Thanks to Daniel Rolnik (danielrolnik[at]@gmail.com) for conducting this great interview for Fecal Face.
One of the most prolific and recognizable artists alive today, Ron English has bombed the global landscape with unforgettable images, on the street, in museums, in movies, books and television. English coined the term POPaganda to describe his signature mash-up of high and low cultural touchstones, from superhero mythology to totems of art history, populated with his vast and constantly growing arsenal of original characters, including MC Supersized, the obese fast-food mascot featured in the hit movie “Supersize Me,” and Abraham Obama, the fusion of America’s 16th and 44th Presidents, an image widely discussed in the media as directly impacting the 2008 election. Other characters carousing through English’s art, in paintings, billboards, and sculpture include three-eyed rabbits, udderly delicious cowgirls and grinning skulls, blending stunning visuals with the bitingly humorous undertones of America’s Premier Pop Iconoclast.
Trial and error. I had a gig painting landscapes a long time ago at one of those production houses where they taught me a lot of techniques. I also worked for a few different artists, so I had to learn how to mimic their styles.
I did some paintings for Rohhny Decone, Larry Rivers, Marcus Darvy. When I first moved to New York in the 80’s I was a ghost painter. Yeah, it’s a good job to work and you get paid.
Oh yeah. It’s funny because I always get what I wish for, but it’s kind of like the old genie in a bottle thing – I wish that I could have people see all my paintings and the paintings I would make [for those artists] would end up in museums, it’s true. I always forgot to ask “could I sign them” but it’s not really your thing. It’s like if you go on tour with the Rolling Stones and you’re the bass player, you’re not really in the band and you don’t think you’re in the band –maybe after 30 years or so you think you’re in the band like Ron Wood [guitar]. It’s funny because it’s someone else’s art, they’ve built their own language, and if you went to art school there’s a certain amount of that stuff that you can just do. Their art was more about their concepts and I did it because I wanted to learn a lot of techniques.
Well Mark was probably the ultimate situation because initially there were only 3 other painters working with me, but later there were like 40. Guys were coming in from Russia and Poland, people who were trained as master painters and knew all the technique. And even from day one Clark Decarro was a classically trained painter from Canada, so he showed me how to make glazes, but it’s interesting to do something with someone sitting right next to you and where you can say “Why is this not working” and they’ll be respond by saying “here’s what you’re doing wrong”. They’re all there with you and I think that’s the best learning environment - when you can’t overcome something and there’s someone to show you how to do it right there. There are always bumps in the road, eventually you can figure it out on your own, you can read books, there are a lot of things you can do. If you want to get somewhere you’re going to get there, but it’s always nice to have a set of directions.
I have two assistants. One assistant comes in one day a week and stretches the canvasses and the other guy pretty much does everything - like all those weird houses with the comics all over them that are in the paintings. He puts together the houses and then puts the comic book collages on them and then he’ll set up the shot. When we were at Art Basil last week painting a big mural he took lined up and shook all the spray paint.
I mean all that time it takes to do that stuff slows us down and the fact that they are doing all that for us is just amazing.
Sometimes they put too much pressure in the cans, so you turn them upside down and relieve some of the pressure. If you turn them upside down it just sprays, it doesn’t release the paint. And, as soon as you’re done spray painting you turn the can upside down so paint wont dry in the tip and ruin it. It’s also good if you want to do fine lines to make the pressure [in the can] super low. You never quit learning, you just don’t.
One of my friends learned a lot of his techniques from reading books, but I’m just not much of a reader.
I mean talking about art is a weird thing. Talking about what you’re going to do and when you hit the ground tend to be different. I flunked the photography class. In fact, the teacher said “you’re the best photographer that has walked through here in 8 years, but you don’t know what the fuck you’re doing because you can’t tell me what the fuck you’re doing”, but I did know, I just didn’t know how to say it. I knew that you stopped at f22 if you wanted a lot of depth of field so you could flow stuff in and be able to trace it. I also knew how to fuck with perspective. Obviously I was taking the best pictures so I knew what the fuck I was doing. But I think it was frustrating because I couldn’t tell him. Sometimes it’s just easier for me just to do something without having to tell somebody what I’m doing. I’d probably be a really lousy teacher.
