IndigNATION: Political Drawings by Jim Carrey, 2016–2018, Maccarone, Los Angeles (through December 1, 2018)
Robbie Conal: Cabinet of Horrors, Track 16, Los Angeles (through November 10, 2018)
Reviewed By Lorraine Heitzman
There are two political shows capturing the attention of Angelenos now, besides, of course, the very real drama playing out in Washington. IndigNATION: Political Drawings by Jim Carrey at the Maccarone Gallery is a series of political cartoons as freewheeling and expressive as Carrey himself, while Robbie Conal: Cabinet of Horrors at Track 16 continues the artist’s well-known practice of skewering those in power in brutal, satiric portraits. Both shows are entertaining and provocative in their use of humor to depict harsh realities. Like Edel Rodriguez, whose graphic and clever depictions of Trump have attained an international following, and the innumerable artists who feel compelled to express their political views, Carrey and Conal are calling attention to what they see as the hypocrisies stemming from the current administration. If art has become the new, preferred method of political persuasion, bring it on.
Jim Carrey, who is best known for his work as a comic actor, found the subject for these drawings only recently, although he claims to have been interested in drawing comics from an early age. It comes as a bit of a shock, therefore, to see the sheer number of cartoons on display in Maccarone’s vast space in Boyle Heights. The show consists of 108 drawings made over the past two years with the most recent one completed less than two weeks prior to the show’s opening. The collection of small drawings are literally ripped from his sketchbook and chronicle not only our turbulent times but also the personal distress, the cost of today’s political climate upon the individual. Each is dated and accompanied by a title, a commentary, and in some cases, a plea for voter participation. Underlying most of the work is a barely stifled outrage. The outliers are a portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. and one of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. A memorial and homage, respectively, they are in direct contrast to his portraits of Sarah Sanders, Rudy Giuliani, and Trump, and manage to indict the current administration by their solemn presence alone.
With so many drawings on display, it is perhaps inevitable that certain cartoons are more successful than others, and a little editing would have helped the show a lot. Plenty of his drawings depend upon their captions, but the best ones convey his outrage and despair without the text. The drawings that stand on their own merits do more than illustrate his message; rather, the message is fully embedded in the drawing. They work in the same way all good art does; they engage the viewer while revealing some truth about their subject. Some drawings are rollicking send-ups, reminiscent of Robert Colescott, Red Grooms, or even Jack Davis (of Mad Magazine fame), and share the same exuberance and knack for mimicry that characterizes Carrey’s acting. Others, less nuanced cartoons have a simplicity that may favor Twitter, but suffer in a gallery setting.
A particularly strong drawing, Rubio’s Hands, February 24, 2018 depicts the grinning Senator with bloodied hands held, palms facing out. The caption reads, “Rubio’s agenda is clear. Keep taking millions from the NRA and wash the blood of innocent children off his hands. Apparently $3.3 million is the price of this politician’s soul.” This is a visceral, iconic image and Carrey pulls it off with an active, but uncomplicated image of frenetic marks, symbolic gestures and accusatory text. The pose might suggest the act of surrender, or even the stigmata, but Carrey uses it to prove the politician’s guilt.
In The Great Spewdini, the caption reads, “Manafort, GUILTY! Cohen, GUILTY! Flynn, GUILTY! Gates, GUILTY! What’s happening to All the Best People? “Ladies and Gentlemen! Children of all ages! Can the Great Spewdini spew enough lies to escape the straight-jacket of his un-Presidented criminality?” Carrey has posed Trump as Harry Houdini, suspended upside down from a flagpole, arms constrained in a straightjacket, high above Times Square. Below him, a billboard for Death of a Salesman can be seen on a rooftop. With his hairpiece ready to fly off and his long, red tie blowing in the wind, Trump is clearly struggling. The concept of an escape artist is an apt one to convey the idea of a huckster caught up in his lies and Carrey exploits the comparison in a Jack Kirby inspired composition. The colorful, energetic and complex composition is effective, a case where his ambitious layout is rewarded.
Carrey posts his cartoons on his Twitter feed (he has a following of 18.2 million as of this writing). In this era of social media when virtually everybody has a platform and nobody has a voice, Carrey’s celebrity insures that his own distinctive message is heard, one that is filled with the same passion and humor that his fans already appreciate.
