Ron English's "NeoNature: We Are The New They" Exhibit Is A Gentle Disturbance
Evolvin’ ain’t easy, but it sure is funny.
In 2008, scientists found what might be the most comical discovery in evolution – at least to modern-day art icon Ron English. After examining the proteins in the fossils of the Tyrannosaurus rex, it was concluded that birds, chickens in particular, are the closest living relatives to what used to be the most massive and dominant species on Earth. This inspired the first painting for English’s latest exhibit: NeoNature: We Are the New They, titled “Poultry Rex Revolution.”
“I just thought that was so funny,” English told VIBE at the opening of his first show in Los Angeles in two years. “You were this big, most terrifying thing the world’s ever seen, and now you’re a chicken. So I named the character Poultry Rex, and that’s him kind of having his evolutionary wars with the chicken.”
Tapping into the wondrous world of Mother Nature’s knack for creativity, English uses his own to spark a conversation about “the art of evolution, the flaw that propels civilization.” From the relationships between one animal and another, to our own perception of the world, to fictional representations of the forces of human nature, NeoNature turns science on its ear for a thought-provoking journey from “us” to “they.” With the 22-piece exhibit, which includes paintings, sculptures and two installations, English employs his affinity for slipping poignant messaging into beautiful imagery as he uses secondary colors and familiar motifs to force us to look at ourselves through a new lens. What if elephants had stripes like zebras? What if Bigfoot were on a quest to grab a blurry photo of a human? What if Tony the Tiger actually ate all those Frosted Flakes?
English’s NeoNature: We Are the New They is a layered experience. Here, we enlist the man himself to help peel back the pieces.
VIBE: Let’s start with the title: “NeoNature: We Are The New They.”
English: Well, the NeoNature is kind of like evolution, and what evolution does or undoes. And the very first painting was the Poultry Rex. I don’t know if you remember this story, it came out about three years ago. They found the DNA of a Tyrannosaurus rex, scientists did. And then they figured out that it’s the DNA of a chicken. So they were like, “my God, they didn’t go extinct. They just kind of evolved – or devolved – into the modern-day chicken. And I just thought that was so funny. You were this big, most terrifying thing the world’s ever seen, and now you’re a chicken. So I named the character Poultry Rex, and that’s him kind of having his evolutionary wars with the chicken. Then once I did that one, I just started playing with it. People fancy that there might be a unicorn, or that there used to be a unicorn, and meanwhile they’re killing the rhinoceroses; you already got a unicorn, what’s the problem? Doesn’t look enough like a horse I guess. Do you have a certain piece that you have a closeness to? Well the first piece is the South American Butterfly. That comes from the idea that when a butterfly flaps its wings, it reverberates around the world, like one small thing you could do. Then I put behind it the narrative of the whole show, so there’s smaller examples of all the paintings in the background.
What are you saying with NeoNature, if anything at all?
Well, it’s just about how you can do a little thing, and it can become a big thing, or something gets bigger and you don’t really know how. It’s like something becoming viral. But I think with butterfly wings, they say if a butterfly flaps its wings in South America, it could actually cause a hurricane on the other side of the world, through a chain of events that keep growing.
And there are some continuities in the show. Like the grenade, for example.
With that, I was kind of playing with the idea that some people think that robots or computers will take over the world, that there’d be a higher intelligence and we’re only here to service them until they can recreate themselves. So if they became the dominant life force, then [the grenade would be their ancestor]; that would be the “dinosaur” to them. Some very crude instrument from our time.
Does that have anything to do with war?
Yeah, they probably went extinct because they blew up [laughs]. I don’t know if there’s a lot of particular politics. I know I’m known for being very political, like in that realm. Actually, I’m not allowed to go to Iran anymore because I was doing these murals in New York. [Iran is] putting their journalists in prison, and their artists too. One woman drew the Parliament as monkeys and she got like eight years. And then her lawyer came to meet with her, she shook her lawyer’s hand, and because she shook a man’s hand that wasn’t her father [she faced more time]. But it seems like now is a good time, if they’re going to become closer and have a better relationship with the West, this is a good time for us to start inserting our ideas about how you deal with those kinds of situations.
This all seems very serious and fun at the same time, which you do often as well. You blend a really poignant message with a fun aesthetic. Talk to me about that with “NeoNature.”
That’s kind of my underlying concept of my art; my idea is that you joke around with friends. And you don’t really show people respect when your dogmatic and saying, “this is the way you should think,” there’s no humility in that. So if you really want to change people’s minds, I think you use humor. What about the two installations in the show? Okay, well there’s the Camo Deer, that’s a recurring thing with me, I have the deer change with the seasons. And the other one is the idea of a family of Bigfoots. The table have turned, and now they’re trying to get a blurry picture of a human.
Was that a way to force us to see how we look, hunting for them?
