Jim Torok – and interchangeably Jim Torok’s work – has been described as being schizophrenic, or having a split personality, or simply, insane. And indeed, these are all apt ways of talking about his latest show at Pierogi. Consisting of – yes – portrait and clown paintings, his show Portraits and Clowns, is funny and sad, and not in a shallow way. While this duality might seem simplistic or too easy, in Torok’s work, it succeeds as a dialectical but well rehearsed narrative of contemporary society – one in which the emotional rawness rendered in the portraits is paralleled in the emotionally crude cartoon-like clowns.
The first part of the show consists of twelve small portrait paintings of ordinary (read: white), everyday people. They could be your friend’s father and your neighbor’s kid, the public school librarian, or the guy who runs the bike shop. The exquisite miniature portraits, painted in oil on thick, blocky panels, are careful studies that render his subjects as real and life-like, displaying his impeccable draftsman skills. They are photo-realistic, and have a glow reminiscent of 17th century Flemish painting, without apology or irony. Joanna stares out at you calmly with piercing blue eyes – as do all of them, Caroline, Blake, Jane, even Jos with his white tank top, close shaven hair, and one small hoop earring. They are direct, unthreatening, calm, safe. The pictures are tender and heart-felt, but as pocket-size, toy-block objects, they are also conversely silly, goofy, and somewhat unbelievable: they are not as perfect as they seem.
In the room behind these small portraits are Torok’s clown paintings. In direct contrast to the clean and tidy miniature portraits, these acrylic paintings are large, expressive, spontaneous, and loud. These gestural, caricature-like works could be said to represent the other side of Torok’s personality. This is the side that is sarcastic and insecure, obsessed with self-critique, unable to get out of the feeling of white, middle-class guilt, and the feeling that such an existence in the suburbs is not as normal as it seems. The paintings are child-like, and verge on the pop-culture myth of the clown as the every-alter-ego (the scary crazy clown, the sad clown, the happy clown), and announce such self-affirming statements (a la “Daily Affirmations with Stuart Smalley”) as “Things will get better someday,” “You are a vibrant human being,” and “You are a sensitive caring person,” and “Don’t give up OK.”
In some regards, the clown paintings are reductive in their pop-psychology, but this simplicity is deceptive. Working against and with and for the small portraits that hang so quietly in the other room, the paintings all told alternate between total acceptance and utter rejection of the contradictory world of both alienation and rage, community and complacency. It is a befuddling place to be, one that seems to be neatly summed up by the explanation in one clown painting, “Life is OK Except for the Clowns.”
Images: Suspicious Clown (2010), Acrylic on panel, 14 x 12 inches; Caroline (2010), Oil on panel, 4 5/8 x 3 5/8 inches; Life Is OK, Except for the Clowns (2010), Acrylic on panel, 36 x 38 inches. Courtesy Pierogi.