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Living In Delusionville, the new documentary on abstract expressionist Ron English is an all-too-short glimpse into one of America’s finest critics of pop culture.
Filmmaker Constant van Hoeven chose an ideal and interesting subject for his eye-catching documentary. The film gives viewers a glimpse into what inspired English to become an artist. (It also shows a litany of performance art stunts that’ll make viewers want to see the latest Jackass movie.)
We see English as a pre-teen in the early ’70s, dressed in an Evel Knievel costume his mom made (family support is a present throughout English’s life), doing bicycle jumps off a ramp. He lights his friends on fire for a student film. Following the stunts and arson are the college years: tales of rampant drug use, stories of frat houses being painted at house parties, the artist dabbling in perspective photography and lifelike painting.
Van Hoeven then records English’s move to New York City with nothing more than two Daniel Johnston cassettes (the late artist has a brief cameo). There’s more footage of him figuring out the types of art he’ll 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 edge of divorce on roughly a dozen shows throughout the ’80s and ’90s; and scaling billboards for illegal, large scale postings. On and on and on. It never gets old.
Throughout the first half of the film, it’s not clear how all of this relates. Most documentaries, and most artists, thrive in one form. English and Living In Delusionville do not.
If you’re unfamiliar with English, it’s likely you’ll still recognize his art: maybe the obese Ronald McDonald or Marilyn Monroe with Mickey Mouse breasts or playing himself on The Simpsons. His work has, for better or worse, inspired a cottage industry of slightly subversive, officially licensed toys for adults. 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 an odd position. Do we love the art because it reminds us of childhood? Is it nostalgia for the bitter? A fair critique of the American ideal?
Artist Clark V. Fox sums up English’s work quite well when he describes it in the film as “Norman Rockwell on LSD.”
The first shots of the film pan over the beautiful, bright toys and landscapes English makes and sells. They instantly pull in the viewer. Toys you can purchase, photographs of landscapes you can purchase, paintings you can purchase, etc. Later there are guerilla-style billboards critiquing commerce that obviously inspired the work of Banksy and Shepard Fairey. (Banksy is mentioned later in the film by a group of taggers traveling to Palestine; Fairey is an on-screen talking head.) English’ ad campaign for Absolut Vodka debuts at the same time he’s poking fun at TV talk 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 English illegally hanging anti-smoking billboards and the next we see his art created for a liquor company.
Watching English grow as an artist corresponds nicely with America’s embrace of outsider art. And English dabbles in a little of everything. Near the end of the film he says, “I want to be every kind of artist there is.” It’s a goal many would say he’s achieved.
Before we see English or his work, a quote by 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 appears to be a guiding force in English’s art. Where this quote comes from—Carlin’s HBO special Life Is Worth Losing, the album of the same name he released through 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.
Clocking in at just 70 minutes, Living In Delusion could definitely be longer. That’s the biggest problem with this film.
Living In Delusion 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 at Landmark’s E Street Cinema. DCIFF runs through March 6. dciff-indie.org. $35–$85.
*Editor’s note: Alex Grey was originally credited for the Norman Rockwell quote above. This article has been updated.