Yeah. The concept of “We Are the New They,” it’s like, nobody’s ever “they.” Nobody thinks they’re the bad guy. Saddam Hussein didn’t think he was the bad guy; he goes, “Look, I nationalized the oil, nobody pays taxes. I’m taking care of my people here, hello!” And the thing with Kuwaiti, it’s like, “They’re slant drilling our oil. I even asked you guys what you would do if i attacked them for doing that, and you said ‘do it, we’re all good.’ You set me up. I’m the good guy here!” I think every person thinks they’re the good guy no matter what they do. So nobody’s the “they.” And it’s now taking the position that we’re “they.” So how do you take responsibility for being the “they?” It’s always “they do this, and they do that.” Now we’re the “they.” How do we deal with things?
What are you thoughts on evolution in general? Where are we now?
We obviously see how it works in nature, but I think with us, we have to evolve very quickly. I’m 54; I came from a very different world. When I was watching Star Trek in the ‘60s, if somebody were to pull out a phone and say, “This is a computer, the same one IBM took 16 rooms to make, and you can hold it in your hand. And you’ll actually get mad at it because it doesn’t do enough,” I’d say “That’s not gonna happen!” But it happened. So the way I dealt with being an artist three years ago is different than the way I do now. I remember the first time I got an online article on Salon, it was like “I don’t wanna be online, I wanna be in a magazine.” But now I reach more people online.
You’re blending a lot of different beings with each other as well. How did you decide to blend an elephant with a zebra, or a T-Rex with a chihuahua?
Well, sometimes I think chihuahuas must think they’re a lot bigger than they are [laughs]. My old roommate had a Basenji, and it got killed because it attacked a bigger dog. But in its mind, it thinks it’s in a pack; they run together and take down lions. There’s usually 10 of them, but he doesn’t know there’s not 10 of them or that his owner is not gonna help him. But he behaves that way because of generic memory. So this is playing with the idea of genetic memory; at some point, he probably was a very big dog.
And what about the zebra and the elephant?
Zebras have stripes for a very particular purpose; it’s not to be beautiful, it’s so that when he moves, the lion can’t see him. But then we have a weird relationship with animals, we like animals because they’re beautiful. And with elephants, people keep stealing their tusks, so I thought that maybe if we made the elephant more beautiful, that people would be less likely to kill it. We’d appreciate it more. And I’m also into the idea of visual equivalence, so when you see an elephant flapping its ears, for a second you see a butterfly. Genetically, they’re all variations of the same thing. It’s riffs on the same beat. You always tap into pop culture too. Here, you’re playing with Toucan Sam and Tony the Tiger. Why Kellogg’s? Well I’m doing all of the cereal icons. There’s 12 of them and they make “The Last Supper” when you put them all together. It’s just playing with the idea of what it does to you to eat [the cereals], so that what Tony the Tiger would look like if he ate sugar-frosted flakes. There was a thing with the Marlboro man, I don’t know if your remember, but he got emphysema because they made him smoke.
And Mickey Mouse?
In the ‘80s, art was very different. I really hated pop for some reason. And for some reason, when I hate something I think, “Well I’m gonna be that.” So one day I decide that I’m a pop artist. The big pop artists of that time were Ronnie Cutrone, Kenny Scharf and Andy Warhol. Each one of these people would adopt somebody from pop culture. So The Jetsons were adopted by Scharf, Cutrone adopted Woody Woodpecker. It was just a part of that tradition of being a pop artist, you grab something from pop culture and you sort of make it your own. So I thought, who’s the biggest character? They say, if you’re an art historian you should write about Picasso. There’s a million other artists, but if you write about the biggest artist, then you’ll be the biggest historian.
Was there a particular color scheme that you wanted to play with?
Usually I use secondary colors for the most part. The other colors, primary colors, evoke power, so you’d make a flag with primary colors. I always thought that secondary colors were more gentle; you don’t feel threatened by secondary colors, it kind of softens it up a little bit. My biggest fear in life is ever hurting somebody inadvertently, especially when I do billboards or bring people into legal situations. My second is to ever come off “holier than thou,” or to think that I somehow know more than other people, because you don’t. You just know specific things that you’re trying to contribute to the conversation, you know?
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What is this exhibit contributing to the conversation?
The weird thing about art is that sometimes it seems impotent, because it’s just art, and there are other things that seem a lot more spectacular than art. But a lot of politicians’ concepts are based on poetry. So somebody writes poems where they present a beautiful idea. Or with science fiction, somebody writes a science fiction book and says, “wouldn’t it be neat if this happened,” but they have no way of knowing how to make that, or if it would even be possible. But it puts that idea into the collective consciousness, and then somebody’s gonna say, “hey, you’re a scientist, why don’t you make that?” This is where the whole thing gets put in motion; this isn’t the end game, it’s the beginning of something.
If you had to tell someone something before they walk into the “NeoNature” exhibit, what would you say?
Have a drink. Everything looks better with alcohol.