In a world flooded with anxiety about everything from crude in the gulf, to melting ice caps, SUV bombers, global bankruptcy and anything else our 24-hour access to news can fan into a panic, Todd Schorr’s lush paintings read like the Mad Magazine of contemporary angst. Irreverent and hyper, his large, beautifully painted images enthrall the eye with superb detail and drawing, then unspool fantastic tales as nutty as they are uncomfortable. Cumulatively they form a satire of contemporary paranoia: disturbing yet seductively entertaining.
Part of the familiarity we feel with Schorr’s emotional terrain comes from the way he mashes up icons of advertising and Western Culture to breed his color saturated climates of hostility or wild panic. “Clash of Holidays” pits a snarling, knife slasher of an Easter Bunny against an ax wielding Santa in a sharp-edged spring/winter landscape. Surrounding these mythic figures reworked as homicidal antagonists are more benign holiday symbols witnessing the scene as wide eyed spectators. At Santa’s foot a small, naked, cupie doll baby Jesus, wearing a crown of thorns dripping with blood, makes cheerful eye contact with the viewer while contentedly chewing the ear off a chocolate rabbit.
Like a dream that re-presents things we recognize in ways that don’t make sense to the conscious mind, Schorr’s works are usually unsettling. Sometimes it’s the depicted narrative that is frightening, but often it’s the common symbols he uses that key up a conflicting emotional language. He gives us mutating, fierce gorillas the intimidating size of King Kong, only wearing fuzzy pink bunny suits. Sometimes beloved cartoon characters from childhood are reconstituted as powerful, many-faced and -armed deities that provoke us to flash flip between reactions of delight, terror, amusement and dismay.
But Schorr’s images, for all their fantasy and cartoon-indebted strangeness, also resonate clearly as thoughtful ruminations on humanity’s follies and foibles. “Into the Valley of Finks and Weirdoes” pays visual homage to that original lowbrow artist Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. It’s a dense congestion of cartoon monster surfers and drugged out hot rod characters in a crazy, car culture landscape of leering Bob’s Big Boy signage and iconic “Rat Fink” abandon. Pointedly perhaps, the adolescent enthusiasm for that portion of outsider American art history is ramped up to an incredibly frantic level. Schorr’s vast assemblage of flying bloodshot eyeballs and weird cartoon denizens spewing flames floods the pictorial plane, pressing forward as if to pour out in our laps. The composition, with its frolicking populace aligned in tiered layers framing oversized central figures produces echoes of Hieronymus Bosch’s famous triptych, “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” But this is a barren, wild and insane Valley of Destruction, marked by sights more hellish and nightmarish than delightful.
It’s the way Schorr tosses off cultural and art historical associations like subliminal footnotes or insider jokes that gives his work its laid back assurance and psychological punch. Like the audience of the “Daily Show” with Jon Stewart, the more trivia and socio-political chatter you’ve amassed the more the presented content resonates. That echo connects us to popular feelings of a society gone awry, innocence corrupted and “danger, danger, Will Robinson” as being everywhere. But because Schorr’s Pop Symbolist paintings are beautiful – glazed and glowing with techniques that recall Old Master painters from Salvador Dali to Jan van Eyck – his message of ongoing contemporary distrust and social panic feels surprisingly old. Tying present day crisis paranoia to history leads to thoughts of a human, emotional heritage of fear about survival and immanent destruction. Schorr’s images seem to prod us to consider the absurdity and pointlessness of panic now, even as they keep whipping the froth of what we worry about. Perhaps the only sane answer to all that manipulation IS a longer perspective. Which leads inevitably to Mad Magazine icon Alfred E. Neuman’s smiling question, “What, me worry?”
[Note: Schorr also opens an exhibition of his giclée prints during June at Merry Karnowsky Gallery in the Miracle Mile district of Los Angeles—Ed.]
Published courtesy of ArtSceneCal ©2010