With the opening of Lazarus Rising at London’s Elms Lesters Paintings Rooms just a hand full of days away, I caught up with man of the hour Ron English to discuss his work. History was on the mind, so I queried English on what strikes him and how it connects to his painting.
Lazarus Rising runs May 8 to June 6, 2009. Interview and preview images after the jump.
Curated Mag: Tell me a little about your interest in history.
Ron English: I’m interested in history through the funhouse mirror of its art. I also feel a strong connection to artists of the past. I have a genetic bloodline that traces back down a certain path , but I also a creative bloodline independent of genetics. Artists leave behind something concrete to connect with. The better I get as an artist the more closely I feel connected to the past and the future.
CM: What subjects are you drawn too? How does it shape your view of current culture and politics?
RE: I think I’m drawn to all subjects. I’m just looking for a different perspective. Most of culture and politics are transient, I think it is the work of artists to search out the transcendent aspects of life.
CM: In the exhibition, you refer to Picasso’s Guernica, what in the paintings narrative offers you a point of departure for your own explorations?
RE: I think Picasso’ Guernica is a great point of departure for new art as its intended meaning is widely understood and its actual meaning is widely misunderstood. Depicting the original event as a cartoon, no matter how rough and powerful the depiction is, adds a layer of distance to the event. Of course the work was a political tool used to bring world attention to the event, but it also serves as a healing tool, a buffer image that helps keep the realities of the actual event from overwhelming the viewer. When people are overwhelmed they can often become immobile, paralyzed. A person needs a balance of distance and compassion to truly understand history.
CM: Who are some other artists, past and present, that inspire you?
RE: Past would probably be Albert Bierstadt, Jacques-Louis David, Diego Velazquez, present favorites include Mark Dean Veca, John Currin, Jose Parla, Travis Louie, Adam Neate, Banksy, Swoon and Lori Early.
CM: I study Lincoln, so obviously was interested in your Abraham Obama campaign. What are the first 5 things that come to mind when you think about Lincoln?
RE: The first thing I think of is his wit and easy smile. Things that are a bit overlooked in the shadow of personal and national tragedies and in the sad weary photographs of the man. They couldn’t really capture the smile with the slow shutter speeds of the time as he had to hold still too long. The second thing would be the self determination. The third would be the vision tempered by the realities of real politic and the times. The 4th thing would be the image he and his staff developed for himself as the self made, independent frontiersman in contrast to the images other politicians of his time created for themselves. The fifth thing would be his connection to Illinois, the place where I grew up. Land of Lincoln was emblazoned on my license.
CM: Do you characterize your work as subversive?
RE: Yes, but in the best sense of the word.
CM: Popaganda, aside from being a tasty buzz term, what does it really mean to you?
RE: My art certainly has an element of propaganda and an element of pop, I wanted to acknowledge their presence. Popaganda seemed a well coined word to put these elements in their proper perspective. It is also a word I trademarked to brand my other endeavors such as toys, shoes, t-shirts, DVDs etc.
CM: Do you feel your work has the same effect when viewed in a gallery setting as it might when organically discovered on street level?
RE: No. Art on the streets is about the moment, especially billboards. They are cycled out quickly as often are the events they address. Paintings on the other hand are intended as not just part of a current
conversation but as an on going dialogue with the future.
CM: You views on arts ability to teach the masses – something that requires growth in the viewer or an innate human skill?
CM: This is your first show solo show at Elms Lesters. How has it been working with the gallery? Do you have a constant process for gallery shows, or does it depend on the setting? And, does it differ when you are part of a group showing?
RE: Working with the gallery has been a lovely experience. Paul and Fiona really understand artists and also have a keen eye for art that is truly important, art that will stand the test of time. Street art is a bit of a fad but a select few of the “street artists” transcend the movement and will be a part of art history. As far as a process for gallery shows, each gallery is different. Sitting alone in my studio painting everyday I find it helpful to envision someone as my audience. It is usually the gallery director or curator. In this case it was Paul and Fiona who are extremely understanding and supportive of the long term process of art making. . They allow me to add layers of depth and meaning that may not lend themselves to quick comprehension and easy sales, but I know if I want to take things to a deeper level, they will back me up on it. Group show are a great way to introduce your work to a new audience but an artist really depends on the solo exhibition to articulate their larger vision.
CM: How involved are you in the installation of your works?
RE: I always let the gallery do that. I am too close to the works. Proper curation needs a distance the artist doesn’t have. Maybe a piece needs to be pulled from the show to make it work as a whole, which is hard for an artist to do because maybe you spent two hundred hours on the piece.
CM: Your art has taken you all over the world and you’ve got a bit of an American focus when it comes to subject matter. Where have you found the most surprising response?
RE: I was in the Philippines and I saw some kids doing graffiti so we pulled over and I yelled at them that I was going to call the police. They turned around and said “holy shit, you’re Ron English!” I was quite surprised they knew me. I drew in all their sketch books.
CM: How do art shows in commercial galleries fit within the global economic crisis?
RE: I don’t think it’s as big of a concern for artists as we can only make so many paintings and if they don’t sell today they will sell tomorrow. The galleries will have a more difficult time because their expenses are a lot greater.
CM: Do you collect? If so, what grabs you?
RE: I am hoping the economic crises makes collecting easier for the next couple years. For the last couple years all the artists I love have been having sell out shows so there was never anything available. I have recently managed to get a Mark Dean Veca, a Banksy, a Futura, a Saber, a Adam Neate, a Sas Christian and am getting Travis Louie, Genieve Zacconi and Lori Early to do portraits of my daughter Zephyr
CM: What challenges are there in translating your artistic mission from the 2-dimensional to film?
RE: The only challenge for the Abraham Obama movie was recruiting the great
director Kevin Chapados.
CM: Finally, what can new viewers expect entering “Lazarus Rising”?
RE: The resurrection of the art world.