Jim Torok: Life Is Good
Torok's contrasting images of realism and cartoon abstraction show us both his life and his constructed idealized self
Reviewed by Rachel Cook, Fri., June 6, 2008
'Jim Torok: Life Is Good'
Lora Reynolds Gallery, through June 7
Jim Torok's current show at Lora Reynolds is filled with slogans that also appear in the aisles of the self-help section at your local bookstore. "You Are Good," "Have Faith in Your Self," "Life Is Good," "You Are Perfect," "Do Not Be Too Afraid," "Be Yourself," and "You Are Really Great" surround you in the main space of the gallery as if to give you this sense of relief when it really creates this forced sense of encouragement.
Torok's cartoon figures, loosely painted on rice paper, don't really make you think, "Life Is Good," as the exhibition title suggests; most humans need continuous reassurance to make that statement true. But though I don't believe the artist's drawings are intended to sway the viewer into believing the statements they present, I like the manner in which they are presented. Each drawing has cartoon figures similar to the round ball that bounces around in the Zoloft commercial, except that these figures have more facial features (including long, floppy noses) and seem more authentic, instead of something fabricated by a pharmaceutical company. The cartoonlike figures are also reminiscent of David Shrigley's humorous but disturbing black-and-white animations or his instructional drawings. Shrigley uses his figures to describe something slightly more obscure and a bit disturbing, and each animation leaves the viewer hanging slightly because nothing gets resolved. In addition to the cartoonlike figures, Torok uses instructional text within each piece, making them resemble the posters in your doctor's office that tell you to eat well and exercise. The text is placed across the top of the paper, with either flowers or a smiley face underneath the reassuring slogan.
The rest of the show includes two types of paintings: storyboard cartoon narratives, each with a slogan at the top, and portraits of Torok's peers. The latter, rendered in 5-inch-by-4-inch squares, are very detailed, and the people in the paintings really do resemble their subjects. Performance artist and current UT faculty member Mike Smith is drawn to a T, with his dopey, sullen expression and every hair sitting so perfectly still on his head. Torok has maintained these seemingly disparate bodies of work for quite some time, but how they come from the same person is puzzling at first.
Torok's personality does not seem to provoke any thoughts concerning split personalities, yet both bodies of work reveal aspects of the same artist's life. The cartoonlike or abstract images reveal the process of the artist struggling in his construction of an idealized self – the image that each individual builds of the life he or she would like or should be in order to be acceptable. Torok uses two contrasting artistic techniques (abstraction/realism) to illustrate the vantage points of his life and his constructed self. The idealized self is a romanticized portrait built on exaggerated self-expectations, but since the intimate, realistic portraits portray some of Torok's actual peers and friends, in a way their presence makes his abstract constructions become more real.