Don’t accuse Ron English of being an unsophisticated street artist. His works are more complicated than you might think upon first viewing. From his commentary on America’s obesity problem to politics to corporate kawaii, English exposes the man behind the curtain. And sometimes what he reveals is not a wonderful wizard.
In the new film documentary about English’s life, Living in Delusionville
, Dutch director Constant van Hoeven (who released this film as Mr Kaleidoscope) explores the artist from the outside in. English, with his long hair, fedora, and black specs probably wouldn’t stick out in a crowd, but he doesn’t have to because his work speaks for itself.
Born in Decatur, Illinois, English started making films with his neighborhood friends. One day, after being punished for setting off a small explosive, he began to draw in his room. Even after the grounding was over, he kept at it.
He attended the University of Texas in Austin, receiving a Master of Fine Arts, then moved to New York. He became known for his appropriations of pop culture icons such as Charlie Brown and Mickey Mouse, turning them from cute to questionable. He gave his "Charlie Brown" a skeleton grin and "Mickey" a gas mask for a head.
Mousemask Murphy in Guernica by Ron English.
Courtesy of Ron English
These characters were some of his first and most recognizable images. But people were quick to remind him they weren’t his.
“I had an affinity with Charlie Brown,” he told Phoenix New Times
in a recent interview. “And then somebody pointed out to me that, you know, well it's really not your character and you're not allowed to draw him; you could get in trouble for that. But it's such a part of my life. I think that I started realizing that, 'Yeah, there's this weird dominant culture.'"
Often playing with consumerism in his works, English creates images in total contrast to their celebrity. For instance, his version of Ronald McDonald, named MC Supersized, is a rotund clown dressed in the iconic yellow uniform and wearing a huge dollar sign necklace. On that same note, he reimagined famous cold cereal characters such as Tony the Tiger and Toucan Sam as bloated freebasing sugar junkies.
Religious figures are also ripe for his artistic satire. English uses pious iconography in some of his works. In the film, there's a crucified Jesus dressed as Santa Claus. It is catechism meets capitalism. The artist understands a little bit more about the dedicated religious followers of his youth now that he is in his 60s.
“They just weren't that sophisticated of people,” he says. “And they just like the idea of religion because it's all settled, they don't have to worry about that. Then little brat kids that just keep asking questions and asking questions and then they yell at you, and then you think you're a jerk, but you're not really a jerk.”
That sort of mentality hit him as an adult in the workplace, too. “I got kicked off the school paper, you know, for making controversial comics. I mean, I'm not trying to be a rabble-rouser, it’s just that's what came into my head, and that's what I put on the paper.”
A lot of his ideas about modern society are still provocative. At one point in history, English thinks that capitalism motivated some people, but now society is taking it too far. He references single-use vacuums, rising landfills, and agriculture.
“We've industrialized the food system to the point where, you know, if you see somebody skinny and fit, you think they're rich,” he explains. “Because they can afford to eat healthy food.”
He feels that making money through capitalism doesn’t mean you have to agree with the system. Constantly pointing out what works and what doesn’t might improve the structure.
“Like maybe being an artist, or how you make great art, is a series of constant criticisms. Like, most people don't realize how brutal art school is. Sometimes people are laying on the floor and in a ball of tears, you know, from having everybody, like, destroy what they did yesterday. But every time that people get criticized, they become a better and better artist, you know?”
He says artists have a very short feedback loop. A comedian can take his or her show on the road and find out what falls flat, and therefore develop that talent. “Yeah, with art. You do spend a long time before it's out there,” he says.
Chihuahua Rex by Ron English.
Courtesy of Ron English
English is never going to stop doing what he does. He is busy in his studio creating original works every day, while also handling an entire business.
“I don’t think artists stop until the day they die,” he says. “And the weird thing about us is it keeps going, which is something I actually already experienced because I licensed a lot of stuff. They make clothes in China using my assets. They really don't need me anymore. I’ve created enough assets that they can sell clothes and make clothes. I approve them, but if I was dead tomorrow, my wife [Tarssa] would go approve them — like the estate. So, at some point, like, they don't need you anymore. And who are the biggest artists of my generation? I'm the exact same age as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat.”
Paintbrushes and modeling clay aren’t the only creative outlets English is pursuing. He says he is in a band called The Rabbbits (correct spelling), available on music streaming services. Playing in the group provides him with something more than what he can do with a paintbrush.
“That's the other half of my expression,” he says. “I think it would be completely frustrating just to be a visual artist because, you know, that only tells half the story. There's an emotionality to music … art’s more intellectual. It really is. As emotional as you can make [art], it's never like a great song that makes you cry and sing along.”
7 p.m. (6:30 doors) on Thursday, September 8
$11; order online, by phone (480-644-6500) or at box office
Mesa Arts Center (Piper Theater)
One East Main Street, Mesa, 85201