Monday, November 26, 2018

“Cabinet of Horrors,” Exhibition by Robbie Conald

From The New Yorker.

Not long ago, Donald Trump acquired a reproduction of a painting that appears on postcards in gift shops around the capital, depicting a younger, more slender version of himself, with an I-date-models grin, drinking Diet Coke at a private club with Abraham Lincoln, Richard Nixon, and a bunch of other Republican Presidents. I

n the painting’s dreamscape, Trump is almost pretty. The artist’s intention was to flatter. He told the Washington Post, “I wanted to make everybody look as good-looking as they can, and try to shed the pounds where I need to.”

For Robbie Conal, a street artist who has been plastering American cities with devastating political portraits since the Reagan Administration, the motive is catharsis and revenge. 

Conal is small and cheerful, with white hair that sticks out from under a Dodgers cap. (He played semi-professional baseball in Canada for a year during the Vietnam War.) 

A few weeks ago, he was at a gallery in downtown L.A., preparing “Robbie Conal’s Cabinet of Horrors”: portraits of Trump, his family, and his cronies, appointees, and apologists. “One thing about Trump and his Cabinet of Horrors is that it’s made me do more paintings in one year than I have in any year in decades,” Conal said. (He’s finished thirty-eight so far this year.) 

“I was watching a lot of MSNBC and ‘NYPD Blue,’ and listening to Thelonious, of course.”

“I grew up on the Upper Left Side of Manhattan,” Conal went on. “My parents were both union organizers. I was an only child, and they were busy saving the world from capitalist greed. 

They considered the major museums of art to be day-care centers for me. They’d place my lunch at the bottom of the fridge in a paper bag—a peanut-butter sandwich, an apple, and an Oreo cookie—with a note: ‘Robala, go to any museum you want after school. Come back for dinner. Love and solidarity, Mom and Dad.’ ”

After art school, where Conal was taught by third-generation Abstract Expressionists to love Gorky and Kline, he worked as a graveyard-shift yellow-cab driver in San Francisco, the winter after the Zodiac Killer had murdered a graveyard-shift yellow-cab driver in San Francisco. 

When an artist-mentor, Leon Golub, took a look at a painting he’d made and advised, “Get rid of three-quarters of this and keep the quarter that you haven’t painted yet,” 

Conal hit upon his signature style: a politician’s face, thick with oozy blobs of grayscale oil paint, emblazoned with a damning caption.

At the gallery, Conal unveiled a still wet portrait of Brett Kavanaugh at his hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, his mouth clenched in rage, sweat pouring down his cheeks, with the caption “Breaking Bad.” 

“I was watching the hearings, of course,” Conal said. “During the second one, I couldn’t take it anymore. ‘Beer. I like beer.’ And turning on Klobuchar.” Finally, “I just picked up my brush. Fuck it. I would freeze-frame on his face. He was breaking, and it was really bad.” 

Conal applies his paint with pastry bags—the kind used to decorate a cake—lending his subjects a saggy, debauched, craven look. He tends to dress his men in pin-striped suit jackets, and he paints their hair with plastic combs from Rite Aid. 

“Nixon is my evil muse,” he said. “That’s where the used-car-salesman stripes started.” When he’s finished, he throws gobs of paint at the canvas. “They’re weaponized, like spitting on the painting,” he said.

It was time to hang the show. Recent administrative turbulence had presented an unexpected challenge. Conal said, “They kept getting fired!” 

Jeff Sessions (caption: “Little White Liar”) was still in the mix, but Scott Pruitt had been relegated to “the Closet of Horrors.” 

Nikki Haley was in a drawer. “We’ll put Sarah Huckster Wannabee Sanders over here,” he said, lining her up near John Bolton (“Used War Salesman”). 

He found a spot for Betsy DeVos—“the Dutch Lutheran evangelical with her forty-million-dollar yacht,” he muttered, shaking his head. 

Along a back wall, he placed a bellowing Trump, wearing a Russian ushanka hat embroidered with Soviet insignia, with the caption “Hammer & Pickle.” 

Ivanka came next, then Melania (caption: “Me Too?,” in pink glitter). 

“In art school, I learned you’re supposed to paint by building light to dark and thin to thick,” he said. “I never do. But, because of the Botox, I had to be very careful and use tiny brushes and actually paint in the traditional way.” 

On the night of the opening, Felix Sater—a Russian-born former Trump associate, who really does wear pin-striped jackets—showed up, and, according to the gallerist, expressed interest in “Hammer & Pickle.”

Last week, reached by phone, Conal said that he’d been looking forward to relaxing after the show’s opening. 

But he made the mistake of turning on the news, and now he was stuck painting the acting Attorney General, Matthew Whitaker. “What a face—if you can find it!” Conal said. 

“It’s dripping, he’s dripping, we just can’t let him drip all over the Mueller investigation.” He captioned the painting “Nitwhit.” 

♦This article appears in the print edition of the November 26, 2018, issue, with the headline “Pinstripes.”

Dana Goodyear, a staff writer, was on the editorial staff of The New Yorker from 1999 to 2007, when she began writing full time for the magazine.


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