When America first invaded Iraq in 1990, street artist Ron English wanted to make a statement. He hand painted a giant Guernica-inspired image and placed it over a billboard on Broadway near Times Square in NYC. Pablo Picasso’s original Guernica is a massive mural-sized painting that depicts the Nazi bombing of Guernica, Spain in support of the Nationalists, a right-wing group that started the Spanish Civil War and overthrew the elected government by 1939. English’s Guernica included “The New World Order” written across it, and the pirated billboard image went viral appearing in magazines around the world.
English has since created several more Guernica-inspired paintings, and his latest NYC show, Guernica, features 18 more paintings that channel Picasso’s iconic image. Guernica, which opens September 22 at the Allouche Gallery, is the artist’s first NYC solo exhibit in three years, and he will follow up with a cannabis-themed bodega pop-up in October. PRØHBTD spoke with English about the Guernica exhibit and his growing cannabis activism.
Tell me about your interest in Guernica.
I think about the old pub singers who would take an old melody and write new lyrics that made them more relevant to what was going on now. At some point, I realized what a great template Guernica was. In this show, I'll have my hundredth [Guernica]. First, I used it as social commentary for modern issues [suggesting that] what corporations do is a kind of war. Then I thought, well, what did it look like from the airplane's point of view? Picasso painted everything super flat and physically impossible, and I thought it would be an interesting, intellectual challenge to paint it from the airplane's point of view. I had to sculpt all the little figures so from a straight-forward perspective they would appear as Picasso’s flattened originals, but from other angles, they would be three-dimensional figures. Then I could photograph the diorama from a bird’s eye perspective and use the resulting photograph as the study for an oil painting. When you look at my diorama from the side, it looks just like Picasso’s flattened Guernica, but when you look at the top, it's different, more fully realized
I’m not always using the image as social commentary because the social commentary is already inherent because it’s Guernica, and everybody knows what that means. It gives it this underlying meaning, but then you're also playing with time, space and perception. I've always played with spatial perception. When I did photographs before I became a painter, everything was about spatial perception, and then I would take the perception tricks and superimpose them on top of real life situations.
You recently did a show in Dubai. How was it?
They loved the artwork. All the kids seemed to know who I was and wanted to hang out. My sponsors had liked a black and white mural of Guernica with my own characters I did down in Miami, but there was one character in the Miami piece, a pig, that rubbed them the wrong way. They asked if I could do something like that in color “but lose the pig.” I turned the pig into a camel.
I find that wherever you go everybody's sensitive about something, but ironically, the most sensitive people are Americans. Maybe it's because you expect it more [over] there—they do behead people for doing certain shit—but I just get annoyed with Americans because they seem so scared of everything. I could understand being scared that they'll cut your head off, but these powerful people here are scared shitless of [Donald] Trump. They're like, "Hey, come do a mural of Trump,” and then when it's go time, they say, "Let's not. Our lawyers say he'll sue us into the ground." The thing that makes this country great is freedom of speech, and I hate seeing people afraid to use it.
In the last few years, you've become more outspoken about cannabis legalization. Was there a specific turning point for you?
Oh, no, I always supported legalization. Usually I just pick an issue to go with, and I felt like I should give it some support. To me, [prohibition] is just weird. I live in a small town, right? We have firemen, the mayor, the social worker, the guy that works at the convenience store, and you know everybody. It slowly occurred to me that about 80 percent of these people smoke weed. The mayor smokes weed, so the mayor's a criminal. The fireman smokes weed, so the fireman's a criminal. I thought, “Well, I only know one person who doesn’t occasionally smoke weed,” so I asked him about that. He admitted that he does in fact smoke, but he had told me before that he didn’t because it is illegal. It's weird that there's this thing everybody does that's illegal. Why is it illegal? How do we have the nerve to pretend we’re a freedom-loving country and then outlaw one of the benign recreations so many of our citizens enjoy? How does this [prohibition] stay in place?
Then I saw this video of a guy in his basement growing three pot plants. His neighbor calls the DEA and says, "I think my neighbor might be growing pot," and the agents come kick down his door and shoot through the walls. They shot him, they accidently shot each other, because the son of a bitch had three pot plants growing in his basement. How dare he! You start to think, "Okay, wait, who's the criminal?" Is the criminal the guy kicking his door in, making his kids cower in a corner and shooting everywhere with a machine gun? Or is the criminal the guy with a couple of plants in his basement not bothering anybody?
At this point, you have to ask who it benefits to keep cannabis illegal. It benefits the DEA because they're taking pot growers’ money, just stealing it. We've allowed a mob to grow right inside our own government. I've worked for 20 years making all these sculptures, and they're super valuable and delicate. If my neighbor said, "Hey, I think he's got some weed in that house," the DEA could kick my door in, smash everything I've made for the last 20 years, just to make sure there isn't a little weed inside. It's like, “What the fuck?” I just had that what the fuck moment.
Why do you think it's still illegal?
The DEA makes shit tons of money. They love their helicopters, their machine guns, their tanks, and they love to bring flamethrowers. I used to be a 17-year-old boy. You think I wouldn't have had a blast jumping out of helicopters with a flamethrower and getting to fuckin’ burn the fuck out of shit? The DEA is like, "Let's keep things the way they are so we can keep making money. It's fine to kick in people's doors and take all their money so long as we get the money.”
I don't know. It's just so egregious at this point. It's just so unreal. People from another planet would think, "God damn they hate that plant! It must be like some super poison ivy times a million. You must get a life-threatening rash just by looking at it."
What overlap do you see between cannabis culture and pop art?
I don't know. I mean, most artists consider weed [to be] as much of a tool in their arsenal as a paint brush.
Do you think it helps?
It helps some people, and it doesn't help other people. It depends on who you are and what you're doing. Most musicians obviously smoke weed, and it's because you can get in the zone, get in the groove, and it keeps you from being over anxious, or keeps your drummer from pushing too hard and ruining the song. It helps everybody mind meld into the same thing. When you're playing with a bunch of people, you become one, and I think it helps facilitate that.
Tell me about the POPaganja collection.
A couple times a week for the last month or so, I’ve designed more and more pot products until my brain was about to explode. It'll be fun to see it all comes together. They're all for this pop-up bodega we’re doing in NYC in October. From the outside, you think it's a bodega, and there's a lot of products. There's ganja beans, and at first you just think it's Goya beans, and then you realize what it really is. You might even walk into it thinking you're in a bodega, but at some point you realize that every product is weed. We're going to sell empty boxes because obviously we can't put weed in the boxes. The idea is to normalize the idea of it being legal.
Since you have become more outspoken on the topic, do people try to warn you that this could hurt your career?
No. Most people just give me weed all the time.
Do you have a stockpile now?
Kind of, sort of, for a while. I gave it to a friend of mine with a medical condition that is helped by it.
I guess we probably shouldn't put that in an interview.
Yeah. Anyway, I’m sure pot will be legal by the time this comes out.
David Jenison (email@example.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.