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Ron English's Popaganda: The Art & Subversion of Ron English

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Popaganda: The Art & Subversion of Ron English

English, Ron. New York: Soft Skull, 2001. 250 pgs, trade paper, $24.95. ISBN 1887128603.

Ron English balances insanity and virtuosity, both infused with a political sentimentality that many postmodern thinkers believe is dead: If English is a postmodern artist, then he, much like the Dadaists and Surrealists before him, anticipates the next movement while being part of the current one rather than being mired in the apolitical stance of his peers.

Popaganda recounts English's artistic efforts from his very beginning as a college student in the 1980s through his present work (many of the pieces pictured have 2001 finish dates), and as such acquaints the reader with the whole of English's work as well as the strange maturation that has occurred throughout his career. Beginning with "trick" photography (and that seems to misrepresent it entirely), English began dealing with the nature of perception - how things can appear in an "authentic" representation like a photograph, but still cause a sort of cognitive dissonance on the part of the viewer: People's heads appear too big, their limbs too long, their relation to others too surreal. The process of achieving such is recounted by English in some of his many notes (which are placed throughout the collection, informing the reader of the various techniques and philosophies of the author, as well as the occasional anecdote), and, unlike magic tricks, the work is still compelling after an explanation.

Contemporaneous with his career in photography, English began his "liberation" of billboards, wherein he would (illegally) replace a billboard with his own, politically inspired revision. Sometimes this lead to a literal revision of the billboard - an Apple Macintosh starring some famous personality advertisement replaced with an eerie image of Charlie Manson in a similar pose and English's logo replacing the Apple apple- and other times they simply remark on the nature of advertising. Camel cigarette advertisements are replaced with more blatant "Camel" advertisements with slogans like "Hook any new kids today?" - and these throughout New York City, confronting passersby with a different sort of art than they might be used to. For his political leanings, English may very well be the new Diego Rivera.
I was introduced to English's work through the cover art of a Moistboyz album: English pastiched Norman Rockwell with a painting of a suburban white family dressing up a little black boy as a boy scout. The image so caught my attention that I tracked down English and his work, which eventually led me to this collection. As such, English's paintings are the facet of his work that I know best, having followed it for a couple of years, and Popaganda provides a wonderful collection of his work (and presumably all of it). Much like his mimic of Rockwell, English emulates Picasso, Warhol, Munch and a host of other canonical Western artists to surprising effect: English is more interested in popular icons than the esoteric or personal and recasts famous work with Elvis Presley, Mickey Mouse and Superman as the centers of focus. Nothing is sacred, and in this new world Mickey Mouse is more pertinent than Jesus.

Ron English's artwork is the static equivalent of a David Lynch movie. But to think of English's work as static is too narrow: English will be a remembered artist long after his time, for, like all powerful art, English's work transcends time. Just like Mickey Mouse and Superman.

Visit Ron English's website here.

Matthew Wolf-Meyer