"Mullah F'n Art"
As told to Rick Barrs, Los Angeles Times
August 1, 2002
What does it take to get The Finger to spend a Saturday night in Pomona, a town known for tumbleweeds, the L.A. County Fair and the teen rock club The Glasshouse? Well, the Imam of Infamy himself, Osama bin Laden.
Not in person, you idiot! (Wouldn't that be a rip if he'd been in Pomona all this time?) His mug's hanging in the window of Cal Poly Pomona's Downtown Center in the heart of the Pomona Art Colony. In fact, a whole series of Osama art's on display, including "Breakfast of Champions," which shows the terrorist extraordinaire on scores of orange Wheaties boxes looking like he's just grubbed down on pure American goodness.
The Finger arrived in the Gateway to the Inland Empire just in time for a big party for the L.A. artist responsible for this Osama mania -- Robert Reynolds. It was the closing celebration for his Love, Hate and Lies show, which opened July 13 and will come down August 6. Reynolds, 61, is no stranger to controversy. His satirical paintings, sculptures and mixed-media images of Lee Harvey Oswald holding a Big Mac and fries and Marilyn Monroe flashing her panties at Jews in Auschwitz, and such like, have been exhibited all over the place.
But The Finger's got to say...he really outdid himself this time! And in so doing raised the hackles of a truckload of irony-challenged Pomonans. In one piece, titled "Life," Osama's face changes from placid to cross-eyed to bucktoothed as you move around. The evil genius looks Alfred E. Neuman-esque in the latter pose, like he should be on the cover of Mad saying, "What, Me Worry?" Another, titled "Heading to Paradise," depicts the Twin Towers from inside an airliner with the word "Virgin" repeated over and over in candy-colored neon.
"I was just thinking that maybe that's what went through [the terrorists'] minds as they were approaching their target," Reynolds, a thin fellow with a gray beard, told The Finger. "You're supposed to get 31 virgins, one for every day of the month, I think."
Quite a wisenheimer, this Reynolds, but he insists he's no dang mullah-lover. He's just a nutty artist. So nutty, in fact, that shortly after 9/11 he flew to Afghanistan and spent 10 days checking out the scene. "I saw firsthand what was going on. I saw the way they were marketing Osama there. There were all these T-shirts with him shooting down American helicopters. They had key-rings for sale with bin Laden's head. You squeeze it, it lights up and he starts laughing."
Reynolds said Kabul had just fallen as he was crossing the Khyber Pass with his guide. Al Qaeda were rounding up people considered unsavory so he decided to hightail it to Pakistan where he got to watch anti-American demonstrations from his hotel. These experiences, plus seeing the Osama merchandise, led him to create the bin Laden art. "Everytime I look at it, I laugh," Reynolds said. "But to other people I'm a communist.'"
He ain't kiddin' there. The point man for the local Robert Reynolds protest movement is Army vet Mike Davis. "I think it sucks," Davis said of the exhibit. "They never should've put that up when we're in the middle of a war with those people. Some people around here say, "Oh, it's art! Oh, it's art!' Well, who gives a crap?! They think anything goes if it's art. That guy bin Laden has just killed 4,000 noncombatants, and they put this up. That's not right!"
After Davis and his cohorts spread their version of the news, Cal Poly was dogged by pissed-off local citizenry. So much so that Jane Ollenburger, the college's vice president for academic affairs, had bedsheets put over offending bin Laden pieces in the Downtown Center's front window. A few days later, somebody with half a brain (unlike Ollenburger) realized how ridiculous that looked and her sheets came down. Up went opaque plastic over the window so people couldn't see the art from the street.
"We just wanted the artist's work to be seen as a whole," Barbara Way, dean of Cal Poly's College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences, tried to explain to this digit. "I was on vacation at the time, but I think putting up the plastic was the appropriate response. We have children and families visiting the center, so we have to be sensitive in how we expose the community to controversial art."
Fact is, the Osama display's been a boon for the Pomona Art Colony. A flag-waving protest put on by Davis and about 30 others at the July 13 opening drew a huge crowd. The show made the cover of the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, which's where this digit picked up on the brouhaha.
They may be in the minority, but The Finger talked to quite a few locals who actually like the display. "I think the art show's really funny," said Laurita Guaico, guitarist for the punk band The Angoras. "It really lightened things up for me. It's like, you can let all this depressing terrorist stuff take over your life, or you can look at the lighter side of things, like Robert Reynolds has, and just laugh."