Ron English, “You Are Not Here”


    As part of curating the Ron English show at IMAS, I began with visiting the artist in his studio in upstate New York months before the exhibit.

    Ron English is an American contemporary artist who was born in 1959 and grew up in Decatur, Illinois. English coined the term POPaganda to describe his signature mash-up of high and low cultural touchstones, from superhero mythology to figures of art history, populated with his vast and constantly growing arsenal of his original characters.

    Some of his influences include Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, the band Kiss, and the advertisements he sees around him. Pop culture plays a huge part in his work, especially in his politically charged billboards and street art. Some of his main targets in these pieces are Joe Camel, McDonalds, and Mickey Mouse. Ron English also has a craft of using corporate icons and manipulating them in a way in which they go against the image and message of the very corporation they were meant to represent. Music is also a big part of his life, having created album covers, collaborated with musicians, and even written lyrics.

    Ron English has participated in both sanctioned and illegal public art campaigns since the early eighties, all in the name of art. Some of his extralegal murals include one on the Berlin Wall’s Checkpoint Charlie in 1989 and one on the Palestinian separation wall in the West Bank in 2007, with fellow street artists Banksy and Swoon. He is the subject of the documentary Popaganda by Pedro Carvajal and even has his own action figure created by Michael Leavitt.

    For the You Are Not Here exhibit, Ron English created large scale images modeled after the aesthetic of circus side show posters. The artist chose this motif to point to the fact that mass-media messaging often makes promises that are misleading; much like side show posters tend to promise the viewers an extraordinary experience. However, when one goes behind the curtain, one is often disappointed by what one actually discovers. In the IMAS You Are Not Here exhibit, Ron English uses the side show imagery to lead us to the inner sanctum where two mural scale re-imaginations of Picasso’s famous Guernica are revealed. In this way, the artist uses the techniques of mass-media to inspire the audience to contemplate how the American cultural experience is filtered through mass communication.