One of the problems with art that riffs on the products of popular culture is that it rarely does more than scratch the celluloid surface. In most cases, cultural icons such as cartoon characters are presented to the viewer with deliberate, detached blandness, designed to elicit ironic, knowing, huffs and sneers.
Todd Schorr, whose exhibition titled American Surreal is on view through September 16, 2009 at the San Jose Museum of Art, is the sort of artist whose work makes you gasp. His intricately detailed acrylic-on-canvas paintings drill deep beneath the surfaces of his familiar subjects, creating Daliesque scenes that suggest an autopsy gone terribly wrong at Toontown General, where a shipment of leaking ether bottles has caused the visions before us to swirl and morph, at once impossibly beautiful and hideously grotesque.
The show begins with a collection of paintings and smaller pieces from the 1990s. Do yourself a favor and return to these early pieces after you complete your tour of the exhibition. That way you'll fully appreciate the arc of Schorr's work (more on that later). One piece, "She Was Charmed By His Outward Appearance," 1993, depicts an elegant woman in white accompanied by a dapper man in a well-tailored suit. He is showing her around his well-appointed domicile, and she is so charmed by him and everything he seems to stand for that she does not even notice the peeling paint on the walls, let alone the fact that his upper body is connected to a single, thick tentacle that leads to another room. There a leering, toothy, drooling creature lays in wait, presumably to devour this latest victim of its humanoid appendage's wiles.
In this painting and others like "Greetings from Boney Island," 1992, every square millimeter of Schorr's surfaces are lovingly caressed by the artist's fine brush. No detail is too mundane, be it the cracks in a piece of fading plastic to the day-glo orange flames that have exploded where the bumper cars of two skeletons enjoying a day out at the amusement park have collided.
This is all brilliant stuff, and an absolute joy to behold, but Schorr outdoes himself in paintings such as "The Spectre of Cartoon Appeal," 2000, "A Pirate's Treasure Dream," 2006, and "Parade of the Damned," 2004. In the first piece, Schorr has created a cartoon version of Vishnu sporting the heads of Tex Avery's Wolf, Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse, and E.C. Segar's Popeye. Fire combusts spontaneously around this three-headed hydra, while a distorted and maniacal Koko the Clown invites us into the spectacle like a carny at a sideshow.
As it happens, there's a sideshow here, too, a pair of them, in fact. Elsewhere in the painting, mechanical toys and fever-dream versions of cartoon characters have come to life. Anchoring the piece, at the base of Schorr's cartoon Vishnu, is a bleary-eyed Betty Boop, who stares back at us like a drunk on day-eight of a wicked bender. And standing before her, taking it all in, is a small boy (the artist, we may assume), his back to us and a book titled "Toon Art" in his young hands. Capturing this scene is the lad's challenge. Schorr, it turns out, is more than up to it.
The rest of the exhibition continues in this vein, with painting after painting of such bewildering complexity and intensity that absorbing absolutely everything may cause heads to explode. There are lovely small pieces like "Extinction of a Love Affair," 2003, in which a busty and curvaceous cat has just sent her ex-lover, a dog, to his doom in the La Brea Tar Pits. I just loved the look of terror in his bulldog eyes as his human hands futilely clutch at thin air. There's also a gallery devoted to several ape paintings, the centerpiece of which is "Ape Worship," 2008, which features four different versions of King Kong battling T-Rex on Skull Island (there's the event itself, a gorilla painting a cubist version of the scene, a magician conjuring puppets engaged in the same fight, and Schorr as a young boy watching the black-and-white original on an old TV).
Which brings us to that arc I mentioned earlier. If the pieces at the beginning of the exhibition are like one-liners, it's sort of the same thing by the show's end. But instead of filling every last pinpoint of his paintings with detail, Schorr is content to tell one story well, and to let that story play itself out against, say, an expanse of sky. The result is a level of focus that pieces like "Spectre" and "Treasure Dream" lack. Which is not to say that one is preferable to another -- they are just different. I found plenty to love in all phases of Schorr's career. In fact, I may risk my own exploding head and go back for a second or third look.
Todd Schorr: American Surreal runs through September 16, 2009 at San Jose Museum of Art. For information, visit sjmusart.org.