When Jorge Torrealba began his career as a cartoonist in his native Venezuela, his subjects often quipped “You made me look ugly.” That was the genesis of the phrase that became the title of his first solo show in New York: Discount for Ugly People. Torrealba describes the show as “the most artistic, fanciful, and abstract way to see New York from the expression of [his] hands.”
Torrealba initially became involved with One Art Space in their June showcase of Venezuelan art, where he presented Migrant Odyssey, a gigantic, mind-bending canvas that symbolically shows the struggle of immigration. Though Migrant Odyssey is only present as a print in Discount for Ugly People, Torrealba has an enormous catalog of never-before-seen paintings on view in this show.
“When you don’t live in New York in person, you live it in a movie, but we all recognize its magical energy where we believe we are capable of everything,” Torrealba wrote. In the past two years, it’s been difficult to say the least to view the world at large in a positive light. But Torrealba’s art took me into a version of reality full of vibrant colors and larger than life interpretations of some of New York’s most recognizable scenery.
Torrealba’s vision is whimsical, with a raucous and occasionally raunchy sense of humor—his vision of color draws on pop art, and it feels almost as if he is like the mantis shrimp which can see a spectrum of color beyond what everyone else can see. When you walk into Discount for Ugly People, you’re met with a sea of bright yellow balloons and a carnival-esque balloon figure of Torrealba himself sporting a wide grin. The balloon diorama lets you know right away: You have left Tribeca and you are now in Jorge Torrealba’s world.
The balloon diorama lets you know right away: You have left Tribeca and you are now in Jorge Torrealba’s world.
The most striking painting in Discount for Ugly People is Torrealba’s rendition of Times Square. It brought me back to a recent night of wandering through the center of Times Square at two or three in the morning, clustering with friends outside of a dollar-pizza place. When I looked up at the sky, despite the blackness of the night sky in the ozone layer the animated neon billboards cast an eerie artificial daylight into the air.
Growing up in New York, I avoid Times Square, but there has always been something almost impressive about how the blinding light of Times Square defies nature itself. Torrealba is the perfect artist to capture this bizarre and uniquely New York landscape. His rendition shows a swarming sea of geometric lights, the face of an ad for the Lion King and the arc of McDonald’s peering out of the sensory overload. It’s the kind of painting that can mesmerize you over and over again the longer you look at it.
Growing up in New York, I avoid Times Square, but there has always been something almost impressive about how the blinding light of Times Square defies nature itself. Torrealba is the perfect artist to capture this bizarre and uniquely New York landscape.
Pieces like The Beak, The Vesseroach, The World’s Rodent, and others interpret New York landmarks as ghoulish and humorous animals. The Vesseroach, which Torrealba professed is his favorite of the paintings in the show, depicts the much-loathed Hudson Yards architectural fixture as a cockroach.
The Beak is at first glance a painting of The Edge, the highest observation deck in New York, but upon a longer look it transforms into the head of a pigeon. The building’s observation deck juts out as the pigeon’s beak. Under Torrealba’s paintbrush, the Brooklyn Bridge turns into a cephalopod-like monster with tentacles reaching across the East River, and the World Trade Center into a rodent with the white points of the Oculus as its whiskers.
Throughout the show, Torrealba features printed photos of his process of each work. It’s a touching detail, reminding gallery-goers that the art they see does not simply come into existence, but is rather the artist sharing a part of themselves. Torrealba is at ease with self-portraiture, and his depiction of himself, with puffy hair, bulging eyes, and an enormous smile, is not so far off from the jovial and energetic figure he is in real life.
One of his most affecting works is titled Pandemic and shows distorted caricatures of himself clawing at hand sanitizer, masks, and an abstract black and blue background that drips through the frame. It’s less literal than some of his other paintings, and the canvas is much smaller, but it’s no less affecting. He showed his Torrealba bounced around the opening reception, taking photos with friends and chatting with gallery-goers about the Emmy-winning documentary about his life, Hay Que Intentarlo.
Though Torrealba is a cartoonist, it’s clear his art comes from a place rooted in reality—one piece titled Art is My Freedom is a tentacle-bearing chimaera of the Statue of Liberty atop a placard that reads ART IS MY FREEDOM. Torrealba said of his art that “I want to show that beauty can be altered and remain special.” He takes the conventions of beauty and ugliness and paints a wash of neon saturation over it. Within the gallery, there’s a funhouse mirror with the tagline “Ugly Selfie for Free.” In a society so focused on effortless aesthetic beauty, Discount for Ugly People is a breath of fresh air that throws out the desire for spotless skin, clean streets, the thinnest bodies, and the New York of IKEA photos and Hallmark cards. Nothing is pristine anymore, and all rules are off the table.
In a society so focused on effortless aesthetic beauty, Discount for Ugly People is a breath of fresh air that throws out the desire for spotless skin, clean streets, the thinnest bodies, and the New York of IKEA photos and Hallmark cards. Nothing is pristine anymore, and all rules are off the table.
Discount for Ugly People is on view has extended its run until Friday, August 27th,, on which One Art Space is hosting a closing reception. Jorge Torrealba is a unique talent, and this is a show to make sure you don’t miss.