Over at Track 16, Robbie Conal has lined the gallery with a series of brutal, eviscerating, and yes, humorous paintings of contemporary political figures. Each painting is configured in the same format: a simply posed, black and white portrait set against a solid backdrop. They possess the austerity of a wanted poster, but one that has a title written in dripping blood and is hanging in a gilded frame, hinting at both opulence and decay. The effect is part portrait gallery, part haunted house.
Under the ghoulish title, Cabinet of Horrors, there is little room to doubt where Conal stands on the political spectrum. A self-described red diaper baby, Conal grew up in New York City, on the “upper-left side,” as he refers to it. His parents were both union organizers and his father was harassed and blacklisted during the heyday of McCarthy’s House of Un-American Activities Committee. His mother regularly left him afterschool notes signed, “in love and solidarity.” Is it any wonder that Conal found a way to merge his interest in art with his political views?
His early love of abstract expressionism, forged in New York in the sixties, never really left him. His street art always begins with an oil painting, one that is textural and emotional. While the abstract expressionists may have been his first painting heroes, he was also influenced by the social critics, Daumier, Goya, Posada and especially by Picasso’s Guernica, which he visited often during its residency at The Museum of Modern Art. The impetus to make posters began in 1986 with his painting series, Men With No Lips that included portraits of President Ronald Reagan and three members of his Cabinet: Casper Weinberger, Donald Regan and James Baker. Women With Teeth came next featuring Nancy Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and others. Teetering between comedy and tragedy, his larger than life-sized portraits of people in power, particularly those believed to abuse their power, landed a visceral punch.
Wanting a larger and more diverse audience than the one found in art galleries, Conal began using guerilla tactics to plaster his posters on the streets of Los Angeles, followed by New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Houston. The Cabinet of Horrors features the men and women of the Trump administration. The artist, who is now 74, says he has never been busier and jokingly refers to this time as his “late period.” He regrets that circumstances have provided so many people to satirize, but he is driven to do so and finds it cathartic.
Experiencing Conal’s original artwork in a gallery is a very different experience than coming across one of his posters on the street. Firstly, there is the paint. Conal works in oils and the surfaces of his paintings are thick, and one might say, gloppy. The texture on the faces he paints are there for one reason only, to make the ugliness of their character (and their policies) apparent. By making the interior visible, Conal is encouraging his audience to see the politicians as he does, and if there is any doubt about their complicity in what he sees as a horrific agenda, he spells it out directly on the painting using puns to make his points. Though it seems obvious, it should be noted that these faces do not have targets superimposed on them. Conal is promoting understanding rather than an implied specific action.
In his Cabinet of Horrors, Conal has painted everyone from Donald Trump to Brett Kavanaugh. Included are portraits of Mike Pence, Stephen Bannon, Jeff Sessions, Stephen Miller, Michael Cohen, Rudy Giuliani, and on and on. The sheer number of “Horrors” in the administration seems to be a subtext of this show. The most striking portraits are Bully Culprit (Donald J. Trump), in full dictator pose, Kellyanne Conway, envisioned as Pinocchio with “Knows Job” scrawled above, and John R. Bolton, very much an aging zombie paired with the title, “Used War Salesman.” Are we laughing or crying? Conal, one assumes, expects us to do both as we recognize the satire laced throughout his work.
As political statements, there is no argument that the work of Carey and Conal are most effective when experienced as they were originally intended. When Carrey harnesses his outrage in a timely response to current events on Twitter, he maximizes the attention they receive. Likewise, Conal’s posters papered onto city walls are the direct descendants of historical political cartoons and Early American broadsheets. The urgency inherent in both mediums successfully conveys the message better than any gallery show is able to do. However, there is a real pleasure in seeing these works in the context of a gallery because as paintings and drawings they each possess an energy and artistry not easily communicated through posters and iPhones. There is also value in acknowledging and appreciating the artists’ efforts that they make at some risk to themselves. Is this burgeoning branch of the resistance in time to effect change? It is impossible to know, but hats off to the artists who are willing to claim the emperor has no clothes, except perhaps for a very long red tie.