Jim Torok: Life is Good

What appears to be an incongruous two-person exhibition at Lora Reynolds Gallery is really the product of one mentally ambidextrous artist. 

The hyper-realist portraiture and the cartoon about the good life are both by the one and only Jim Torok. Anyone unfamiliar with the work of this Brooklyn artist would naturally think the images were by different people. It’s not often that an artist produces and presents such disparate styles of work, but that’s what Torok does. In previous reviews, he has been referred to as schizophrenic. I’ll admit the artist is cursed with a satirical sense of humor, but he is far more clever than mad. In talking with the artist, one discovers Torok’s sophisticated capacity to tell stories — both from his imagination and from what he so thoroughly and carefully observes around him.

Torok’s work has been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. But Torok credits Lora Reynolds for being the first person to show his “signs” in a formal gallery setting. Reynolds picked up on this body of work a year ago during a studio visit. Torok had been playing around with the cultural phenomenon of self help books and workplace motivational posters. He thought it would be funny to make some of his own.

Torok is probably best known for his cartoons, and his signs, which fill the gallery’s main exhibition space, draw on similar imagery. Done on rice paper, the childlike drawings are inked with positive affirmations and phrases designed to make the viewer feel good about life — You are Really Great, You are Perfect, Have Faith in Yourself, You are Special and You are Free were all created in 2007. Torok paints these words in calligraphic yet naïve strokes, using basic, bright colors with heavy black outlines.

Do Not Be Too Afraid, (2007)


Torok’s cartoon work embraces the idea that artwork can talk, with or without words. He often combines the simplest of drawings to illustrate the words that may very well be spoken by a little voice in his head. Or is it our heads? Like greeting cards, Torok’s phrases are positive, bold and immediate. Just a few simple words and a cute little drawing can snuff out the self doubt, contradictions and anxiety living in the wings of our subconscious. No, Torok’s not drinking the Kool-Aid, he’s giving you a wink and offering you a cup.

If Torok’s words on rice paper don’t relieve the tension in your shoulders, viewers can also spend time with his video piece You are Good (2003). This work is featured on a flat panel monitor that hangs on one wall at eye level. The animation is comprised of a dome-headed, large-nosed cartoon face that speaks in Torok’s recorded voice. The character looks straight at you from the other side of the screen and says, “you are good” in a somewhat Midwestern accent.

Despite Torok’s interest in cartoons, he’s also seriously involved in the tradition of formal, highly realist portraiture. When listening to the artist talk about his varying styles, it becomes evident that Torok has mastered his ability to completely and effectively switch mental gears, tackling the small, elegant portraits with the same degree of conviction as the signs.

In the middle room of the gallery are six portraits, all of them 4”x5”, evenly spaced into two rows of three. The six faces are ones you may recognize as those of famous contemporary artists. Two of the paintings are of Ed Ruscha, two are of Jim Hodges and one is of Mike Smith (current professor of Performance Art at UT ). Torok presents these diverse artists in the same, neutral way. They are equally expressionless in their stance and demeanor, as if they lack emotions or anything important to say. The deadpan presentation of his subjects replicates that found in photographs from the Becher School and German photographer Thomas Ruff. Like Ruff, Torok attempts to represent his subjects with “absolute objectivity.” However, where Ruff creates larger than life-sized “passport style” photographs that look like paintings, Torok paints passport-sized portraits that look like photographs.

Be Yourself, (2007)


Torok’s approach to painting portraits is diametrically opposed to his cartooning. He never knows what’s going to be recorded on the pages and panels of his cartoon stories and signs; they always begin once he decides on a title or a phase. The supporting words and images are a product of Torok’s stream of consciousness. His portraits, on the other hand, are created only after he carefully studies his subject’s face from detailed photographs, down to the last line and pore. Each portrait can take one or more years to complete. This stretch of time allows Torok to regularly alternate the pictures he works on and provides him with the flexibility to focus on cartoons for a few hours each day.

