Cartoonist, Jim Torok, and ceramic sculptor, Jack Earl, at a glance appear to have nothing in common. Two generations apart, they work in different mediums, lived in diverse worlds in different parts of the country. In spite of incongruities, some things do connect. Both artists are attracted to the cartoon world, Torok, to tell stories through alter egos who expound, and rail against injustice, Earl, to bring to life the comic book super heroes that he loved, a theme he is re-visiting for this exhibition. Both artists have an identity beyond the cartoons; Torok, for his small beautiful, realistically painted portraits, and Earl for his funky, edgy, offbeat narrative sculptures.
Earl, the older of the two, began his career in 1968, invited to exhibit in the Everson Ceramic National, in Syracuse, where he caught the eye of Paul Smith, the director of the American Craft Museum (recently renamed Museum of Arts and Design) who gave Earl his first solo museum exhibition. This launched his career with collectors, and museums, and established his position as one of the important American ceramic artists. A wave of change was in the air, and this change created one of the most brilliant creative periods in contemporary American ceramics: Earl was a part of it, and an important contributor. Talented and independent he sought his own voice and found it initially through his twin sided tableaux relief sculptures that depicted scenes of lusty fun, struggle, and contemplation. Influenced by 18th century porcelain figurines the tableaux was hand-built, conjoined with cast parts, and unexpectedly finished with oil paint, rather than the usual fired glaze. Open, original, and thoughtful, Earl stirred the ceramic pot, nudging along liberating ideas.
Earl eventually moved on, creating small sculptural scenes in the round, followed by hand-built torsos that eventually became the comic book figures. Drawn to the nostalgia of the 40’s Earl began chasing down old comic books in second hand bookstores until he gradually had a line up of the 40’s figures he felt excited to make. Imposing, colorful, almost life size, Earl captured the essence of these fictional heroes, and Hollywood icons. In Comic Worlds Earl exhibits his unique ability to bring the two dimensional to sculptural life with his depictions of ‘Daisy May,’ ‘Lil Abner,’ and ‘Race Bannon’ to name a few.
Torok’s career, while shorter than Earls, dips into two pools of the art world, the ‘classic’ serious and technically precise portraiture as well as the more marginal ‘low’ art of comics and cartoons. He is a talented representational artist who meticulously details his portraits, exuding lifelike personality, yet in his comics he is able to show his personality. In Comic Worlds, Torok exhibits his witty, sarcastic yet earnest storyboards. Formatted like a comic book, Torok uses ink on paper to chronicle scenes from his day-to-day life as an artist. His work sometimes reads like a snapshot into particular frames of time, i.e. “New York Times Cover Stories, Oct. 6, 2006” or “Iran Says No Uranium for Bombs.” In the margins of his drawings he adds opinionated commentary about the media, and politics.
His work, small in scale, has an intimacy, which stems from the hand drawn, sketchy immediacy of the work. The storyboards are colorful, and blocked out imperfectly, with words crossed out and hurriedly written as if in a stream of conscious. The scenes are sometimes crude, yet fluid, as if the ideas being expressed trump the importance of the comic.
While at times political, Torok also depicts the mundane yet entertaining aspect of his life such as “Tuesday Night Chicken Wings” or “Last Trip To Indiana.” Torok’s observations are humorous, sometimes frustrated, views of current events and his life as an artist in New York. He often depicts himself as a rather goofy, large-nosed character in his storylines, listening to NPR, driving upstate, or out on the town. These scenes offer a glimpse into the inner psyche of an average citizen as interpreted through the familiar form of a cartoon.
Jack Earl and Jim Torok create art using different mediums, with different generational perspectives, and yet their work has a common thread that links them. Through colorful, humorous and thought-provoking narratives, Comic Worlds depicts the freedom and creativity that cartoons and graphic art allow for contemporary artists.
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