The Best in English CuisineBy David Jenison
Ron English is a famed New York artist with a talent for corporate parody. The public knows him for his “Fat Ronald” images in the Super Size Me film and a recent appearance as himself on The Simpsons. Art fans, meanwhile, know English as a prolific painter with a history of culture jamming and pirated billboards (e.g., an Apple “Think Different” parody featuring Charles Manson). Street-art magazine Juxtapoz made him the guest editor for its current November issue, which corresponds with his first big NYC show in years coming to the Opera Gallery in Soho (Nov. 1 – 29). CULTURE readers, however, will be most interested in the artist’s latest prank. Carefully imitating the original packaging, English created cannabis-cuisine labels and attached them to food products on the supermarket shelves. Duncan Hines, meet Duncan High’s “wake and bake” brownies!
What inspired you to make these cannabis-food labels?
I wanted to imagine, “What would the world look like if pot was legal?” I wanted to give people that image, so we did labels like Aunt Jamaica’s hash oil, made them into fake products and put them in the stores. People bought the products and took them home, though of course they didn’t get high. The point is, “How different will your life be if marijuana was legal?” It also shows that American companies will be able to make money off it, and it doesn’t seem that evil if it’s in the store. There’s Budweiser, and there’s Aunt Jamaica’s hash oil, and the world is still rolling along.
When we did it, people got excited thinking they finally legalized pot. One guy said he bought it and wanted to see the clerk’s reaction. The clerk looked at it and said, “Huh? Who knew?” It would be Duncan Hines normal brownie mix, but we just changed the label. We would buy them, take them back to the gallery or wherever, put the labels on and then return them to the stores. We got them into maybe 10 supermarkets. It’s usually when I travel. When I was in L.A., I put them in L.A. and Santa Monica markets. We are planning to do it as an open source. We put the files on our website, you can download your favorite label, go to your supermarket and do whatever you want to do with it.
I was a little concerned because you are tampering with food products, but it gets people right where they are at. That is the issue I have with Dread Scott (the controversial artist whose 1989 American flag art earned national scorn from President George H.W. Bush and others). He does all his art in galleries. It’s a small group of people who go to galleries, and they are all liberals anyway. Whose minds are you going to change there? Sometimes you have to go out to where the people are.
What do you think of the medical marijuana movement?
I just think people are realizing that marijuana is supposed to be legal. It would be beneficial to everyone if it was legal, but what is the process to make that happen? If you want to deny some farmer in California the ability to grow and sell marijuana and give that power to armed-to-the-teeth drug cartels, um, okay. Maybe you want to take marijuana away from Ron the artist to make sure he doesn’t have any more creative ideas, but would you be willing to take it away from a guy dying of cancer even though it helps alleviate his pain? Are you that much of an asshole? I don’t smoke pot, I don’t like it, and I generally don’t like people who smoke because they tend to talk about a lot of ideas and never follow through with them. Still, people are perfectly okay with alcohol being legal. No one says, “I don’t like beer, so Ron can’t have a beer,” and yet alcohol is a lot more detrimental to society.
Your upcoming NYC show is titled “Crucial Fiction.” Tell me about it.
This year I seem to be obsessed with my childhood. I remember being 7 years old digging a hole in the backyard, and there was a whole layer of imagination on top of everything. I made art then, but I was incompetent at it. I thought, what if I went to work for that 7-year-old and used all the skills I have developed over the last 40 or 50 years? What was he imagining? What was he seeing? I essentially revisited my old self and asked, “What would you like me to paint?”