The Todd Schorr show at the San Jose Museum of Art is an assault. The artist grabs you and wrings you out, then you stagger away, dazed. Mr. Schorr is important, a fact nicely recognized by the SJMA in this very large solo show, which gathers paintings from a myriad of collections, such as that of Leonardo DeCaprio. This retrospective features works as far back as the mid-80s, I seem to recall, with a brief stop in the early 1990s with some mid-size pieces, before dashing forward at breakneck speed into the 21st century. Mr. Schorr’s style is cohesive throughout, and the early pieces are just as well realized as anything from the past few, highly productive, years. I stared in amazement at the prodigious, sheer 1930s, Indiana Jones-style realism in all its glory. Mr. Schorr is a hell of a painter.
The artist’s bold declaration of his infatuation with carny-pop American culture, a lot of it beamed down from the TV universe, is a theme that grows more lush from the early paintings to the latest. Schorr is like the Quentin Tarantino of this style of painting - both expressing their boundless luv for the B-movie aesthetic. I happen to like B-movies, in part because of this joking-at-the-gates-of-hell style. Truly, nothing exceeds like excess. Especially likeable excess, and Schorr’s work is nothing if not likeable.
My initial reaction was professional admiration for the scale and imagination and detail of the work. Damn, I thought, this is masterful stuff. I started with the older material in the right-side gallery, then moved counterclockwise around to the more recent but not the newest pictures. Finally, a room is devoted to the really massive, quite recent paintings. The effect of this journey is to go from a more playful, open approach to progressively more populated, vegetated, mythic landscapes with dozens of humans, gorillas ( a lot of gorillas, and they are great), snakes and whatever. It reaches a crescendo with the ten-foot long 2009 masterwork called Ape Worship. You’ve no doubt seen this. It was featured in the recent Hi Fructose magazine article on Todd Schorr.
It’s magnum opus time for a lot of the top painters in this genre. There’s big money coming out of the woodwork for these wall-sizers, because they are so impossibly HIP, and what’s more, they are really god-damned good! Hollywood and Upper East Side money has arrived on the scene, and their voracious jaws are being fed. It’s a great competition to have, don’t you think?
Psyched as I was, a malaise dropped down on me as I walked from room to room to room. I was getting tired of carny. I was getting saturated on painted homilies to 50’s hero TV and commercial toys. Schorr’s smaller paintings, of which there were too few, offered some respite. They tended to be portraits of creatures - perhaps studies for characters in the full-size docudramas. Over all, the virtuosity of the painting kept me interested, but the obsession was wearing me down.
Before I go, there is the small matter of that sticky wicket into which Todd Schorr gets dumped: he’s pegged as an ‘American Surrealist.’ First, I never thought surrealism, the art that is, had any kind of localization. It ain’t a Euro thing, dude, although there is a highly active European surrealist community that features a lot of superior academy painting style suffused with angels, naked women and other unlikely stuff happening in the sky. The moniker “Pop Surrealism” is even more trashy and useless. These days, the surrealism label is starting to nibble at the margins of so-called ‘visionary art, mythical art, folk art, art brut, outsider art’ and on and on. Is anything with a measure of fantasy content now surrealist? One thing I know: surrealism is back in style, big time. Just the name surrealist in a show will bring in the crowds. Is surrealism big enough to gather all of these children under its wings? This could be a good fight to energize the art crit bunch!
I had to get some air. Two other shows at the museum were just the counterpoint. The small Alexander Calder exhibit was a distilled essence of Calder - perfect, in fact. A small sampling of his graphic works on paper were every bit as wonderful as the dozen or more small mobiles - the museum attendant was at her most charming as she asked me to refrain from blowing on the mobiles to get them moving. Obviously I wasn’t the first to violate such a rule - but hey, the sign said no touching, not no breathing! Only later did I realize what I liked about it so much - other than the excellence of Calder’s works: it was completely devoid of any reference to mass culture. Each shape was perfect.
Then, around the corner was a third exhibit - called Variations on a Theme, described as “an expansive presentation of works by 30-40 contemporary artists, organized in thematic groupings which include the environment and sustainability; the urban landscape; stories of people and the body politic; labor-intensive artistic techniques; and faith and spirituality.” This was a mishmash of photos and paintings and whatnot, but I really liked it. There was something about urban urbanities and their negative effect on urban lifeforms in the urban zone. With SJMA Curator of Collections Susan Landauer providing the propulsion behind the Schorr exhibit, the SJMA has put itself on the map with this TKO three-way. Nice going!