If you saw Super Size Me, then you probably marveled over the amazing artwork featuring a morbidly obese Ronald McDonald. If you weren’t already familiar with the work of Ron English, then that film made you want to be. Well, here you go, Pedro Carvajal brings you the Art and Subversion of Ron English.
“Popaganda” is an eye-opening journey through the life and career of this renegade artist. Starting out as one of the most infamous culture jammers, Ron English got his work out into the world by replacing paid advertisement billboards with his own art. Soon this grew into him altering billboard ads, twisting them around so that they actually spoke the truth. He would make it so Joe Camel would no longer be hustling cigarettes, but cancer instead and Ronald McDonald would be providing “better living through chemistry”. And then there’s the “Let’s Get Drunk and Kill God” billboard Ron did as a dare, risking being pummeled to death by a bunch of God-fearing drunkards with baseball bats in the process. It’s during this section of the film that we’re introduced to other notorious Culture Jammers, most notably The Billboard Liberation Front (as featured in the film Culture Jam: Hijacking Commercial Culture) and Shephard Fairey, the guy responsible for all those Andre the Giant “OBEY” logos all over Los Angeles. In talking about these people, Ron refers to them a couple of times as superheroes and in this film, they really do come off as such – like a guerilla artist Justice League or something.
But after Ron’s wife starts getting fed up with him wasting his artistic talents on billboards that will eventually be destroyed or taken down when he could be producing work for a paycheck, Ron turns himself around and becomes what he was saying he didn’t want to become at the beginning of the film and that was a gallery artist. This makes for a weird shift as we enter the next phase of the documentary because we’re not all entirely sure whether this is a good thing or not. Sure, Ron’s new celebrity artist status rakes in the cash his work has deserved for so long, but would he rather just be out on the street somewhere tinkering with a McDonald’s billboard? Fortunately our weariness is put to rest as we see that Ron hasn’t abandoned his aesthetic as he takes his culture jamming art to a…well…more professional level. Ever ready to take jabs at popular culture with his art, Ron’s new works featured what many of us saw in “Super Size Me” with fast food cartoon characters and pop icons being transformed into vibrantly colored nightmares – one of Ron’s famous more famous images is that of Marilyn Monroe with Mickey Mouse faces as boobs.
And not to rest on the success of his gallery works, we’re also shown various other projects that keep Ron busy. One of these being an attempt to break the record held by Saddam Hussein for having more songs written about him than anyone else, something like over a hundred songs. So, Ron puts out the call and over a hundred bands and musical artists show up to a live venue one evening to help break Saddam’s record, each of them with their own Ron English themed tune. And, yes, the billboards do continue, one of which depicts Ron as Jesus – a little weird, I know, but it actually works and he looks so much like Jesus in the painting that nobody really gets that it’s supposed to be him. Weird and funny.
“Popaganda” offers a fantastic in-depth look at this fascinating artist, as well as other artists in the same vein and even provides some practical info and tips for the budding culture jammer. Ron lays down some ground rules that will keep culture jammers out there out of as much trouble as possible. Basically, only work on billboards during the day because it actually looks like you’re supposed to be up there to others; don’t run from the police unless you want maximum jail time and perhaps a good beatin’; and make your work look as good as possible because bad, sloppy work is like spray painting “fart” on the wall and nobody wants that, well, almost nobody.
Oh yeah, and here’s my ground rule – whenever you get the chance, check out “Popaganda”, it’s good for the renegade artist inside you.