Smearing Power With Wheat Paste: Robbie Conal's Portraits


At 66, Robbie Conal is the grand old dude of wheat-paste-poster snipping. His searing "adversarial portraits" have targeted the makers of folly from Irangate to Afghanistan. Recently, he snipped two new posters trashing John Boehner's debt-ceiling obstructionism as "Wealth Care" and Rupert Murdoch's bugging scandal, titled "Bugger Off." These are the first two posters he's made since taking a hiatus. Conal, a political junkie, explains: "[T]he Karmic residue of painting portraits of bad guys for 24 years had become scar tissue that dulled my right hand's will to practice my peculiar, minor form of pictorial character assassination. I took some time off."

Wealth Care_HELLER.jpg  Bugger Off jpeg HELLER.jpg

The intense feelings recently returned, however, and with a vengeance. Conal notes his inspiration "can be found in a charming German word: Backpfeifengesicht (a face badly in need of a fist or slap)," adding "there are many of them."

Conal's compulsion to slap sense into the powerful is an obsessive ailment. "It's chronic," he says. "For a moment, it seemed like it was in remission. Well, It's baaaack! My doctor, if I could afford one, might call it the metastasized biochemical residue of 24 years of literally and figuratively ducking and dodging capitalism's so-called 'values.'"

And what, Mr. Conal, are those values? "How about the fact that our culture measures the qualitative value of every relationship every individual has with anybody and everything -- including the planet -- quantitatively," he rants.

For a more precise diagnosis, Conal cites "an ineffably talented pediatric psychiatrist," who calls this disease "another consequence of the molecular biology of capitalism."

"My point, if I have one," the self-described cantankerous, wise-cracking street clown says with a sly grin, "is that even though the truly toxic combination of greed and hypocrisy -- exemplified by big mortgage and investment bankers' total indifference to their borrowers' lives -- is still horrifically lodged at the top of the economic and social self-profit pyramid, now it is transparent. There's something about 'transparent hypocrisy' that turns me on."

Although Conal thought his cure came around the time Barack Obama was elected, or, as he puts it, "when we were afforded the momentarily crystal clear vision of the absolute purity of the bad guys' value system, which only includes us as prey," little has really changed. He adds, "my perspective returned and I got mad as hell."

Images: Robbie Conal.

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Steven Heller is the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts and co-founder of the MFA Design Criticism program. More

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts and co-founder of the MFA Design Criticism program. He writes the "Visuals" column for The New York Times Book Review, "Graphic Content" for T-Style's "The Moment" blog, and The Daily Heller for Print magazine. He is the author or editor of over 140 books on design and popular visual culture.
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