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Sarah J. Edwards interviews legendary artist Ron English, who divulges secrets on the use of colour for his strikingly beautiful paintings and how he created his iconic Abraham Obama piece.

This article first appeared in the print edition of BLAG - Vol.3 Nø 1 in 2009, this is an edited version.

Interview by Sarah J. Edwards
Art by Ron English

American artist Ron English knows how to provoke a reaction with great skill, the trait of a great artist. His classic advertising parodies and politically charged pieces have led to some completely unexpected and film worthy stories. Yet it’s how it all started out, Ron’s ingenious wit, skill, use of colour and what has transpired that is ultimately fascinating.

First of all, how would you describe what your style of art means and its message in one word?
"Popaganda."

Do you mind if we rewind right back to your schooling, I understand during those days you had a deep fascination with film and you mowed lawns for money to buy an 8mm camera. I loved the anecdotes of your antics with Russell Orr. Can you tell us a real stand out story?

"I used to show my films in English class. We had a very nice English teacher. When I showed one film where Russell was on fire she marveled at the realistic fire effect and enquired as to how I achieved it. Two cans of charcoal lighter and a match, I replied. That was the last film my mortified English teacher ever allowed me to show."

I know it's an obvious question, but at what age did you start painting and what other mediums did you work with?
"I made some paintings in high school. I also did murals for the hallways and cartoons for the school paper until they became too controversial. I never intended to be controversial, I just used the ideas I had at the time, which happened to be controversial."

What are the secrets to getting so many colours to jump right out of the images you produce?

"Making colours jump out is about contrast, using opposite colours and muting the background colours. Halo effects can give colours a spiritual feeling, reverse halos can create an ominous presence. Outlining flat colours in black allows colours to retain [their] own integrity next to other colours. I prefer secondary colours because they create a more inviting effect. There really are a lot of tricks."

Can you tell us about the first ever Billboard modification and what drove you to take on the challenge?
"Originally, I was part of the Fabricated to be Photographed movement of the early eighties. It was not dissimilar to the Dogma movement that happened later in film. The concept was to use the camera exclusively as a straight forward recording device, with no special lens, filters, lights, shutter speeds and no post production darkroom tricks. All the impossible perspectives and situations in my photographs had to be staged in front of the camera. When I chose a location to shoot that had a billboard in the frame, I could either accept the advertisement on the billboard or scale the billboard and create a new image more suitable to my concept. I continually chose the latter leaving a trail of oddly artistic billboards around Dallas, Texas that caught the attention of the young Dallas painters. The painters and I formed a loose group called The New Urban Aesthesis Committee with the mission of pirating the billboards of Texas in the name of art."

It must've been a great success to go on to produce so many. Which three are your proudest achievements?
"I am most proud of the ratio of billboards to arrests. A list of the billboards that stand out the most would have to include the mechanical McDonald’s billboard I did with the Billboard Liberation Front in San Francisco, The Charles Manson Think Different billboard and the abortion billboard in New York City. The Cancer Kids billboard campaign probably had the most effect."

You studied at North Texas State University, am I right in saying you studied photography? Can you tell us your path from this and film to painting?

"I liked photography because it seemed to be a newer and less explored medium. I was able to develop an original style and way of working using photography that I didn’t feel I could with painting. When I finally evolved my mature painting style my background in photography and sculpture were essential, as the painting technique involves sculpting models, building sets, lighting and photographing the sets as studies for the paintings."

Can you tell us about your Kiss paintings and how they came to fruition?
"Originally I was contacted by Kiss’s management to create some images for their Kisstory tour. I came up with the concept of Kiss in history. For me the paintings addressed the concept of new cultural icons altering our view of cultural history, you know? Like explaining Kabuki actors as the Kiss of their generation rather than explaining Kiss as an outgrowth of Kabuki theater, the cultural bias favouring the new. I painted copies of classic paintings vandalized with Kiss make up to give them cultural relevance with people today. The nice folks at Kiss Inc. felt the concept would not work with their target teen audience and rejected the work, then threatened to sue me for selling the paintings to art collectors. I was never paid any money by Kiss nor was I ever under any contract with Kiss and the creation and dissemination of works of parody are perfectly legal, so they had nothing."

I'm a particular fan of your young Warhol series, Marlborough kid, Absente drinkers and the Grade School Guernica. Please can you describe each one, how they came about and their meaning?

"Those were paintings I did using my kids as models. The concept of the young Andy’s came from the image of Warhol as the artistic father to this new generation of artists. An army of little Andy’s turned loose on the world. The Marlborough Boy depicts an obedient boy with a deer in the headlights expression emulating Americas most famous image of Manhood, the Marlborough Man. The Absente Drinkers depicts a couple of young kids in a Toulouse Lautrec bar scene getting surreal on green fairy juice. This piece was originally created as box art for Absente. Grade School Guernica was painted at The Station Museum in Houston, Texas and is one foot taller and one foot longer than the original Guernica. The kids are in some strange circus playing the Guernica game."

Can you tell us about your Abraham Obama piece and the accompanying film? The painting already feels iconic, what do you think are the elements of creating that kind of impact with imagery?

"When I was painting the original I struggled with the balance between the two men. I considered using Obama’s hair, the first couple of people to view the painting didn’t see Obama but I opted to keep Lincoln’s hair and a more subtle effect overall. I then did pop art versions of the images I posted in 10 US cities on billboards and walls. My instinct is always to move on to new imagery, but with this campaign I kept the focus on variations of a single image which proved to have more impact. Kevin Chapados made a film of the Abraham Obama tour which illustrates how much fun political activism can actually be."

Can you tell us what you have in store for your upcoming show at Elms Lesters, please?

"Some of the new work is in response to the space. When I showed there with Adam Neate I fell in love with the vibe there and I have tried to create work that will function in it’s warmth and history. I have been using layering techniques which has pushed the production time per painting up to two months for some so I will be painting down to the wire."

I've got some subjects I'd love to get your opinion on please:

The latest recession and unemployment. Do you have any ideas on the best way to handle it? As individuals we can't actually do much about the bigger picture, but do you have any tips on staying up during the downturn?

"It’s kind of hard for a painter to have a good perspective on these things as we create objects for the ages not for the latest economic cycles but as far as the economic crisis goes we all are in the same boat, maybe it’s time we started acting like it."

What changes have you noticed in your day-to-day life since Obama won and was inaugurated?
"Yes, the mood is noticeably elevated, especially with black people. We made the right choice."

What do you think about so many larger media titles closing and the influx of independent publishing?
"People need to be vigilant during times of great flux. We need to make sure the hard won journalistic integrities are grandfathered into the new media."

Ad-budgets are being cut left, right and centre. Brands are said to be looking at more traditional ways of marketing. How do you imagine brands to be selling to us in the future? What do you think they'll let go of and what will they embrace?

"Brands that don’t scrimp on ad budgets will gain long term market share and brands that scrimp too much will die off. Just my opinion."

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