The Art of George Kocar Featured in New Book
Cleveland-based artist George Kocar has an unmistakable style. His whimsical, colorful, and at times bitingly sarcastic paintings can be spotted across a room – and they have always delighted me. In particular, one of the things I like most about Kocar’s work is how dark his paintings can be, while still maintaining their bright shiny palette and whimsy. It’s a particular kind of humor that I find aptly fits the spirit of Cleveland – where it helps to be able to laugh at ourselves, especially in the dreariness of February.
It is therefore not surprising to learn that Kocar was the creator of the iconic, “Cleveland: You’ve Got To Be Tough” design, that he made while working at a small screen print company in Macedonia in the 70s. His storied career took off in earnest from that point; Kocar saw his paintings accepted to the May Show at the Cleveland Museum of Art, obtained a MFA from Syracuse, and became a professional illustrator, working for American Greetings for nearly twenty years. His illustrations appeared in Esquire, the New York Times, Playboy, The Washington Post, etc.
But in his new book, The Flying Banana: The Art of George Kocar, it is his paintings that take center stage – the creative efforts of years is collected in the slim volume, broken up into sections such as “The Flying Banana”, “Social and Political Art”, “Art About Art”, etc. The reproductions are truly stunning, and it appears that great care was taken with the color (so key to his work). Additionally, the one-page introduction by artist and writer Douglas Max Utter is remarkable – the perfect prelude to the wackiness that follows.
I have known Kocar’s strange Flying Banana character for years, but had no idea he was developed way back in 1978. In the accompanying text, the artist explains its creation: “Early on, in developing my style I wanted something that indicated that this painting was supposed to be funny. So I painted some bananas flying around the painting. …I called the main character “Banana Man”. This character was supposed to represent everyman. I put him in a room surrounded by stuff that indicated what he was fantasizing about (a hunter in a jungle, a punk rock star, etc.)” Occasionally holding a beer, usually sitting in an easy chair, and accompanied by a cat, The Flying Banana also had an affinity for comic books, often dressed as a superhero himself, with his cat as a caped sidekick. Gut exposed, red-nosed, and a ghoulishly toothy grin all make for a laughable oaf, but I see a darkness here too. Far from a celebration of the everyman, but still not fully a critique – it’s that kind of ambiguous humor that Kocar has mastered.
But for me, it’s Kocar’s political paintings that resonate most – especially in these absurdly dark and twisted times. Using the same riotous color and a heavy dose of satire, his political paintings are peopled with some truly obnoxious characters.
The Demise features an epic battle on horseback, reminiscent of both the Civil War and Napoleonic painting, perfect metaphors for our current political climate. Armed with sabres and knives, the men clash in dramatic fashion – one sporting a KKK hood and the Confederate Flag on his shirt, mouths twisted and toothy, their horses red-eyed and ferocious – neither side appears to be winning, so the battle continues to unfold…
Painted in 2016, Crazy Elephant features a car filled with even more terrifying sharp-toothed caricatures, including an orange-haired mad-man at the wheel, an NRA enthusiast with a gun for a nose, a Klansman, preacher, Congressman, and the Republican mascot, with deep-set beady red eyes, along for the ride. It would be funny if it weren’t sadly all too real. In his Artist’s Statement, Kocar explains that back in the 70s there was a comedy group whose album was titled: “I think we are all bozos on this bus”: “That [phrase] has been pretty much my philosophy towards my art. It is satire. It is flippant. It is the way I deal with this crazy world.”
Another thing about Kocar’s work that I enjoy is his use of art historical references. In the 1998 painting, The Accused, the central figure (the Banana Man) is being crowned with thorns, surrounded by fiendish onlookers, a ferocious dog, as journalists shove their microphones into the corner to get the story. The subject is referencing “Christ Mocked” – a scene painted by many old Masters, including Hieronymus Bosch and Anthony Van Dyck (see below), that took place during Christ’s Passion just before the Crucifixion.
The soldiers and onlookers taunted Christ with this bloody coronation, hilariously proclaimed him King of the Jews, then dragged him off to be tortured and killed. I love that Kocar cast his Flying Banana Man as Christ in this context, a simulacrum of the everyman, and maybe even himself – screaming in agony as the world gets a hearty belly laugh at his expense. This is dark stuff, but somehow through it all, Kocar keeps his chin up – as he explains, “I continue to paint, and I still think we are all bozos on this bus.”