Portland artist Ron English has spent his career lampooning some of America’s top brands, and he’s got the cease-and-desist letters to prove it. Undeterred, English and Last Gasp Publishing have compiled his greatest hits in Status Factory. The picture book includes photorealistic oil paintings that mock such marketing icons as Marlboro Man (as a cigarette-puffing 10-year old), Mickey Mouse (in a gas mask) and Ronald McDonald (50 pounds overweight).
To elaborate on the thinking behind the candy-colored satires showcased in the gallery above, English talks to Co.Create about “reverse shoplifting,” the perverse magic of saucer-eyed hucksters, truth in advertising, and how he uses diorama to make art from a kid’s point of view.
English often uses his artworks to critique the way sugary cereal products get marketed to children. “To sell cornflakes to kids, you can’t just show a picture of a factory so they came up with these endearing cartoon characters with big eyes to represent the corporation,” he observes. “It’s kind of brilliant.”
English launched a counter-offensive with his Cereal Killer Series. In 2010 he snuck into grocery stores in New York and Los Angeles and stocked the shelves with hand-made boxes of “Fructose Peddlers,” “Yucky Children Charmer,” “Cocoa Puffed Paunch” and “Captain Starch.” English says “I like the idea of reverse shoplifting, where you use supermarkets and convenience stores as places to create an art experience.”
The recent Marlboro Boy portrait is the latest in a long line of anti-smoking parodies produced by English. After working for a billboard company early in his career, he painted his own embellishments onto a Camel Cigarettes advertisement. “I added a doctor’s office where the guy’s lungs are painted fluorescent so you could see them glowing through his shirt. Then, for Joe Camel, who was targeted to teenagers, I turned him into a baby in diapers holding a pacifier in one hand and a cigarette in the other. I made the marketing more egregious to the point where it was harder for people to tolerate.”
English came up with his most popular character, the fat Ronald MacDonald mascot he calls “MC Supersized,” for Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 Supersize Me documentary. “Whoever plays the McDonald’s clown is not allowed to eat McDonald’s food,” he says. “It’s like when Marlboro Man got emphysema, the new Marlboro Man was not allowed to smoke; it’s the same issue here. So MC Supersized is kind of like my take on ‘What would Ronald McDonald look like if he actually ate at McDonald’s?'”
MC Supersized has become big in China thanks to a bootlegged vinyl action figure now sold in convenience stores throughout the county. English takes the product infiltration as a point of pride. “MC Supersized is packaged with the arches and the logo, so people there actually think Ronald McDonald is mortally obese.”
English voiced a cameo appearance on The Simpsons after producers noticed his frequent spoofs of Homer Simpson, but most corporations are not amused by the artist’s twisted tributes. “I get cease and desist letters all the time,” says English. “I write back and cite 20 cases that are almost exactly the same as mine and the lawyers admit ‘You’re completely inside the law.’ The rule of thumb is, would any reasonable person think that Camel cigarettes would have Joe Camel in a hospital in an iron lung? If the answer is no, then you’re protected by parody laws.”
To inspire his paintings, English, 48, first sculpts action figure-filled dioramas from clay and modeling paste. “Their purpose is to see how the light bounces off things so I can make everything look like shiny plastic, English explains. “Rather than trying to make it all up, I use the diorama as an elaborate study to get to the painting.”
English, who earned an MFA at the University of Texas, says “the underlying idea is to make these pieces very kid-like, but at the same time I want to do the work in a super sophisticated way like Salvador Dali or somebody who has really mastered painting.”
The muscle-bound baby Hulk, dubbed “Temper Tot,” embodies English’s ongoing fascination with the power of childlike imagination. “When I was five years old I had a head full of ideas when I’d play in my backyard,” he says. “To me it was this crazy planet with aliens and everything was magical, but there was no way I could get that onto paper because I didn’t have the skill set. Now I try to take the way that kids see things and build it into paintings I can share. It’s like I’m stealing candy from my inner child.”