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Why Ron English Paints Guernica

  • Ron English Guernica
July 15, 2014
Ana Bambic Kostov is an art historian with passion for contemporary art.

If we look past the shiny and sanguine in the fantastic oeuvre of Ron English, and gaze into the contemplative practice that lies before his creative process, we might uncover a great master of our time, a figure whose iconography responds to the currents, while his method corresponds to approaches of luminaries of early modern art. His vast and prolific body of work is the most vivid compilation of pop art iconography, but the fact English chose to reinterpret masterpieces in the new light tells more about him as an artist. Among the dignitaries upon which he builds his own legacy, Ron English counts Picasso, as he has taken Guernica, one of the crucial works of art of the 20th century, and filtered it through the lense of contemporary art. Guernicas of Ron English are clever, deftly composed, distorted and shifted. They are repetitive depictions of our modern ways and needs, conjured on the mirror that is perceived as the prime anti-war statement.

Ron English Guernica
Ron English – The Ghosts of Guernica

Guernica as the Base

Naming it a ‘modern template’, English addresses Guernica as if it were a classical religious theme. This action shows he reveres the painting highly, considering it elevated into the status of an icon. Taking over the composition and basic iconography of Picasso’s celebrated piece, he appropriates it, seeing it as an universal value, which does not require any lawful intellectual or usage rights grant. First deciding to take on such a difficult task – Picasso’s Guernica is, after all, a true and undeniable masterpiece – Ron English was completely aware of its historical, cultural and symbolic importance.

Ron English Guernica
Ron English – Bombing Begins in 5 Minutes

In this light, the famous urban artist accepts Guernica as the emblem for crushing and needless terror war brings, but he selects a different standpoint. English’s perception of the painting is that it transforms the horrors, which are overpowering and hard to watch, into a two-dimensional pictorial narrative, making it easier for the empathetic viewer to digest. It’s a cartoon, a ‘picture’ of a tragedy, not the tragedy itself. Guernica therefore represents a natural defense system that pushes us into distancing ourselves from the dismay. It’s simple enough to understand, but impersonal enough to calmly apprehend. Tackling the thematics of Guernica from this viewpoint, Ron English conjured a vast series of pop paintings, telling the horror story of our age, in a way.

Ron English Guernica
Ron English – Grade School Guernica

Repetition of the Motif

Ron English has painted Guernica over 50 times – Graveyard Guernica, Cowgirl Guernica, Times Square, Bombing Begins in 5 Minutes… His devotion reminds of Monet’s commitment to the Rouen Cathedral, or Cezanne’s obsession with Mount Sainte Victoire. Characters in his Guernicas vary from one to another, while composition shifts or flips, remaining basically the same. Pondering on the subject, the artist carefully selects the subject of each painting, emphasizing the bigotry of our culture. Knowing the real masterpiece, English’s series offers visual reads on consumerism, unfairness of globalism and corporate culture, and contemporary war, which switches into entertainment and back as the lords please.

Ron English Guernica
Ron English – Chicken Egg Revolution

Iconography of English’s Guernica

As number of Guernica renderings grew in Ron’s studio, so did his iconography. He developed an amazing lineup of characters, all of which contain specific meaning, symbolizing a certain idea or archetype. His critique to one of the biggest fast food chains [McDonald’s] is found on MC Supersized, who actually eats the food he preaches – and it shows. He is the deity of western consumerism, the armchair shopper, the TV-diving airhead. The image of Rabbit stands for the working class, which a traditional use of the image. Still, rabbit of Ron English is an alien, with an extra eye, bursting with neurosis, since he would eventually end up as food for the wolves. Cowgirl is an oddity, fusing ideas of food and sex in a deliberately disturbing manner, sexualizing the innocence, while standing for all the wrongs happening in the meat industry.

Ron English Guernica
Ron English – Cowgirl Guernica

The War Never Ends

Looking at all the Guernica paintings of Ron English, it’s evident they are painted from various angles. In his creative process, the artist abundantly uses real three-dimensional models and photography, which makes these paintings artistic studies, as much as emblems of our postmodern age. Although he created over 50 interpretations of the painting, Ron English is far from over. He continues to find inspiration in multiple layers of the original Pablo Picasso work, honoring it artistic as tour de force and painting it as a blueprint for his own complex messages delivered in a worryingly entertaining fashion.

Ron English Guernica
Ron English – Football Guernica
Ron English Guernica
Ron English – Graveyard Guernica
Ron English Guernica
Ron English – Guernica in the Garden of Eden
Ron English Guernica
Ron English – Hail Mary Immortality
Ron English Guernica
Ron English – X-ray Division