I think it’s the fact that I want to know how to do it - like my son is insanely good at computers because he really wants to do it, so if he wants to do something with his computer he’s not going to get frustrated because he knows he can keep trying new things to find out what works. Also, since he didn’t pay for the computer he’s not that worried about damaging haha.
I’m pretty lousy at computers except for typing.
No, I draw it from every side so I have to be able to conceptualize it from every side. They’re pretty good at it […taking my drawings and turning them into sculptures] –if you take what you’ve drawn and hold it up to your sculpture it matches exactly. Sometimes I wouldn’t draw the back of the figure, and I’d tell them to just do something –and they’d say “we can not”. I don’t care what the back is, they just refuse [to let me not design it]. I used to make the sculptures for the original toys and busts. In a way it’s actually easier to sculpt it yourself than it is to farm it out to somebody else - unless I’m going to have to worry about trying to get a sculpture to somebody in undamaged.
No, but guys like Mark Ryden make the frame part of the art. Mark actually gets these guys to sculpt his figures into the frame - which is fantastic. I wouldn’t be against doing that, but the frame is a go between the art and the environment they are putting it in. In a way I felt like it’s always the collector’s choice, because sometimes they may like a piece of art that may not transfer really easily into their environment and the frame can help them do that – and the thing is the collector can always take it off. It’s My job is to do the painting and hopefully the collector won’t have me repaint the sky to match their couch.
The original Homer took about a month and a week. First I painted Homer on there, then I added the splash paint, and then I went back to the splash paint to make it 3d and psychedelic - that part took forever because I actually rendered all the splashes. I was working every minute that I was awake, to the point where I wasn’t eating lunch unless someone brought me a sandwich, and no one would talk to me while I was painting.
You have a measure of control. You have less control than you do with your hands. Jackson Pollack had more control than people realize. Also, those old oil enamels you can thin them with some “turp” and when you pick up the brush out of the can there’ll a stream of paint coming off of it that holds together so when he [Pollack] would fling it, the actual flings would stay in one piece until they actually hit the canvass, but now the new kinds of paint break up more.
I mean obviously his gestures are going to be slightly different than yours, but that’s why it’s easier to paint a copy of a Rembrandt than a Jackson Pollack.
Well, I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing, so I guess I’m having fun. I like to be in a jail, because you just sort of hang out and you don’t have to do anything, you don’t have to return your calls, you don’t have to do interviews, you sit around and bullshit with the guys, and you can say “I can’t do this, I’m in jail”. Most people don’t like it, but I feel like it’s a little vacation.
My mom has been making costumes for my photographs since I was a little kid, and even up until now. She was staying at my house so we thought it would be a fun project to do art together and then a local store decided to sell them right when my mom was leaving, so it was a nice treat for my mom when she left town.
Yeah, there’s a company who keeps putting my name on their toy that I didn’t design, and there isn’t much you can do because they just change the name and put it someplace else. Basquiat had a lot of trouble with that because he would trade his paintings for drugs. There was also a guy who hung around Basquiat and used the same exact paint as he did and copied his method.
I mean you’re young and probably into Banksy. You can call up the guy who cuts out Banksy’s stencils and try to get him to send you a couple and then all of a sudden you’re running around doing Banksy pieces. Do a couple of them on a panel then forget about them for about 30 years and it’s pretty easy to say “yeah I have some original Banksy pieces”.
Basquiat was pissed.
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Usually I project the photographic study onto the canvas and start with a brown-toned under painting.
The old toxic enamel paint Pollack used is best for dripping because the paint streams hold together as they are flung to the canvas. Modern paint breaks up into tiny droplets before landing on the canvas. After I am done flinging paint I go back in and hand paint every drip to look like it is three d.
I don’t know if anything is exactly hidden. I often reference the brushwork or peculiar methodology of another artist to make or enhance a concept. I’m not sure if anyone actually picks up on this.
- Interview by Daniel Rolnik (danielrolnik[at]@gmail.com)
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