In her paintings, the glorious awkwardness of men failing to have fun

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The men in Orkideh Torabi’s pictures at Richard Heller Gallery don’t really know what they’re doing.

That’s not unusual: Some men have gotten so used to pretending to be experts, they’ve also gotten used to thinking they’re more capable and intelligent than those around them, including women and children.

What’s striking about the Chicago-based female artist’s cartoon dudes is that they’re just trying to have a good time — and failing, miserably.


Whether picnicking, sunbathing or kicking back with a drink, Torabi’s guys look lost. It’s as if each knows what he’s supposed to be doing but is too insecure, uncomfortable and self-conscious to lose himself in life’s little pleasures. Even petting a dog, resting in bed or stopping to smell the flowers seems to test the skills of Torabi’s inexperienced simpletons.

Most appear to be going through the motions — to be pantomiming pleasures they’ve seen on TV but have never known for themselves.

Post-Impressionism comes to mind, particularly Georges Seurat’s great painting of 19th century Parisians figuring out what to do on Sundays when, thanks to the Industrial Revolution, they didn’t have work and were expected to enjoy themselves.

Like the middle-class citizens in Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” (1884-86), which hangs at the Art Institute of Chicago, the lumpen lads in Torabi’s exhibition “Give Them All They Want” are gauche, even loutish. But they’re also sympathetic and vulnerable — not quite endearing but far from despicable. They are pawns in a game they don’t even know they’re being played in.


Torabi’s works are similarly complex. Although each is as visually potent as an oil on canvas, it’s actually a silk-screened image, made with fabric dye and stretched cotton. In terms of materials and process, Torabi’s pictures are monoprints. They’re also paintings in drag, especially in their capacity to complicate us/them divisions and either/or oppositions.

In her hands, stilted pleasures — and male indulgence — are a sign of the times. What is more important, they’re a sign that the times are changing.

On View

Orkideh Torabi

Where: Richard Heller Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica
When: Tuesdays-Saturdays, through Aug. 10
Info: (310) 453-9191,