined with Tarssa's poem. It actually kinda sucked. The audience agreed. Now it was time to do the missile penis raping mother earth.

The unveiling of the image was greeted with honking horns, squealing brakes and crashing cars. It looked to me about eight cars had mangled into one. Stuart completely lost it. He was shaking his fists and screaming at the cars "You motherfuckers! You motherfuckers!". I had his shirt gripped in my left hand as I tried desperately to explain to him they didn't wreck their cars to fuck him up, to scare him into a fall and that if he didn't pull back from his lean over the edge his fall was inevitable.

I got Stuart calmed enough to start a descent of the ladder. Sirens were closing in from multiple directions and the crowd at the bottom of the ladder seemed hostile. The glue bucket and the rollers could be abandoned on the plank; vacating the scene was now the top priority.

In record time we'd joined the traffic on the expressway in route to Austin, another days work in our rearview mirror.

Oh my god that is awesome. God bless you. Ha ha.

Okay, I'd like to talk about your paintings. I don't know anyone who doesn't love the technique, concept and humor charged in them. Can you give us some insight into your working process? How do you develop a concept, how do you create the image and what materials and process are you using to execute them? Spill the beans.

I usually wake up every morning with a couple new ideas for paintings. To create a painting I begin the process by either doing a photo session with my kids using props and costumes or I create a diorama using models and Sculptures, then light the scene for a photograph. Working from the photographic studies, I paint the imagery on the canvas using oil paint, thinned with turp, mostly brown tones, then begin layering on transparent color glazes. Sometimes I also paint flat acrylic or enamel colors and silkscreen an image on top. To create the top image I make a painting in black and white then have the screen shot. I use this technique when I want to achieve a more graphic effect.

What is the next big project you're working on? Can you give us a sneak peek or some secret info? Please?

This year I'm doing a new toy with Toy Tokyo, It's the Dead Artist Action Figure. It will be a poseable skeleton action figure dressed in black with a silver wig. He will come in a silver casket. Cathy Cowgirl comes out this month. She's kind of a pin-up half human/half cowgirl done in resin. I also have two new books coming out this year. Son of Pop with 9mm Books features ten years of paintings using my kids as models and Abject Expressionism  from Last Gasp will be a collection of my greatest paintings. I will also have shows in New York, Tokyo and Japan. I'm also doing some pirate billboards abroad, but I probably shouldn't talk about that.

On that note sir, thank you for your time. Good luck, stay out of jail, keep up the good work...and I will see you on Saturday!

Thanks Guys!

Be sure to check out Ron English's Cathy Cowgirl figure by STRANGEco, being released this Saturday at The Showroom NYC!  Ron will also release new prints and a new original painting (shown above) at the figure release event.

Posted by Jack @ 03:30 PM in Interviews | Permalink  | Comments (5) |

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Comments

Ron is an amazing painter
his figures after SuperMC are a bit of a let down
the Dead artist sounds interesting as long as it is not released in dayglow GID variants


nice interview

Excellent interview thanks! I'm gonna run out and hijack a billboard now...

Fun interview. I like the way it ties art toys to the art world. It makes it seem like art toy collecting is an extension of collecting art, rather than just a second tier spinoff. Can't wait for the dead artists toys - hope it includes Warhol, Haring, Picasso & Frida.

This is really cool stuff. I can't wait to buy one.

Ron is an amazing artist. I love looking at the painting and prints he creates, but holding a TOY in my hands is pretty cool. I'm headed to the show at SHOWROOM in NYC this Sat night!!

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