American artist Ron English stands in front of his work ``Bunny Spring'' at Opera Gallery Seoul, Cheongdam-dong, Monday.
/ Courtesy of Opera Gallery Seoul
By Cathy Rose A. Garcia
American artist Ron English may not be a household name here but you might remember the memorable mash-up of U.S. Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama's faces called ``Rainbow Abraham Obama.''
English visited Seoul earlier this week to attend the opening of ``Bright Society,'' a joint exhibition with Korean artist Park Young-gyun at Opera Gallery Seoul, Cheongdam-dong.
The 50-year-old artist looked tired from his flight the previous day when he met with The Korea Times at the gallery, Monday. He admitted he was still functioning on New York time which then was around 2 a.m., but gamely talked about the guerilla street art and ``Popaganda'' studio art he became famous for.
``Popaganda'' is the term he coined for his works that combine pop culture characters and American symbols to express satirical metaphors. Aside from the Rainbow Abraham Obama, Opera Gallery is also showing paintings such as the fat Ronald McDonald ``MC Supersized,'' genetically modified cowgirl ``Cowtown Cathy'' and dark humorous works featuring a three-eyed rabbit, which he says is meant to represent himself.
English, who grew up in Decatur, Illinois, says he was always controversial ― even his childhood drawings got him in trouble in school.
``(My) teachers always said `he's trouble.' I was always getting in trouble for my art. I wasn't trying to be mean or anything. I would just draw a monkey peeing on a fire hydrant, while a dog looked at him like `that's my fire hydrant'. That's just the way I thought,'' he said.
As a student in Texas in the early 1980s, he was already hijacking billboards and replacing them with his own work, long before people knew what street art was.
In New York, he became an even bigger name with his critical but humorous way of subverting corporate America's ad campaigns. He created billboards of ``Cancer Kids'' with Camel Joe children smoking, and turned Apple's Think Different ads on its head by featuring Bill Gates and Charles Manson. The fat Ronald McDonald was prominently featured in Morgan Spurlock's Oscar-nominated documentary ``Super Size Me.''
``I thought it would be funny to show what Ronald McDonald would look like if he really ate at McDonald's every day. He won't be skinny or anything. I did the billboards as if McDonald's were putting them out, so it had a very prankster-ish and playful way,'' English said.
His street art has attracted a lot of attention, and last year, English was one of the street artists asked by the Obama campaign to contribute works inspired by the presidential candidate.
Immediately thinking of the similarities between Obama's and Lincoln's presidential campaigns, English merged their images in a rainbow of colors.
``Obama pretty much had the same experience as Lincoln had, and no one seemed to have argued with his abilities. Then I realized there were similarities between these two skinny guys from Illinois,'' he said.
Asked about what he thought of the U.S. president receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, English admitted people may have given Obama a place of history before he even earned it.
``Maybe Obama's like the Paris Hilton of politics. She's never done anything but she's famous all over the world,'' he said.
Some of his works may have some political undertones, but English says ``art is about life.'' ``I try to make art not just about a very myopic slice of life, but kind of the whole spectrum of life. … My goal isn't to alienate people. That's why I use a lot of humor,'' he said.
In the past, he used pop culture icons like Mickey Mouse and Marilyn Monroe in his works, but English is now using more of his own quirky characters.
``Everyone was making toys and doing licensing deals, and I found I couldn't do that because I can't license crucifying Mickey Mouse on a mousetrap. So I've been doing a lot of my own characters. With a little luck, we're trying to get a TV show about some of the characters and stuff. There's this new world that opened up to me because I wasn't doing Mickey Mouse anymore,'' he said.
English no longer hijacks billboards these days, preferring to do things the legal way. It started when he and his band toured ten cities in the U.S. to promote ``Rainbow Abraham Obama.'' English made sure everything they did was legal, since any hint of illegality would perhaps affect Obama's campaign.
``In the process of doing that, I realized it was sort of an addiction to doing billboards. I've been doing billboards for 30 years,'' he said. ``I'm trying to be on the right side of the law, which can sometimes be very difficult. I think being a 50-year-old man going out and committing crimes is probably not good. At some point, you probably need to grow up,'' he wryly admitted.
But judging from the array of amusing, surrealistic artworks at Opera Gallery, growing up does not mean English's art will be dull and boring.
Opera Gallery Seoul is located on the first floor of the Nature Poem Building, Cheongdam-dong. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
or call (02) 3446-0070.