"This is the sandbox that I have chosen to play in," says Ron English about Delusionville, the fictional world he brings to life through his artwork, designer toys and music projects. "For 10-some years, I committed to making paintings about my children and adapting them to different personas of people in my life. In the same way, I made a long-term commitment to this world, so a lot of the work for the next few years is going to be based on these characters."
The famed pop surrealist continues this theme with his latest exhibit, Delusionville, on display at Allouche Gallery in NYC through November 25. PRØHBTD spoke with English about the world he created and the conversation took a dark turn into how delusionary worlds are becoming the new real.
How would you describe the theme of Delusionville?
I'm now basing a lot more of the work on my own world, which is this underground world called Delusionville. It's this Aesop's Fables-meets-Animal Farm vibe where all these animals formed an underground society where everything is backwards. Whatever position they had on surface Earth is reversed as they fall down the rabbit hole into this strange world where everything is backwards.
You're making albums about this world. Did these characters start in the music or on the canvas?
I thought the albums would buttress these characters that I've been doing for years and years. When I do Mickey Mouse Grin or Mickey Mouse crucified, people automatically know who Mickey Mouse is, so the backstory and relationship with that character is preexistent. It's easier to have that conversation. It's a more difficult conversation when you're talking about Falla Sheep and Ronnie Rabbit and Waylone Wolf. These are completely original characters.
Do you see parallels between Delusionville and what's going on in real life?
It's like going to another planet where everyone is all wrapped up in their own contentious, religious beliefs and at odds with each other because they believe different things, and they have their own politics and delusions about what they think is happening. They're kind of functionally delusional. Maybe 90 percent of what they believe is actually not true, but they do know enough not to step in front of a bus.
Okay, I see a lot of parallels.
I think mythologies are creeping too much into the science side of things, the reality side of things. Fiction's great because it's a mythology that gives us a great place to talk about big ideas and who we are, but when you start mixing it with science, it leads to disaster. It's like we've blurred the lines between the two right now.
The gallery described this as one of your more "aggressive" exhibitions. Would you agree?
They just consider my art rather aggressive because they're in the business of selling art. People like paintings of flowers, they don't like paintings of Alfred E. Newman grinning so you can see his whole skull, you know what I mean? The weird thing is, 90 percent of art is a decoration for people's houses. It's fancy wallpaper, and the art world is built around decorating people's houses with the very small caveat of making great art that could be in museums and make larger statements. I've been in the business of making larger statements and not decorations, so galleries, it's always a bit of... I'm their problem child.
I think there's a lot of aggression. It's making a statement, it knows what statement it's making, and it doesn't pull punches.
Do you think you're more angry now than maybe 10 years ago?
I think it's the same level of anger that I've always had, but I don't think anger is the overriding thing in my personality. I was talking to my cousin last night, and she said, "You're always obsessed with something. When we were kids, you were obsessed with Elvis because you thought, 'Will they make him into a deity?'"
I guess I've always been looking for the deification of somebody. The deification of the itinerant Jew from Palestine who became the most important figure in our consciousness in the western world... how did that happen? It was kind of a process. It wasn't based on just a single person, and then other stories get told later and people add more myths. People just accept it because they've heard about it their whole lives and know the story and they've heard it told a 1,000 different ways.
This guy probably doesn't resemble at all the person that he is in our mythology. He probably existed, but how did he go from being that guy to being Jesus the Christ? I kind of watch for that. I've seen it happen on a smaller scale because I used to know a guy named [Jean-Michel] Basquiat. I just thought he was a club kid who was fucked up all the time and made really big crazy paintings because he was tapping a wave of Wall Street money coming down into the art world with a lot of people buying and flipping stuff. He caught that zeitgeist, and so did a lot of other people back then, but somehow [his mythology endured]. Maybe because he died and lived a more pristine life. He's kind of preserved in amber as this forever teenager making crazy art. He's almost deified now.
I live down the street from the Dia, which is the church of minimalism, and those people would never question whether [Mark] Rothko was the most brilliant genius who ever walked the face of the earth. He is a saint in the art world. He's almost like a deified figure, and they behave the same way as the people they scorn. They're religious people. They say, "Look at people worshiping crazy shit," and then they worship [some artist]. Everybody does it, and everybody pretends they don't.
