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A Roadside Urban Morality Play

WITHOUT knowing it, you may be familiar with the nontraditional art of Los Angeles artist/social provocateur Robbie Conal. Conal is the hand and wit behind those poster portraits of high visibility figures that crop up in major United States cities splattered on such spurious ``canvases'' as telephone poles, construction sites, and traffic signal boxes. ``My art takes place in the moment between red and green lights,'' quips Conal. Conal's particularly adroit and scathing double poster portrait of Jim and Tammy Bakker captured a perfectly limned, caricaturish view of the couple, complete with saccharine smiles, heavy face paint, and the telling one-liner ``FALSE PROFITS'' lettered across the pair's tragicomic heads.

Under the cover of darkness, Conal and a legion of volunteers - the artist's friends and students, doctors, lawyers, concerned or just curious John Does - brave midnight chills, hecklers, and authorities to distribute images like the black and white, tight-lipped visage of Oliver North with the word ``SPEAK'' printed boldly across his medals.

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``Somehow the word gets around that I am in town and doing what I do. We have regular meeting spots: an all-night deli in New York, an apartment in L.A., a home in the Bay Area. As if by magic, all these people convene to participate. I've got so many volunteers now that I am in danger of being eaten up by my own counterbureaucracy.''

The questions most often asked with respect to Conal's urban artworks are: Why do it, and is it art? According to the artist, he wants to demystify art, to bring it to the streets and to debunk art's role as a high-ticket, say-nothing, pretty commodity hung on white walls and enjoyed by a squeaky clean and elite class. Finally, and most important to Conal, is the hope that his urban portraiture stimulates dialogue and gets people thinking about political realities that touch us all.

Judging from the posters in Los Angeles, Conal has created an ongoing urban morality play, a sort of public ``letters to the editor'' forum for people not usually disposed to sending their opinions off to Newsweek.

Conal's posters are covered with pro-and-con passerby graffiti, like the word ``HERO'' meticulously lettered by a supporter on the North poster, or another viewer's contribution to the same poster that turned Conal's caption ``SPEAK'' into ``SNEAK.''

``I am interested in the way I engage people's minds,'' explains Conal. ``I adopt standard media strategies typically used - and abused - by Madison Avenue to sell us ideas or products. But I turn these high-gloss strategies inside out, I subvert them by giving people public images that are unslick, ugly mug shots with difficult-to-decipher verbal cues. When people do a double take and think the thing through, I've got them more involved than when they're passively absorbing what they're told by the TV. ''

The son of New York union organizers, Conal has always been politically sensitized. In 1983, in response to the widespread conflicts in Central America he began an organization called ``Art Attack,'' based in Connecticut where he was working as a university art teacher. ``We silk-screened T-shirts, printed postcards and posters that blended political realities, social advocacy, and fine art.''

From its inception, Conal's public work was inspired by and based on large-scale, original oil paintings that establish Conal's place as a savvy, and well-trained painter. A 1983 painting called ``Foreign Policy'' was among the first to be adapted into urban art posters. The oil painting contrasts the images of somber, conferring heads of state, mothers mourning lost sons, and violently moving figures that seem dispersed or propelled by some unseen, cataclysmic force.

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Conal's recent street portraits are also the offspring of huge oil portraits executed with tremendous technical virtuosity and a penetrating capacity to plumb a sitter's physical and emotional essence. The deft-handedness of Conal's oils is not surprising. He studied art at Stanford University with nationally recognized Abstract Expressionists, and however fringe Conal's activities may seem by the standards of traditional art, he is a serious fine artist who attributes his figurative style to arduous fi rst-hand studies of Michelangelo's frescoes.

``I was attracted to portraiture because it has such a long-established legacy in the history of art; it's such a credible and recognizable art idiom. Portraits have always been historical records and idealized symbols of power. Even in Republican Rome where the tradition of realistic portraiture began, there was the unspoken notion that the sitter was in some fashion powerful. When I usurp the portrait vehicle to show no holds barred, almost hideous views of people who misuse power, there is a subtle p arody there.''

Along with tremendous intelligence and political liberalism, controversy seems to be another of Conal's stocks in trade. This summer, Conal rented a billboard on a major Los Angeles thoroughfare and hoisted up an enormous adaptation of an oil painting he created of Jesse Helms, champion of art censorship.

Helms' gnarled and menacing face was superimposed on an artist's palette with the thumb hole placed right at his forehead. A furor resulted, and life imitated art as the billboard company pulled the image down, citing controversy as the reason. Not long after, they reversed their decision and up went the glaring anti-icon.

The responses to Conal's Helms project were bipartisan and varied; some thought the image with its brightly colored paint dribbling down Helm's crinkled brow and the hole in his forehead was brutal; others didn't feel it was tough enough.

``By putting the hole there on his forehead, I just wanted to suggest that closed minds are empty minds and that the same First Amendment right which protects Helms protects the process of art and creativity as well.''

On a gentler note, Conal recently produced and helped to fund the production of an urban poster showing the joined hands of opposing gang members with the words ``Stop The Killing'' printed across it. In the bullet-ridden streets of Los Angeles, where donning the wrong colors can be grounds for shooting, Conal's contribution was touted.

``Whatever I created,'' concludes Conal, ``I am not necessarily encouraging people to agree with me; I am encouraging people to think.''

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