Painting Pop Culture

Guest Post by Victor Pross

An ‘icon’ is an image, depiction, representation, pictogram or likeness that stands for an object by representing it by analogy. By extension, the word ‘icon’ is also used, as seen in popular culture, in the general sense of symbol–such as a name, face or edifice.

In the Christian religion, idolatry is considered a sin, being defined as worship of any cult image or object as opposed to the worship of God. The modern era worships gods of a different kind–celebrities. The modern cult of celebrity and popular culture is saturated with both icons and idols.

Who are the biggest worshippers? Stanch religionists, of course. I admire many of the individuals I capture in art, but I don’t worship them. There is a big difference between admiration and worship. Worship is like admiration wearing blinders. Admiration is quality-oriented, not person-oriented. 

Said Albert Einstein: “It strikes me as unfair, and even in bad taste, to select a few individuals for boundless admiration, attributing superhuman powers of mind and character to them. This has been my fate, and the contrast between the popular estimate of me and the reality is simply grotesque.” 

This culture is a culture of worship, and it is celebrity that is worshiped. It is an epoch where celebrity is a modern mythos. This is prime fodder for satire.

Critics have responded to my art as though I was sui generis, a self-created eccentric without discernable origins. Very much the opposite is the truth. The origin of my art is the culture at large. I painted and drew as if I were an alien intelligence contemplating my own human species from a distant realm with a bemused objectivity, as though I was encountering them for the first time like David Bowie’s Ziggy. What I saw was a strange land filled with archetypes—caricatures. I saw a vast and vacuous wasteland populated with grotesque caricatures as if standing before funhouse mirrors.

Yes, I am a reluctant fan of popular culture. I can’t totally make up my mind in estimating the value of pop culture and the people who create and comprise it. I have always suffered from a terrible ambivalence. Is it ridiculous or brilliant, beautiful or ugly?

I now realize that it is all of these things.

I am inspired by the memory of hundreds of hours of observing mass media and pop culture, but always with a mixture of awe and contempt. I have painted our culture as monstrous and fascinating, bizarre and theatrical, stirring and ridiculous, brilliant and banal, beautiful and ugly, innovative and slavishly conformist. Our culture is a vast Cecil B. Demille tableau, a grotesque tragicomedy, as it is a heroic drama. I see it as the end and the beginning, as archetypical and superficial, as dark and light, disturbing and irresistibly funny. I look at the state of the culture and I feel as if I have landed on a truly bizarre planet. But I am held captive to it by its charms nonetheless. In the end, my own views toward pop culture, as I said, are radically ambivalent. I have always thrived on ambivalence and complexity. I am praising popular culture and simultaneously ridiculing it.

Part of what makes art “good” is the artist’s skill at capturing his worldview and essential concerns. A work of art embodies a viewpoint about human nature and humankind’s place in the world, but not necessarily in some didactic manner; I don’t care to “teach” but to show.

As for the “ugliness” of my art–by their very nature, my caricatures cannot come out decorous and beautifully detached; they must be (and are) charged with fear, horror, anger, humour, and irreverence. They are also inspired by love, passion and good-natured humour. After all, you need an extraordinary gift for humour to laugh away all the madness of popular culture.

It is believed that the art of any period is a faithful mirror of that culture’s philosophy. So when you see some of the monstrous and grotesque caricatures I create, the composite picture that emerges is merely a microcosm of your culture. In view of the responses I have received to my art, my effort to achieve a “highly stylized representation of reality” has succeeded with flying colours. This is, perhaps, where I came into trouble. Newton had taught us that for every action there is an equal opposite reaction, so it could be argued that the enormity of some people’s hysterical animosity toward me and my art had its own logic.

But to what, I ask, do I attribute homage when it is bestowed to me?  Perhaps only this: I find that there are scores of people who agree with my artistic interpretation and who share my sense of humour. They have exercised their own independent judgement and saw the merit of my work. It is also the critics and media commentators, juggling its shrill adjectives like a 42nd street movie marquee—‘daring,’ ‘hilarious,’ ‘brilliant” ‘amazing’—among other Broadway-like ballyhoo—that vindicate my vision.

The genre of caricature serves me best to carry my artistic vision. Caricature, like pop culture, can be beautiful and grotesque, inspired and funny. It exaggerates the truth, without distorting it. My motive for creating caricature art hasn’t change from the days of my childhood. It has only matured and expanded. As a child, I observed the adults moving about in the world and I captured it all as I drew—in admittedly crude snap shots. I absorbed what I took to be the essence of reality: a surreal carnival of mostly preposterous beings, stumbling in the dark of their own follies. For this same reason, it is the culture that I want to now caricature.

There’s a wonderful essay by George Orwell called “Why I Write,” in which he says that every great writer is motivated by two things: one, the desire to show off—and two: the habit of noticing unpleasant facts. This could very well be true of caricaturists of my ilk.

What I try to accomplish is to distil the essence of the offending and inspiring phenomenon found in popular culture into well chosen images, and give those images an ironic twist that will leave the viewer chortling inwardly with satisfaction. But along with savage indignation, you will also often find a playful and indulgent wink. It’s not all dark.

The playful and mischievous child in me has never died, but he does battle with the angry and frustrated idealist that also resides within me. If you ever feel demoralized, beleaguered, appalled or befuddled by the times we all inhabit, I’m simply trying to give a visual voice to those feelings.

Victor Pross is a professional artist born and raised in Toronto now residing in British Columbia. He is known for his “extreme caricaturing.”

He has many high profile commissions to his credit including painting Ron Howard’s caricature portrait as a gift for the famous director as well as painting various agents of the William Morris Agency. He has rendered numerous International celebrities and Canadian media personalities for commercial and private purposes. Victor Pross has been interviewed on television shows such as: Canada AM, Breakfast Television, News at Noon and has been pegged by Canadian Media as “Canada’s foremost caricature artist.”

He has worked on various posters, comic books and CD covers bringing to each work his own unique style. He is currently instructing an art class as well as offering his services as an editorial caricaturist. Victor’s first book, Icons & Idols, will feature a collection of the artist’s paintings and drawings and is now available.  You can visit his website at www.victorpross.com.

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Posted on February 18, 2010, in Featured Authors. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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