English Invasion

Watch for billboard "improvements" by American pop artist Ron English

The Golden Arches emblazoned with "Phat Food" and the jaillike columns of the Supreme Court pictured with the slogan "Your Apathy Is Our Strength" -- these are just two of the "refaced" billboards found in the boroughs of New York City. A slightly disheveled, potbellied father of two may not seem the likely source of such anti-advertising stunts, but the fortysomething artist Ron English has "liberated" more than 1,000 billboards with subversive messages like these. Because his pieces so closely resemble the corporate ads he's skewering, they're often mistaken for Madison Avenue's latest creations. For example, his lampoon of Apple's "Think Different" campaign, featuring a demonic-looking Charles Manson, gazed out over NYC's East Village for two months. And his takeoff on Joe Camel -- hawking cancer instead of cigarettes -- appeared so real that many argue it contributed to the cigarette company's decision to stop using the kid-friendly spokesman.

But this billboard bandit is more than just a hero to budding culture jammers; in fact, his star is rising in the art world (both Slash and Pavarotti own paintings by English). His latest exhibit, "Son of Pop: Ron English,"begins a monthlong residency this week at Varnish Fine Art. From a half-human "cowgirl" to a topless Marilyn Monroe with breasts made of Mickey Mouse heads (the Disney character's shiny nose acts as the nipple), English's wild pastel images, like his billboards, involve an "improvement" on someone else's work -- in this case Andy Warhol's silk-screen series. With the help of Warhol cohort Alexander Henrici, English silk-screened these images over and over again in several garish colors, resulting in his own pop art.

Ron English's vision of Marilyn.
Ron English's vision of Marilyn.


The opening reception begins on Thursday, June 2, at 7 p.m. (the exhibit runs through July 2)

Admission is free


ww w.varnishfineart.com

Varnish Fine Art, 77 Natoma (at Second Street), S.F.

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But just because English is playing in the art establishment's big-boy sandbox doesn't mean he's lost his edge. Though I'm not at liberty to divulge any details, I recommend you look more closely than usual at the billboards around town this week.

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