Other works in the show present affirmational phrases painted in acrylic on large wooden panels. They are composed like Torok’s classic storyboard narratives from previous years. Reynolds and her staff have also collected other Torok artifacts for visitors, including a video of the low-tech animation performance the artist gave at the opening reception.

The separateness of theme and approach so evident in Torok’s works is reiterated in how the exhibition is arranged. I wonder, however, what the exhibition would have conveyed had the portraits and signs been hung together. As it is, the exhibition highlights the spontaneity in the cartoon works and the attention to detail and observation in the portraiture. Viewers will leave with the impression that Torok is both an actor and a producer. He’s capable of both channeling his thoughts through improvisation and animation while articulating the minute details of how he sees the world. Torok is a skeptic with the very best of intentions.

Jim Torok: Life is Good
Lora Reynolds Gallery
April 26 – June 7, 2008

Angella Emmett is an Austin-based artist and writer.

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No responses to “Jim Torok: Life is Good”

  1. I just talked at length with Lizzie last night (at Angstrom’s resurrection) about her performance at the opening, which sounded incredible. She’s great, but I fear we’re about to lose her to New York. Happily, we’re lucky enough to own a couple of her pieces to remember her by!

  2. Sir, You are misinformed.

    I am part of Donna Huanca’s management team, and as such, it is my beholden duty to disabuse you of a few misbegotten notions.

    First of all, it is in no way true that Ms Huanca could not ‘get it together’ as you say. She had it together and then she in turn took it apart with the help of her collaborators. You make her seem like some kind of “Britney Spear” or “Linseed Lohan” whereas she is more akin to the Winchester Cathedral or the “Harlem Globetrotter” of having it together.

    Suffice it to say, you could learn a lot about working from working around Donna Huanca. She has a keen eye for the rising talent, as was made manifest by her decision to enlist the aid of various friends. More to the point, Lizzie Wetzel is a sharp shooter. Learn how to shoot sharp before you resume sniping, dear sir, and the world will thank you for it.

    Furthermore, Owleyes is a respected, albeit, exceedingly private artist in his own right. In fact, he has a solo show opening tonight at Artstorm Houston that Bill Davenport mentioned a few months ago.

    Have you ever heard of lazer eggs? No, I thought not.

    Lastly, please bring yourself up to speed with your understanding of our legal system. Diminishing Returns has been overturned at both the state and the federal level.

    Seasons Greetings!

    Ted Sands

  3. Rave and Voodoo aesthetics aside, I still have a pounding headache from this opening, and I’m not allergic to incense. Of the four lackluster openings advertised on Glasstire that night Huanca’s show was definitely the most memorable. Let here understand that memory is a biological adaptation for storing information enabling the holder to avoid dangerous pitfalls and recognize potential signs of impending predation. I don’t mean to come off half cocked on this, and I’ve certainly been to worse showings, but there is an expectation, which by now should be laughable, that a space with an ostensibly prestigious reputation would find a way to show work a touch less evocative of a coloring book filled in by a frustrated fourth grader. Granted, we are in the midst of this Post Modern period (or are we Post Post Modern?), and so must righteously elevate chunks of felt to the status of High Art, but hmmmm…, must we? I know that skill and talent are supposed to be cliché in these enlightened times, but can we meet somewhere in the middle (while cutting out the dregs so that average is at least palatable)?

    It seems I’ve missed the boat, and while I’ve been sniffing around for three dollars worth of quarters and a payphone to put them in, Art as a concept has become merely a backdrop for a ridiculous party, and in this case a shabbily constructed backdrop for a party on par with a funeral march. More free wine please!

    I am being harsh. This rant isn’t entirely directed at this show or even the Austin scene in general. There are just as many polished turds opening up in Dallas and Seattle and New York. Standards of artistic production are dismal everywhere and it is exceedingly difficult to find artists who can successfully combine talent and skill with intelligence and dignity, and who even looks for integrity? Truthfully though, and without exaggeration, five minutes is all I could take in this installation setting, so I took ten and left with a mild headache for what turned out to be a few bright spots among smudges at Mt. Okay. Can we stop glorifying (dignifying) mediocrity so we can get to the good stuff?

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