Atomic Cocktail: The Psychedelic Synthesis of Pop Culture

by | Oct 7, 2018 | ART

A leading artist of the 1980s “Lowbrow” movement is visiting Virginia, and his exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) is his first solo show in almost a decade. Todd Schorr’s paintings are staples of pop surrealism, populated by classic cartoon and comic figures from the mid-twentieth century. Todd Schorr: Atomic Cocktail is Mickey Mouse, Mr. Peanut, and the fairytale grotesque like you’ve never seen them before.

“I was among a handful of artists in the mid 1980’s who began exhibiting paintings in galleries…that combined a common influence of imagery derived from old comic books, early cartoon animation, horror and sci-fi movies, hot rod culture, and psychedelic poster art,” Schorr said.

Atomic Vacation by Todd Schorr

Growing up in the late 50’s and early 60s, Schorr was inundated with the constant looming threat of nuclear warfare.  From “Duck and Cover” drills in school, to the culmination of the Cuban Missile Crisis, his work combines the tension of those decades with the popular visual culture of the era.

Fusing the influence of Renaissance masters like Salvador Dali, and early animated cartoons, Schorr created a cocktail of psychedelia and surrealism. These often autobiographical works take us into the looking-glass-esque world of the bizarre. He communicates through a synthesis of childhood experience, and the pervasive visual culture that shaped it. 

Schorr said that the basis for what we consider pop-culture began at the turn of the 20th century.

“This is the visual language that every generation since then has grown up in,” he said. “I do firmly believe that the cartoon is the strongest form of graphic art of this century.”

MOCA curator Heather Hakimzadeh, says that despite growing from the same 1950s roots as its creator, the exhibit will appeal to everyone. 

“He definitely does come from the viewpoint of someone born and raised in midcentury America. But I feel like so much of the imagery that he’s given us is universal, and has imbedded itself in our culture,” said Hakimzadeh. “Everyone can recognize things in the work that will build connections.”

Schorr’s exhibit contains a narrative flow that will allow viewers to connect the pieces within the context of their own stories, and provides a commentary on the endurance of visual art in our modern world. Our children are raised on popular iconography, and the generational consequences of these works bleed through decades. 

“I think about where we are now, in 2018, Western society, and the image production that we do right now: millions of images, created all the time, by everyone,” said Hakimzadeh. “I think about our own children and future generations, and what shapes them. These images, and the things [Schorr is] showing us created who we are. We’re looking back to look forward.” 

These early- to mid-century cartoons, comics, and classic films shaped our school principals, our heads of corporation, and the baby boomers who are in congress making policy, said Hakimzadeh. She wonders how the imagery our children see every day in our age will affect who they become as the next generation. 

Despite it’s universal, monumental implications, Hakimzadeh said one of the best things about the exhibit is that it is accessible to everyone.  

“Contemporary art can be intimidating. People come into the art space and they’re expecting white walls, no didactic and learning tools, to see something plain and simple on the floor and not understand it,” said Hakimzadeh. “Instead, people are going to go in and see things that resonate, that have meaning for them.”

The exhibition will show works new and old, from Schorr’s classics, to sculpture, to never before exhibited paintings. Among these is No Solar Power for Fairyland, which Schorr calls “a take on the distribution of available power sources,” and includes “a compressed history of graffiti which runs along the bottom portions of the fairy tale buildings starting with the earliest cuneiform characters.”

“When you go see a painting in person, you see things you’re never going to see in a little tiny screen. You’re going to have an experience that’s vastly different,” said Hakimzadeh. “I think people are going to come in and connect this this, and know work is being made about their life, and the imagery that has made their life.”

Alongside the show, Schorr is promoting his new monograph, Neverlasting Miracles. Todd Schorr: Atomic Cocktail runs through December 30 at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art in Virginia Beach.


Sarah Honosky

Sarah Honosky

Sarah Honosky is a field reporter for RVA Mag and GayRVA. She likes 90's cult classic television, biking, and writing about Richmond arts and culture.

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