The Making of a Pop Culture Critic – WCP
Living in Delusionvillethe new documentary on abstract expressionism Ron English is an all-too-brief look at one of America’s top pop culture critics.
Director Constant van Hoeven chose an ideal and interesting subject for his eye-catching documentary. The film gives viewers insight into what inspired Englishman to become an artist. (It also shows off a litany of performance art stunts that will make viewers want to see the latest Donkey movie.)
We see English as a pre-teen in the early 70s, dressed in a Evel Knievel costume made by his mother (family support is a lifelong gift of English), doing bicycle jumps from a ramp. He sets his friends on fire for a student film. After the stunts and arson, come the college years: stories of rampant drug use, stories of frat houses painted at house parties, the artist indulging in perspective photography and painting realistic.
Van Hoeven then records English’s move to New York with nothing more than two Daniel Johnson cassettes (the deceased artist has a brief appearance). There are more images of him discovering the kinds of art he would eventually become infamous for: performance art; TV appearances on trashy daytime talk shows – English and his wife, Tarssa Yazdani, portrayed a married couple on the verge of divorce on a dozen shows during the 80s and 90s; and the scaling of billboards for large-scale illegal publications. Again and again. It never gets old.
Throughout the first half of the movie, it’s unclear how it all ties together. Most documentaries and most artists thrive in one form. English and Living in Delusionville do not.
If you’re unfamiliar with English, chances are you still recognize his art: maybe the obese Ronald McDonald Where Marilyn Monroe with mickey mouse breasts or play on The simpsons. His work has, for better or worse, inspired a cottage industry of slightly subversive, officially licensed adult toys. His work is the visual art equivalent of Negativland (the band), taking existing intellectual property to create something new and disturbing. But what was once disturbing is now mainstream, leaving the art lover and documentary viewer in a strange position. Do we love art because it reminds us of childhood? Is it nostalgia for the bitter? A fair critique of the American ideal?
Conservative Alex Gray sums up English’s work pretty well when he describes it in the film as “Norman Rockwell under LSD.
The first shots of the film pan over the beautiful toys and bright landscapes that the English make and sell. They instantly attract the viewer. Toys to buy, photographs of landscapes to buy, paintings to buy, etc. Later there are guerrilla style billboards criticizing the trade which obviously inspired the work of Banksy and Shepard Fairey. (Banksy is mentioned later in the film by a group of taggers traveling in Palestine; Fairey is an on-screen talking head.) The English advertising campaign for Absolut Vodka debuts at the same time as he mocks talk- television shows. There’s an unspoken dichotomy throughout the film – and the artist’s life – about the role money plays in all of this. One minute we’re shown an Englishman illegally hanging from anti-smoking billboards and the next we see his art created for a liquor company.
Watching English grow as an artist fits well with America’s embrace of art brut. And English touches a bit of everything. Towards the end of the film, he says, “I want to be every type of artist there is.” It’s a goal many would say he achieved.
Before seeing English or his work, a quote from George Carlin is on screen: “The reason they call it the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it.” The statement seems to be a guiding force in English art. Where did this quote come from – Carlin’s HBO special Life is worth losingthe album of the same name which he released on Atlantic Records, and his book Last words published via Free Press (a subsidiary of Simon & Schuster, which is a subsidiary of CBS) – is never acknowledged.
In just 70 minutes, Living in illusion could definitely be longer. This is the biggest problem with this film.
Living in illusion screens as part of the DC Independent Film Forum on March 4 at 7:30 p.m. and March 6 at 12:30 p.m. Landmark E Street Cinema. DCIFF runs until March 6. dciff-indie.org. $35 to $85.