Todd Schorr: “American Surreal” on exhibit at the San Jose Museum of Art

by Sarah Ratchye

20-June to 15-September, 2009

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The Parade of the Damned, acrylic on canvas, 60” x 84”, 2004

Months before it was open to the public, I anticipated the Todd Schorr exhibition, American Surreal, at the San Jose Museum of Art, with excitement. As a trustee of the museum, I am privy to the exhibition roster well in advance. Pumped up by several years of subscriptions to Robert William’s magazine Juxtapoz, a number of beautiful hard and softbound books on pop surrealist art and artists, and a multi-level appreciation of contemporary painting, I was ready to revel in the paint, technique, color, appropriated pop imagery, nostalgic hippie wowness, and manic middle-schoolboy subversiveness of Schorr’s works.

The exhibit has been well-attended since the “soft” opening in June. The expected unusual sorts of creatures, sporting fanciful and unique signs and symbols of their various countercultures, packed the Party opening in July. An interesting contradiction that evening was the appearance of the artist in a conservative grey sport coat. He may have even worn a tie. Shades of Madison Ave.? After all, he was a well paid illustrator living and working in New York before setting off for Los Angeles with a dream of making art. The museum threw a grand art party that evening complete with a sold-out panel discussion with Todd Schorr; Colin Turner, publisher of Last Gasp; Mark Bode, a comic and tattoo artist; and Susan Landauer, the San Jose Museum’s Senior Scholar and Curator of Collections. As if that were not enough, Todd Schorr signed his newest book, American Surreal after the panel discussion and guests enjoyed music, hors d’oeuvres, and all the exhibitions on view. Susan Landauer curated the Todd Schorr exhibition and wrote the essay, Sympathy for the Devil, contained in the exhibition book. Since the party, each time I visit the exhibit, the galleries are full of viewers actively engaged in discussion before the paintings. Once, I heard people making the uncanny musical noises associated with the cartoon characters in the work before them. Schorr’s mostly large, colorful and image-packed paintings definitely draw viewers close and stimulate discussion.

The first painting I encountered in the museum galleries, set the tone for the exhibit. She Was Charmed by His Outward Appearance has an intriguing pulp-fiction title and image that grabbed my attention. On one side of the work, a glamorous gal leans backward into the embrace of her conventionally handsome companion. Her beautiful beaded gown reflects the strange yellow glow from a large tank of monsters. She is apparently unaware of the thick wormlike lower body that emerges below the man’s jacket, and leads behind a wall to a menacing multi-eyed shark-teethed demon. Something very creepy is about to begin and the pretty victim of this event is oblivious. She allows herself to be seduced by superficial beauty and, consequently seals her doom. Schorr reveals the true identity and malevolence of outward appearances to the viewer and paints a cautionary tale. Pulled into the picture by Schorr’s magnetic images and brilliant technique, the eyes wander lazily and languidly over the glittering surface and pretty people only to be pulled wide and terrified at the encounter with the demon in the dark. The artist is well versed in the power of attractive imagery to persuade and confuse, and assumes that his viewers will arrive before his paintings already charmed or bewitched by the familiar characters he paints. Nonetheless, Schorr leads the viewer further, behind the curtain, to show her the evil lurking beneath a beguiling smile. The message is reinforced in several other works in the exhibit.


In The Hydra of Madison Avenue, Mr. Peanut draws a curtain to reveal a vast stage crowded with several parades of mockingly cheerful animated cartoon mascots, breakfast fruit butchery, a pink-bricked fairy castle inhabited by ever more cartoon sales-characters, a conference of “creatives” deep in discussion at a picnic table, and even more cartoon characters tumbling out of the sky. A number of the characters will be familiar to most viewers. It is a magical and rather delightful, if manic, space of shared brands and American values. All the characters look directly at the viewer and compete fiercely for her attention. A giant seven-cartoon-headed hydra breaths fire, smoke, and bubbles as it paws the mid-ground. The mythical guardian of the underworld is the lead in this play. In competition for attention with all the other cartoons, the beast dominates the cultural capitalistic TV landscape. Even if each head is competing with the others, if one head rolls, according to myth, two heads will replace the underperforming brand. The hydra is nearly impossible to kill. Madison Avenue creates new, improved needs every hour and a human being is almost powerless to resist the onslaught of cute, friendly, and demanding product-mascots. Advertisers and market analysts are ever watchful, aware, and vying for control of your desires, dreams, and hopes. What you buy tells the world who you are. And, according to the artist, the viewer who does not question the veracity of media statements is a victim whose false dream of happiness will be exploited, and later, sacrificed on the altar of the market. Choose carefully.

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A Pirate’s Treasure Dream, acrylic on canvas, 72” x 96”, 2006

A Pirate’s Treasure Dream, enfolds the viewer into a comic and storybook world of enough exotic and grotesque pirate imagery to fill the sky, sea, and land. Pirates and slaves, skeletons, ghouls, Cyclops, multi-eyed aliens, cannibals, monsters, and Big Daddy Roth weirdos, are on the march with their pirate loot, which seems to consist, for the most part, of American collectible kitsch. Although the viewer is allowed to enjoy and perhaps recognize bits of this phantasmagoria, there is no more room for imagination, little room to breathe. All the pirate tropes of American childhood are mashed together into a frenzied nostalgia for the faraway lands of childhood deluxe-o-dreams.

Schorr’s inspiration for The Parade of the Damned, was Mad Meg, a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Both of these paintings offer an escape into an extraordinary and abnormal Hell, a burlesque, where the laws of civil society and physics do not apply. Several of the usual Schorr fantastic and exotic suspects make up the directionally challenged parades in this work.

