New York

Jim Torok

Bill Maynes Gallery

In a 1970 interview, Chuck Close affirmed a statement made by art historian Ernst Gombrich: “The problem of illusionist art is not that of forgetting what we know about the world. It is rather inventing compositions that work.” Close’s tightly controlled early portraits of art-world folk make for an obvious, though ultimately unsatisfying, comparison to Jim Torok’s portraits of art-world folk in his “hi tech lo tech” exhibition. But if we understand “compositions” to include problems of scale, cropping, and markmaking in the context of the realist image, Gombrich’s statement is key to Torok’s sensibility.

A consummate draftsman with a split personality, Torok makes tiny, exquisitely detailed likenesses in oil and graphite; he also draws touchingly crude cartoons. Like Close, he works from photographs, combining extreme scale with painstaking surface. Both of these artists use the human visage as a means to engage the photographic double whammy of mimetic accuracy and abstract flatness. But unlike Close, Torok does not make monumental claims for his hands-on approach. Pocket-size and paired with his goofy “lo tech animations,” his portraits are insouciant, gregarious; they function best in a crowd. Rather than rely on photography per se, they compose themselves along the sequential, frame-after-frame lines of the movies.

The “hi tech” part of the show took up two rooms: In one, twelve exactingly realized oil paintings were presented; in the other, five pencil drawings and three earlier oils. Cropped at conventional bust length, mostly frontal and deadpan, Torok’s subjects are locked in the isolating frame of the mug shot. There is a passport-photo pathos to this, but, as installed, the faces didn’t look lonesome. The two groups of works were hung in eye-level quasi friezes, like filmstrip frames unspooling horizontally. Specific in features, uniform in presentation, the faces seemed in colloquy, animating each other while remaining individual. The comparative physicality of the paintingswhich are done on inch-thick archival polymer board and thus project a bit from the wall brought a further dynamism to their presence, emphasizing the variation between the two bodies of work: color versus black and white, paint versus pencil, block versus paper.

Like Jan van Eyck’s angels and burghers or Vija Celmins’s household appliances Torok’s “hi tech” faces are built up with such attention to surface that a cool privacy tempers their intimate address. This effect was balanced, though, by the “lo tech” side of the exhibition. Here the play between still and moving image was primary, and intimacy occurred in a whole other register.

Torok is one of a growing number of artists emerging from the inimitable Pierogi 2000 gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where his “lo tech animation” slide-show performances are already something of a legend. In the back gallery, a continuous fifteen-minute slide-show loop played such classics as Running Man (big-nosed figure locomotes forward step by clunky step) and The Airplane Trip (the plane crashes, slowly). Playing id to the portraits’ ego, the cartoons are a core aspect of Torok’s artistic personality. Their inspired silliness turns the whole idea of illusion into a joke, but the joke is funny precisely because the illusion holds. In Gombrich’s terms, Torok has hit on workable compositions, not only within but across his media.

Frances Richard