Robbie Conal, infamous street graphics rabble-rouser, was recently broadsided on his home turf by a sneak-attack art exhibition. It was meant to honor—and ridicule—him. And so it did, quite cleverly and often quite hilariously. The show was titled “Poster Roast.” It was curated by a couple of his students and held at the art gallery of West L.A. College on the occasion of his imminent departure from Los Angeles.
The range of media and approaches was wide, wild and often irreverent. But after all, this is the guy most notorious for his scabrous, scathingly grotesque political caricatures executed with thick, oozing globs of paint: a lip-less, lying U.S. President; “false profit” religious hucksters; an NEA-defunding “artificial art official.” And this was in the 1980s, back when he was just warming up.
And so, one contributor—Anna Siqueiros of the Siqueiros Foundation of the Arts—turned him into a clown with actual, Medusa-like balloon hair. And another, brush in hand and tongue in cheek, tagged Robbie as a “quitter.” But even though he’s now “abandoning” Southern California after nearly three decades of teaching and preaching the importance and means of subversive art propaganda, this farewell exhibit stands as the latest testimony to his thriving local legacy.
WLAC President Nabil Abu-Ghazaleh and Art Department Curator-in-Residence Molly Barnes attended the opening reception, as did the Center for the Study of Political Graphics’ founder-director Carol A. Wells, who I recently profiled for Print.
The curators were artists Ann Zumwinkle, a web design/development firm owner, and Young Summers, a member of Gallery 825, represented by Lark Gallery Online. Together they founded the Urban Crop Circle art collective. For our interview, Ann discusses how Robbie instructs and inspires, takes us behind the scenes of “Poster Roast,” and provides us with background commentary for several pieces, including her own. And Young fills us in on how her tribute came together.
Dooley: What’s been your history with Robbie?
Zumwinkle: West Los Angeles College has a history of hiring excellent arts professionals as instructors: art critic and visual/sound artist Doug Harvey, Artillery magazine’s editor-in-chief Tulsa Kinney, and seminal Los Angeles-based visual artists such as Robbie, M.A. Peers and Kio Griffith.
Robbie teaches Life Drawing, all levels in one weekly 4-hour evening session. Every semester the class is filled with every race; every gender—including trans-gendered students!—every age group; from high school students to retired folks; and every degree of art-making-proficiencies, from the frightened new student who has never drawn a naked person to professional artists in many fields. Several of us have taken his class multiple times, and have grown quite close, meeting outside of class to attend events and haunt galleries, socialize, help Robbie wheat-paste his posters across L.A., and, most important, make art together, personally and professionally.
Robbie’s energizing expository and often narrative teaching methods have influenced each of us in our own methods and processes—mentoring that includes gentle support intermixed with confrontational criticism.
Dooley: How did your show come together?
Zumwinkle: At beginning of this past Spring semester, Robbie announced he was leaving for Los Osos, a sleepy little town up north near Morro Bay. What?! How can it be that he wants to leave our creative, dynamic, vibrant environment for an atmosphere of peace and quiet?
Young and I polled our core crew of traumatized students and coordinated gallery time through WLAC Humanities and Fine Arts Chair Michael Arata. We set a schedule and invited all WLAC art instructors to submit as well. We also dogged them, continually. It was wonderful fun to coordinate such a joint effort that included student and teacher artists alike, and adhered to a level of strong student camaraderie that Robbie himself generates within his classes.
We were impressed by the wide range of work and amount of thought that went into conception and construction. And the students in particular were very excited to be included. For some, it was their first gallery exhibition.
Dooley: You established certain criteria for submissions; how’d that work out?
Zumwinkle: Originally Young and I requested artists to stick to one subject: a life-drawing portrait of Robbie, a specified size, and a word-phrase pun or two. And, to be influenced primarily by Robbie’s own poster art technique. We soon realized that the criteria needed to be flexible, so that all student artists would be more easily able to produce work in their own style. And besides, we found this specific set of artists wanted to break the rules! Another Conal influence, I’m sure. By releasing constraints, the variation and quality of the artwork submitted expanded tremendously.
Since we were asking for new work and not for work created prior, the schedule of one month was a bit tight. But the end result was fantastic! The phrased puns that teacher/student artists each selected were such a mix of hilarious, silly, biting, poignant, as is our instructor: by turns hilarious, silly, biting, poignant.
Dooley: Tell me about your contribution.
Zumwinkle: Oddly enough, I was promoting “Posteur Poseur” as the name of the exhibit, but our core student group really thought it was too negative. I am amazed by how emotionally sensitive our group is, and how protective they are toward Robbie.
We settled on “Poster Roast” as a less aggressive show title.
So I re-appropriated the “Posteur Poseur” pun for my own piece, and tempered its belligerent tone by adding humor. And of course, cats! Robbie is a sucker for cats.
I’m predisposed toward gold/black and sumi-brush, and this piece also received masked-off acrylic spray. And the 3D Robbie mask—with 3D nose—was added to make the cat heads pop visually. Dunno if it works, but it makes me laugh! Is Robbie the Poster Poseur, or are his cats posing as Robbie Poster-ers?
Dooley: What was Robbie’s response?
Zumwinkle: Did Robbie like the show? I think so. I think he understands the level of significance that his guidance imparts upon the students whose lives he touches.
Did he like being the center of attention? I think so. He’s very aware that he communicates social justice on several levels: as a community college teacher, with his political art/public art, through lectures, and through retaining a public face. And so he’s comfortable with all the fuss.
The only difference being that this time, he didn’t purposefully generate all the fuss!
Young, what’s the backstory to your three artworks?
Summers: On “Irreplaceable,” my thought was: Robbie was so special that he would be hard to replace. He has an uncanny ability to connect with his students of all ages and backgrounds. They respond to his humor, generosity and love for them. Above all, he was a great artist and teacher. He taught me about life drawing beyond the beautiful lines. He prodded me to see beneath the surface and depict the real person.
In this mixed media poster, I created the blank space—void—where his head had been and filled it with images of precious stones to denote his importance, and onion skins in the surrounding area for tears. The numbers are registration numbers for our Life Drawing class.
Irrepressible. My impression and memory of him will always be: He was a free-spirited and playful teacher who loved loud music and spontaneously broke into dance in the classroom. His candid mind, enthusiasm and excitement spilled over to his adoring students, who came to his class expecting to be entertained as much as to learn to draw.
His way of showing an interest in a student was to poke him or her with probing personal questions, sometimes in front of the whole class. But his humor would generally bring out laughter even from a reluctant participant. We were irresistibly drawn to Robbie and his class.
My interpretation of him was a funny man with a handful of unruly hair that perched on top.
Irascible. I knew Robbie was a very sensitive man after all. And he deserved his moments of not being funny. I captured him in that flickering moment inadvertently, when I snapped my cellphone camera on him for this poster project. He was caught off-guard and annoyed.
And I portrayed him in this black painting as that testy person. Of the three pieces I created, this one seemed to be the most representational of him. Funny.
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