IS AFRAID OF HEIGHTS. Yet, his canvases of choice are billboards,
usually suspended hundreds of feet above ground.
definite downside that most billboards are up high, but the modifications
still have to be made,” English says.
Billboard modifications. Non- sanctioned billboard modifications.
Ron English (’84) is a founding member of the culture-jamming movement,
and he is considered a subversive art hero.
known as the “Robin Hood of Madison Avenue,” English first began
painting billboards while studying at North Texas.
As an art
photography student in the early ’80s, he was grappling with how
to make his art more visible when he realized billboards would be
it really wasn’t about the message at all,” English says. “It was
just about showing my art. The fact that people wouldn’t know it
was mine didn’t matter.”
years and more than a thousand billboards later, it’s not just about
subversive billboard depicted Bart Simpson chopping down a rain
forest. At the time, Bart was Burger King’s celebrity spokesperson
and Burger King reportedly was razing rain forests to make grazing
land for its to-be-hamburgers cattle.
no sacred cow has been safe from the images of English.
own brand of offbeat wit and an amazing technique, English takes
on America’s holy trinity: capitalism’s corporate giants, the government
and organized religion.
But on the
billboards, one of his favorite targets is tobacco companies.
really just nothing good that can be said about tobacco advertisements,”
So, in the
public’s defense, English created a series of “Cancer Kids” images,
which he pasted on Camel billboards. He also created the now famous
“Forever KOOL” image — the word “forever” runs vertically along
the K in KOOL, and two feet with a toe tag stick out of the O’s.
was stolen and is used frequently in antismoking campaigns.
In a bizarre
twist, English was actually hired by Camel a few years ago to create
backgrounds for a new ad campaign that was to replace Joe Camel.
The new campaign featured art backgrounds that had a “trip-hop”
(techno music) feel.
know I was among the people attacking cigarette advertising,” English
says. “I debated about taking the money but figured it would be
wonderfully ironic if they would pay me to do my dirty work.”
lasted about a year — until the executives at Camel realized that
when the billboards were viewed from the ground, the background
was composed of skulls and crossbones.
me immediately, but it was great while it lasted,” English says.
with a twist
English still creates his subvertisements, he also spends a lot
of time painting on real canvas — a medium he discovered when he
first moved to New York in 1986.
I was in college, I painted on everything but canvas — my house,
my cars, my pet pig and, obviously, billboards,” he says.
paintings, which also are frequently used for commentary, possess
an unusually crisp vividness. His images, which look thickly layered,
are smooth. And the characters seem real enough to walk out of the
he finished a series of “POPaganda” art that featured Disney characters
and other popular icons in famous paintings, such as Picasso’s Guernica
and da Vinci’s The Last Supper.
completed a series called “Revisionist Modernism,” in which he altered
famous modern paintings. For example, he added Jacqueline Kennedy’s
face to Picasso’s Weeping Women.
he is working on a series that merges his childhood with his children’s.
In one of
these paintings, Bart Simpson sprouts inside Charlie Brown’s head.
Another pits Barney against Godzilla.
But as is
always the case with English’s work, just below the surface there
is an energy that says it’s more than a striking picture.
next time you look at a billboard, ask yourself if it follows the
rules of English.
you, he has outlined those rules in the painting English 101. In
it, he is a teacher in front of a chalkboard on which he has scrawled
these and other edicts:
can lead a horse to Harvard
you can’t make ’em think
made your bed
lie about it
- You can’t
fool all the people all the time
- But that
doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try
there’s a will there’s a relative
yourself up by your higher education ...
English's version of Manet's Bar at the Folies-Bergere
is part of his "POPaganda" series.
This oil painting is part of English's current series, which
depicts images from his childhood and his children's