Courtesy Ron English

Art & Architecture

Artist Ron English Has Some Surreal New Toys for You

“It’s hard, but it’s not work.”Such is the creative process for Ron English, the undisputed godfather of street art and trailblazer of pop surrealism.

He’s come a long way since his teenage years in the '70s “doing illegal billboards” in his hometown of Decatur, Illinois. Today, English is a celebrated artistic visionary whose mash-up of humorous yet provocative pieces expose humankind’s visceral drives and subvert our culture of materialism. “I think to experience joy in art is just as important as expressing a really deep concept.”

TOYBOX: America in the Visuals, is English’s latest multisensory extravaganza featuring music, sculpture and limited-edition toys created around a collection of 36 oil paintings. The production—which took approximately a year-and-a-half to produce—is on display until January 6, 2018 at the Corey Helford Gallery, a massive space in Downtown LA featuring three separate galleries. “This is considered the best art gallery in LA and the space is epic,” says English. “You can do big things here. Literally.”
And upon first gaze, it's clear that English took advantage of the big space with larger-than-life images of more than 100 characters, including psychedelic bunny rabbits, sexualized clowns, dogs as idols and humans as root vegetables in a land called Dellusionville. It also comes with a musical soundtrack to be performed by a new real-life character—his alter ego DJ Popaganda. “It’s a real person from Vegas, but we don’t reveal who it is. He and I make the music together and then he performs wearing a mask so you can’t see him. I’m not sure a gallery has ever had a show that tells a story like Delusionville and also has an accompanying soundtrack created by the artist.”
  It's all a bit (or a lot) overwhelming. That's because the exhibit takes on loaded, dizzying subject matter--themes of individual and societal identity as conceived through childlike imagination and weaves it all together through his signature milieu of vibrant, hyper-detailed imagery. “The music and art speak to the loss of innocence,” he conveys. “I still wanted to talk about sophisticated things, but from a childlike point of view.” That point of view is very personal for English: “As a kid, I remember having all these [artistic] visions. I tried so hard to paint them, but I was only a 5-year-old and didn’t have the ability. Essentially, with this exhibit, I’ve been working for my childhood self.”
It could be argued that most of us find ourselves simultaneously attempting to break free from the constructs of our childhood, yet longing to return to the ineffable nostalgia of our youth. “That’s true," English agrees. "If somebody lives in the Midwest and is raised a Christian, it would be very difficult for them to question their beliefs because that story is one of the first things they’ve ever heard." As he continues, “I remember being a little kid and standing up in church saying, ‘You’re just making this stuff up.’ They got really angry with me, so then I became scared. I felt like I did something wrong when all I was really doing was using my God-given gift.” That gift, says English, comes down to one thing that applies to every human being. “The blessing that we’ve been given is our frontal lobe. This is what He or She or It gave us that’s special. How can you not use it? That to me is the ultimate sacrilege."
  One recognizable character is Donald Trump, madeover to feature English’s signature grin motif. “The grin is the darkness underneath the smiley face. When somebody’s always grinning, you know they’re up to something.“ The kaleidoscopic cast also includes Punk Skunk, the artist’s first pot-smoking character (“It’s a play on skunk weed; I just wanted a weed-smoking character in Delusionville”) and, of course, MC Supersized, his obese version of Ronald McDonald that was famously featured in Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 documentary “Super Size Me.”
“I grew up in the Midwest where people were raised to think a certain way and are very comfortable with that way of thinking,” he muses. “A lot of my old friends don’t like me anymore because I’m making fun of Trump and he’s our president and I’m a liberal and everything that’s wrong with the world, in their view, is because of liberals and yada yada yada. Americans are an interesting lot because they don’t have class consciousness. There’s a caste system here that people don’t acknowledge and that’s what I’m addressing with this work.” It’s an observation riddled with irony, considering that America’s income disparity is at a historical record high, with the top one percent now taking nearly 40 percent of all U.S. income.
  As for why his art gets such a strong reaction from so many people across ages and cultures, he says it’s “probably because I know so many different kinds of people and I have so many different people that I’m playing to. When I’m creating, I’m thinking about my friends in Illinois, I’m thinking about [Corey Helford Gallery owners] Jan and Bruce, I’m thinking about Slash, I’m thinking about other people. It’s not a purely selfish endeavor.”

The way he sees it, “If creating art were purely selfish, you’d just sit around and daydream. You wouldn’t go through the struggle.”

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