Don’t accuse Ron English of being an unsophisticated street performer. His works are more complicated than you might think at first glance. From his commentary on America’s obesity problem to politics to corporate kawaii, English exposes the man behind the curtain. And sometimes what it reveals isn’t a wizard’s wonder.
In the new documentary film about the life of English, Living in DelusionvilleDutch director Constant van Hoeven (who released this film as Mr Kaleidoscope) explores the artist from the outside in. The Englishman, with his long hair, fedora and dark glasses probably wouldn’t stand out in the crowd, but he doesn’t have to because his work speaks for itself.
Born in Decatur, Illinois, English started making movies with his neighborhood friends. One day, after being punished for setting off a small explosive, he began to draw in his room. Even after the grounding ended, he continued.
He attended the University of Texas at Austin, where he earned an MFA, then moved to New York. He became known for his appropriations of pop culture icons such as Charlie Brown and Mickey Mouse, transforming them from cutesy to dodgy. He gave his “Charlie Brown” a skeletal smile and “Mickey” a gas mask for his head.
These characters were some of his earliest and most recognizable images. But people were quick to remind him that they weren’t his.
“I had an affinity with Charlie Brown,” he said Phoenix New Times in a recent interview. “And then someone pointed out to me that, you know, well that’s really not your character and you’re not allowed to draw him; you might get in trouble for that. But that’s such a part of of my life. I think I started to realize that, ‘Yeah, there’s this weird mainstream culture.'”
Often playing with consumerism in his works, English creates images in stark contrast to their stardom. For example, his version of Ronald McDonald, named MC Supersized, is a round clown dressed in the iconic yellow uniform and wearing a huge dollar necklace. On that same note, he reimagined famous cold cereal characters such as Tony the Tiger and Toucan Sam as bloated sugar junkies.
Religious figures are also ripe for his artistic satire. English uses pious iconography in some of his works. In the film, there is a crucified Jesus dressed as Santa Claus. It’s catechism meets capitalism. The artist understands a little more about the devoted religious followers of his youth now that he is in his sixties.
“They just weren’t as sophisticated as people,” he says. “And they just like the idea of religion because it’s all settled, they don’t have to worry about it. Then the little kids who keep asking questions and asking questions, then they yell at you, and then you think you’re a jerk, but you’re not really a jerk.
This kind of mentality also struck him as an adult in the workplace. “I got kicked out of the school newspaper, you know, for doing controversial comics. I mean, I’m not trying to be a troublemaker, that’s just what gets to me. came to mind, and that’s what I put down on paper.
Many of his ideas about modern society are still provocative. At one time in history, the English thought that capitalism motivated some people, but now society is going too far. It refers to single-use vacuum cleaners, the rise of landfills, and agriculture.
“We’ve industrialized the food system to the point where, you know, if you see someone skinny and fit, you think they’re rich,” he explains. “Because they can afford to eat healthy food.”
He believes that making money from capitalism doesn’t mean you have to be okay with the system. Constantly highlighting what works and what doesn’t could improve the structure.
“Like maybe being an artist, or how you do great art, is a series of constant criticisms. For example, most people don’t realize how brutal art school is. Sometimes people are lying on the ground and in tears, you know, because everyone destroyed what they did yesterday. But every time people are criticized, they become better and better artists, you know?
He says artists have a very short feedback loop. A comedian can take their show on the road and find out what falls flat, and therefore develop that talent. “Yeah, with art. You spend a lot of time before it’s available,” he says.
English will never stop doing what it does. He is busy every day in his studio creating original works, while managing an entire company.
“I don’t think artists stop until the day they die,” he says. “And the weird thing about us is that it goes on, which I’ve been through before because I’ve licensed a lot of stuff. They’re making clothes in China using my assets. They really don’t no longer need me I created enough assets so they could sell clothes and make clothes I approve of them but if I died tomorrow my wife [Tarssa] would go and approve them – like the estate. So at some point they don’t need you anymore. And who are the greatest artists of my generation? I am exactly the same age as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Paintbrushes and modeling clay aren’t the only creative outlets English people seek. He says he’s in a band called The Rabbbits (correct spelling), available on music streaming services. Playing in the band gives him something more than he can do with a brush.
“It’s the other half of my expression,” he says. “I think it would be completely frustrating to be a visual artist because, you know, that only tells half the story. There’s an emotion to music…art is more intellectual. really is. As emotional as can be [art]it’s never like a great song that makes you cry and sing.
When: 7 p.m. (6:30 p.m. doors) Thursday, September 8
Tickets: $11; order online, by phone (480-644-6500) or at the box office
Where: Mesa Center for the Arts (Piper Theatre)
One main street is, Mesa, 85201