Other paintings present similar scenes of overcrowded and reimagined pop culture theatricality. Scenes and characters familiar from childhood have been hyped up, sexualized, demonized, insecticized, and morphed in order to seduce and tantalize, interest, disgust, and draw viewers into the drama. Cute and strange has been given an adult-age-appropriate amplification to creepily coy and warped. Schorr’s modifications leave traces of the originals, however, so that we feel safe. Thus, safe from the uncertainty and bewilderment of childhood, we take pleasure in cruelty, cannibalism, death and doom.

With the large, image packed paintings from the first rooms, Schorr takes himself out of the advertising system he knows well and takes on the modernist duty to warn viewers that the cheerful, comfortable and familiar spokes-cartoons were created to seduce us into buying product. The generous artist shows us all he learned as a Madison Avenue illustrator. He uses his brilliant technical powers, the language of the seducer, to instruct the viewer to experience and see her own gullibility. The uncomfortably crowded paintings are similar to TV. All has been overimagined for the viewer, there is no allowance for doubt or thought outside the rectangle. Creativity is suffocated by the subtle and unrelentingly persuasive power of the evil demon, the television . Perhaps Schorr’s caution of given truths also applies to the art world with its gallery dealers, curators, critics, museums, and art fairs.

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Ape Worship, acrylic on canvas, 96” x 120”, 2007

An interior exhibit room contains paintings about gorillas and apes, interesting wall text about Schorr’s lifelong interest in apes and, in the center, a life-size, gold-plated gorilla skeleton holding a palette and brushes. The huge painting, Ape Worship, dominates the room. As in his other large works, the pictorial space is filled up with imagery relating to its subject; repeated King Kong film stills, exotic fantasies associated with white African hunters and explorers, silver back gorillas as circus attractions and embodiments of evil and power, and giant apes as a force of nature. Schorr included an image of himself as a boy watching King Kong on a small black and white TV. That initial cinematic introduction was the genesis of Schorr’s lifelong interest in fictional and actual gorillas and African exploration. No cautionary tale here. A viewer can get lost in the nostalgia and the exotica and at the same time sense the close evolutionary ties between humans and apes. Schorr painted several works about Carl Akeley, and the first gorilla Akeley killed while he was in Africa, as an employee of the American Museum of Natural History. These works all show an amazing image of the gorilla’s head rendered in dripping blood, floating above a jungle orchid. According to Schorr, Akeley stopped hunting gorillas and was haunted ever after by the human-like features of the dead gorilla.

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An Ape Allegory, acrylic on canvas, 72” x 62”, 2008

This room also contains the work, An Ape Allegory. A large ape, maybe benign, maybe not, wearing a fuzzy, pink bunny costume offers a large purple spotted egg from its Easter basket, to a tiny, cute cartoon girl. She is wide-eyed and apprehensive because of the spiky and soft forms emerging from a crack in the egg. A strange alien Santa zooms by in a beat-up red and white rocket. This scene is staged in a tropical prehistoric landscape with a crucified gorilla high upon a rocky ape-shaped mountain in the distance. The narrative in this work is wide open. Schorr mixes religious holiday symbols, science fiction cartoons, and fairy tales together and drags meaning through the evolutionary mud. The Easter bunny and Santa long made familiar and harmless by Hallmark and market forces, are revived; subversive, distorted and denying the calendar. Pushed together and combined in this magical fantasy, one is inclined to reassess their meaning. Is the Easter bunny actually a giant, rather frightening, and possibly poisonous myth, and to whom? What exactly does Santa represent and how does a contemporary Santa get around the globe?

The notorious painting, The Clash of Holidays, shows an Easter bunny and a Santa locked in deadly combat, in a landscape half winter and half spring. The outcome of this battle may be moot, however, as baby Jesus, also in the scene, is sitting in the snow and eating the ear from a chocolate bunny. The birthday boy rules in holiday land.

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Antidote for a Worrisome World, acrylic on panel, 10” x 8”, 2008

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Origin, acrylic on panel, 7” x 5”, 2006

The Schorr retrospective also includes many small paintings. These are enchanting works, usually depicting one or two odd characters in a fairly open space. Each one is an invitation to explore and delight in the fetishization of weird; in luxurious combinations of body and machine parts and goo, in lack of gravity, in the sinister and intriguing outcome of a love story, in the solitary contemplation of a damaged world by an otherworldly being, in portraits of sliced djinns and monster trees as biblical landmarks, and in cartoon bumblers bringing down really ugly bishops.

Schorr sees himself as a sort of seer, a well-informed interpreter of the pop culture scene, especially as presented and controlled by American media. He invites viewers to indulge their nostalgia for innocent time spent in front of a TV, and exposes those times as fraught with danger, subversion, and deception. Although I described viewers engaged in discussion before these paintings, I find these crowded apotropaic paintings so like the creativity-suffocating power of television, that they become the beast. These didactic works command attention and obedience to the cautionary message. I go nowhere from there. What I think of as art does not dictate one truth about the world, or the world of television culture. The best art in this show are the small provocative works and the paintings that disturb and invite individual interpretation. When Todd Schorr moves through and past advertising and TV images the bizarre, humorous, subversive and challenging result creates a surface gap, a slippage in space, for the viewer’s unexpected thoughts to move in and stay awhile.

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When Fairy Tales Collide, acrylic on canvas, 72” x 60”, 2009

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