What contributes to the deification of certain political figures, whether it's far-right figures like Trump and Jair Bolsonaro [in Brazil] or leftists like Hugo Chavez? Playing on the title of the exhibit, it seems their followers often delude themselves.
With the Cuban Revolution, those guys were smart enough to take some really cool Jim Morrison-looking pictures, right? Che Guevara... he became an iconic symbol of something he probably didn't necessarily stand for. He was probably a lot more totalitarian once he seized power, especially compared to [Fidel] Castro, but [your followers] simplify you and make you into something else.
Jesus represents peace and love, which was something he wasn't really that interested in. If you look at the really old text before the Romans got ahold of it, he's saying stuff like, "I want to fertilize the soil of Israel with the blood of the Romans." He was a part of an oppressed group that was very angry and looking to overthrow the shackles of the Romans, so a lot of his rhetoric was revolutionary. He certainly wasn't saying, "And you know what else? God wants us to pay our taxes to our oppressors." Of course he never said that. Some of the stuff was blatantly, obviously added by the Romans later. It's like, "If we're going to have this thing, maybe he should say everyone should pay their taxes." People superimpose their belief system on somebody else and then say that was the person's belief system.
Right now it's so contentious, almost like to the brink of a civil war. It feels like you can't talk about anything. "Why do you hate Trump? You're just a Trump hater." They can't listen to anything anymore. They can't take any more information in because it shakes their beliefs, and their beliefs have only existed for two years. They have only been into Trump for two or three years, but when their newly founded belief system is questioned, they can't take it. This is what's great about Delusionville. It's a world where, yes, there's religion, yes, there's politics, but they're not our politics.
Up to this last record, I worked so hard to make sure that the wolves—yeah, they're oppressed, and on the surface world they were the shit—but they're not the British. They can exist in a social order that was created, and it doesn't directly parallel anything in our world. By the time I got to the third record, I couldn't help myself but let a big orange elephant fall down the hole and wreak havoc upon Delusionville. The first direct parallel character would be Trump the orange elephant. I resisted for two records, but he has a little sidekick, Elefanka, who's real cute and kind of chubby, and she has monarch ears. You can't tell if it's his daughter or his wife or just his little sycophant who follows him around and worships him.
Your toy lines are fantastic, and we obviously appreciate the ones with cannabis themes. Do you have any more in the works that have a cannabis theme?
A cannabis theme, well, we have our cannabis flower, and we have punk skunk. Those are our two big cannabis ones. The next one will probably be in April for 420. We're working on one now that's like a double brain that's split in half. It's just the human brain, except it's perfectly round and turns into the flower. Half the brain is black, and half is white. It's a simple design.
Voter suppression is a major election issue right now in states like Georgia, Kansas and North Dakota. Years ago, I heard your wife talk about voting during the [Rudy] Giuliani days and how his thugs would try to scare people out of the voter lines. Am I remembering that correctly?
Yeah, he put a bunch of thugs down there. We were in a very populated area [in NYC], and they shut down all but one of the six voting booths. A lot of people were like, "Fuck you then, I'm not going to vote. Deal with that." It was an odd reaction because they were like, "Good, that's what we want. This district ain't going for Giuliani, so we don't want you to vote."
Did his thugs threaten people?
Yeah, they were trying to intimidate people. I don't remember what they said. I just remember I was standing there for three and a half hours thinking, "I ain't leaving, I ain't leaving."
Let's say you're a voter in Georgia who wants to vote for Stacey Abrams. What would you suggest people do to overcome the voter suppression there?
They're going to make it really hard. They're going to say you have to go to another county and too bad you don't have a car. They're absolute geniuses at voter suppression. But voting is the greatest thing you get to do. Why wouldn't you fight for it? If your kid was in a fire at the school, would you run down to the school and try to save the kid, or go, "Well, school's kind of far away, and I might have to take a bus"?
Don't give me that shit that it doesn't matter. Wait until they take your social security away. What are you going say? "Wow, I guess it mattered."
David Jenison (email@example.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.