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Todd Schorr

On the eve of his major retrospective, the master of twisted cartoon art talks mythology, monsters, apocalypse and more...

Todd Schorr has been at the forefront of the underground art scene for a quarter of a century, painting wild, psychotic and fantastical scenes that subvert the iconography of the American Dream. This summer his 25-year retrospective opens at the San Jose Museum of Modern Art. We caught up with him to talk about a lifetime of acid-soaked provocation...

Dazed Digital : When did you first begin to draw and what were your biggest influences?
Todd Schorr: I’ve been drawing as far back as I can remember, and I started to paint in oils when I was around nine years old. My biggest early influence was the 1933 film classic King Kong, which I first saw when I was about five. It was my first experience of being transported into a totally believable world of sustainable fantasy. I also enjoyed the early animated cartoons of Walt Disney and Max Fleischer  as well as comic books such as Mad and magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland. A little later, I took a real interest in prehistoric man and primitive cultures through the pages of National Geographic, and in high school I became deeply-influenced by the psychedelic rock posters and underground comics of the late 1960s. Early exposure to the Old Masters and the surrealists, especially Salvador Dali, also contributed to developing my visual vocabulary. 

DD: Is painting an act of catharsis for you?
 I get a tremendous amount of satisfaction out of the mental and physical act of painting and would certainly consider it cathartic. Whatever I’m painting, even when it's what might be considered disturbing by some viewers, always has a calming effect on me. It definitely takes me out of my physical surroundings and into an alternative world that I have total control over. I guess it would be similar to states of consciousness achieved through meditation or drugs. 

DD: What is your favourite mythological creature and why? 
 I don’t know whether I could pinpoint a favourite, but as a child I did have a real infatuation with the Abominable Snowman. This great book titled, Abominable Snowmen: Legend Come To Life by Ivan T Sanderson, came out in 1961. When I came across it in our school library, I was hooked. It didn't matter whether this thing was for real, they were great stories.

DD: When you approach a blank canvas do you have a clear idea of what you are going to paint or does the work begin to suggest itself to you via the process? 
 A little of both. There have been times when a fully-formed concept will come to mind and I’ll work that up into a finished pencil drawing that I can turn into a painting.  At other times, I may get a notion of an idea that just isn’t quite strong enough to turn into a satisfying scenario that I’d want to devote to a finished painting. Sometimes that notion will go nowhere or lay waiting for just the right ingredient to be added that will transform it into a fully-fleshed out idea. I’ve had rough ideas sitting around in sketch books for years that I’ll go back to and be able to recognise at a glance just what is needed to will turn that notion into something that works. It’s that 'eureka' moment that inventors always talk about. 

DD: What do you think of the tag 'lowbrow art'?
 Tags at some point become irrelevant because it’s always the specific artist that is actually remembered over time, so to me it really doesn’t matter. It’s a catch phrase that’s caught on and seems to have stuck, but I don’t think it has quite the negative connotation that it first had, when it was more a term of derision. Most artists within any given art movement hated the tags they were given in their time. The Impressionists felt being called “Impressionist” was extremely derisive and now who would even think that?

DD: Was it difficult to choose which works to exhibit in your forthcoming retrospective?
 It’s the curator Susan Landauer who is making those decisions. I’ve been advising her on certain choices, but for the most part, it’s her call. It’s been a real interesting experience to see how she perceives what's most important to include in the retrospective at The San Jose Museum Of Art. 

DD: As someone who has often subverted the iconography of consumerism, what is your take on the credit crisis?
 Capitalism in principle makes good common sense. Just as with many ideas, it is how individuals carry out those principles that will determine how well or terrible the outcome will turn out. Obviously, you’ve got a pack of scumbags that have been corn holing the system for some time now and this is the result. Sure, the blame can be levelled squarely on the backs of the big corporations responsible, but the consumer has obviously had a hand in this meltdown as well. Consumerism was obviously out of control and a lot of people had been living in a fairytale world they really could not afford. One of my biggest gripes with the world we live in right now is that very few people will take responsibility for their actions. Everyone is forever trying to weasel out of the corners they’re driven into and laying the blame onto someone or something else. I strongly believe that our world is guided by the thoughts and innovations of less than five per cent of the population while the rest of humanity is being dragged along content with their junk food and big screen TV. People really need to focus on the greater world around them and wake up out of this consumerist fog they’ve been wallowing in. Do you think  corporations would ever want people to actually 'go green'?  That’s just another feel good catchphrase that will eventually disappear along with the rest of us when overpopulation kicks into high gear. But that’s a whole other fun topic. 

DD: Why do you think we have a fascination with monsters? 
 Myths and stories about monsters have been told and enjoyed by people around the world for centuries. Most of our present day monsters that appear in popular culture here in America can trace their origins back to similar creatures found in Europe and Asia. Mankind is forever building on the stories and legends of previous generations and monsters are no exception. There is something in our DNA that delights in being scared or awestruck at the site of  an anomaly of nature. It’s the repulsion/fascination reflex and it’s deeply rooted in all of us. 

DD: Do any of your creations haunt your dreams? 
 I think because all of my most disturbing thoughts find their way into my conscious world, my subconscious tends to be calm and tranquil. So, for better or worse, my dreams are rather pleasant ones

This is an extended version of the article in the current issue of Dazed & Confused. Todd Schorr's retropective begins at the San Jose Museum of Art on June 27. Here, we have complied some of our favourite Todd Schorr paintings.
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