He calls them “adversarial portraits,” and it’s easy to see why. Robbie Conal’s posters are so unflattering they seem bound to make their subjects feel like slugging the artist. For two years Conal, a Venice, Calif., painter, has been rendering ghoulish, wrinkly likenesses of the powerful—Ronald Reagan, for example, or Oliver North. Then he plasters them on walls in cities from one coast to the other. He isn’t really spoiling for a fight though—he just wants to make a point. “I try to show what can happen to people in their drive to succeed,” he says. “I give them corrugated flesh as a metaphor for corruption.”
Conal, 41, first thought about satiric portraiture while leafing through the L.A. Times and the N.Y. Times, which he reads daily. “I saw these old men with sour expressions who had a lot of power over everybody,” he says. “I decided to make paintings of them.” His first effort, featuring Reagan, Caspar Weinberger, Donald Regan and James Baker, was titled Men With No Lips. Next came a grinning quartet called Women With Teeth—Margaret Thatcher, Nancy Reagan, Jeanne Kirkpatrick and Joan Rivers. “Men exercise power by looking stern,” explains the artist, “but powerful women must operate behind a mask of sociability.”
Eager to reach the masses, Conal took his unsigned work to the streets—first in L.A., then, traveling increasingly and at his own expense, in Chicago, New York, Houston and Washington, D.C. The media quickly took note, and a Santa Monica, Calif., gallery began handling his work. Conal now sells more than 50 posters a week at $30 apiece, and his oil originals go for $850 to $5,000.
Born in Manhattan to parents who were labor union organizers, Conal has always been politically inclined. He got his master’s in art from Stanford, then moved to L.A. three years ago to teach painting at local colleges. Now that he’s had his big break, Conal is determined not to let success spoil him. He still goes on late-night postering forays with his pot of glue and still gives away his art to people on the street. And he can’t quite believe his luck. “My work shouldn’t be easy to sell,” he marvels. “I mean, would you want a nasty black-and-white portrait of Ed Meese to hang in your dining room?”