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Surreal Killer

My, how times have changed. About two years ago, the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood gave us a wonderfully outrageous group show called "Lowbrow Art: Up From the Underground." Among the many potentially controversial pieces included was Anthony Ausgang's Why Walk When You Can Drive?

I described the painting in detail: "It's an acrylic on canvas with a small, cartoonish Jesus trudging along a road carrying his cross. In the background there's a flashy car customized with flame stripes, while a few feet behind Jesus stands a tall rabbit a bit reminiscent of the very early Bugs Bunny, holding out the keys to the car. In the middle of the sky above, a scowling cat with wings extends his middle finger toward the forlorn Jesus."

To my surprise, the show came and went with little fanfare. Now, the Art and Culture Center presents "Secret Mystic Rites: Todd Schorr Retrospective," and one relatively innocuous piece, showing a knife fight between Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, creates a major stir (see Strouse).

How innocuous was this painting? I spent more than an hour going through the show, and I don't even remember seeing the piece. The rest of the exhibition, however, made quite an impression.

For Schorr, American popular culture is a vast warehouse waiting to be ransacked. Nothing is safe (or, for that matter, sacred). Comic books, cartoons, advertisements, low-budget science fiction films, pulp fiction -- all these and more are plundered for their lurid imagery, then given a subversive spin.

The head of Elvis Presley sits atop the body of an eel for Eelvis (1989), with that body then morphing back into human form -- a scrawny torso clad in bikini briefs and trailing off into a pair of distorted, elongated feet. A tiny, naked Olive Oyl stands in the bottom right corner of The Sailor Man (1989), perhaps trying to make sense of what has become of her beloved Popeye. The giant head in the center of the image certainly has the general contours of Popeye's head, although the details are nothing if not disturbing: The flesh is peeled back to reveal the teeth. An oversize eyeball boasts three irises. The nose is suggested by something resembling a bulbous cactus. The corncob pipe belches smoke that curls into skeletal shapes. And poor Popeye's famous chin has been transformed into a pair of veiny, hairy testicles.

Not surprisingly, the mainstream art world has never known quite what to make of artists like Schorr. And so, their work has been dismissed as "lowbrow art," thus absolving anyone with good taste and sophistication of any obligation to take it seriously. The implication seems to be that an artist of real talent and intellect would never squander his time and energy on something such as Schorr's Burger Deluxe (1997), in which Popeye's moocher sidekick, Wimpy ("I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today"), munches on one of his trademark treats, blissfully unaware that he's naked and that his innards are spilling out.

"Secret Mystic Rites," which takes up the entire first floor of the museum, includes nearly 50 pieces by Schorr, a few in pencil on paper but most in acrylic on canvas or paper. The next gallery, the museum's smallest, features the show's handful of works in pencil on paper. As we'll see later, most of these are preliminary studies for larger versions of the same material executed in acrylic. There's also an artist's statement posted in which Schorr explains that he prefers to call what he does "cartoon realism," for lack of a better term.

In what I think is one of the most telling comments in his statement, Schorr writes, "If I were painting in the 1930s my work would be considered "Surrealist,' plain and simple." That's a perfect characterization of at least some of Schorr's work. Pig Skin Glory (2001), for instance, traffics in the strange juxtapositions of surrealism. A giant skull that seems to grow out of the ground wears an old-fashioned football helmet, with a nude woman perched atop it and a bongo-playing skeleton hovering nearby on a magic carpet. To the right of the skull, standing upright on its rear feet, is a pig whose body has been flayed. A similarly skinned cow stands in the distance.

Elsewhere in Schorr's work, the influence of Salvador Dalí is evident. Four horsemen in the background of Romantic Notions of the Mysterious East (1993) echo the riders in Dalí's The Battle of Tétuan, and two of Schorr's titles -- The Spectre of Monster Appeal (2000) and The Spectre of Cartoon Appeal (2000) -- recall Dalí's The Spectre of Sex Appeal. (I wish the show had included one of Schorr's most striking pieces, 5 O'Clock Shadow in Disney-Dalí Land, which has the two men's gigantic heads facing off in a wildly surreal landscape.) And like Dalí, Schorr is a meticulous, technically skilled painter.

Ultimately, though, the surrealist label is inadequate to sum up Schorr's work, and not just because he draws so heavily on pop iconography. The original surrealists emphasized the imagery of dreams and the subconscious; Schorr's work is more concrete. Sometimes, it really is just a garish conglomeration of clutter, but more often, its playfulness masks commentary.

Take the monumental canvas The Hydra of Madison Avenue (2001), for example. This busy composition includes so many icons from the world of advertising that it's easy to get distracted by trying to identify them: the Green Giant, Mr. Clean, Colonel Sanders, Buster Brown and Tige, Aunt Jemima, Captain Crunch, to name just a few of the dozens and dozens that populate the picture.

Step back for a moment, however, and you'll realize that Schorr may be celebrating this cornucopia of advertising imagery, but he's also criticizing it. The painting's overabundance is an observation of how saturated with meaningless content our pop culture has become.

As he describes himself in his artist's statement, Schorr is "a human being attempting to communicate ideas through pictures. I have chosen to work in a very specific narrative fashion that I feel carries its message clearly through images I have carefully depicted on a flat surface using paint and brushes and imagination." What's so lowbrow about that?

After the exhilarating imagery and technical accomplishments of Schorr's work, it's something of a letdown to venture upstairs at the Art and Culture Center to take in "Reva Freedman: One Woman Show." The exhibition includes 50 mixed-media pieces by the Aventura-based artist, who was a classically trained violinist and retired psychologist when she turned to art three decades ago.

The posted introduction to the show attempts to link Freedman to art brut ("raw art"), the term French artist Jean Dubuffet coined in 1945 to characterize the work of children, mental patients, and naïve artists. That's a stretch. There's a depressing sameness to these paintings, most of which, appropriately enough, are untitled -- they don't seem to be about much of anything except glorified doodling. On the other hand, there's nothing in this show even remotely likely to offend.

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Michael Mills

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