Mike Gorman’s show at Sanctuary Tattoo is all about blurred lines, and I like that. Well, metaphorically at least: Gorman’s drawings couldn’t be any crispier.

Many people believe art must push the envelope while at the same time they insist that it must clearly define itself as art. This might sound cynical and broken, but it’s simply the reality of our culture — which is defined both by the norm and its progressive edges.

Most of Gorman’s work can be described as commercial illustration: His edgy cartoons are almost always produced for clients. You might argue that art isn’t supposed to be commercial, but we’re way past that. In fact, we’ve always been past that: Michelangelo, for example, did nothing that wasn’t for clients.

Sanctuary itself rides the blurred rail of culture: Some might argue tattoos are not art even though their cultural presence is clearly more important in this country than haute couture. Times change: Fine craft, photography and digital media have all gone through sea changes of cultural status over the past few decades. So it is with tattoos.

Considering the ephemeral culture of the first Internet generation, I think their attraction to permanent body art was essentially inevitable.

Gorman’s work is an excellent complement to Sanctuary following the shared graphic qualities of tattooing and illustration, but I honestly think Gorman’s drawings would look great virtually anywhere. One wall in the front space is covered with almost 100 of Gorman’s frisky pen and ink drawings, each hung in a humorously funky plastic bag. The drawings are not only terrific, but affordable as well — ranging from $30 to $50 each.

One of my favorites is a fish — compellingly academic in his mortarboard hat – teaching a moral lesson: He is displaying a fishhook labeled “BAD,” and we see his grumpy motivation is the hook stuck through his mouth.

For all of his recognizable style and pop culture edginess, Gorman’s drawings have a huge range of subject, story and character: A clueless art critic judging pictures; two grooms on a wedding cake; Van Gogh with a bandage on his head and a painting of an ear; sci-fi geeks nostalgically demonstrating for “Farscape”; a roid-raging muscle man sporting dozens of syringes; Godzilla angrily bouncing on a guy in a sumo suit; a drunken Yogi Bear; and even an adorably smiley-faced prostate gland.

While the fact that almost all of these images were made for clients could erase the presence of Mike Gorman the individual, he personally culled the hundred or so works from more than 2,000 in his studio. For all the sturm und drang of his subjects, Gorman himself is a quiet presence. Yet these are his favorites, and it’s easy to see why.

The other half of the show is also cartoon-based but extremely different: It features seven portraits of monsters and ghouls and then 16 paintings from Gorman’s “Zombies vs. Sasquatch” series. The style is still recognizably Gorman’s, but the rather dark narrative has a monster-movie kind of feel. While I didn’t really relate or respond to the storyline, the series was proof positive to me that Gorman has his finger right on the pulse of cutting-edge pop culture in America. Sure, Sasquatch/Bigfoot has been around, but that’s what delivers the tension with the zombies. Zombies are in. For example, there was a zombie kickball game in Portland on the Eastern Prom just last weekend (seriously — it is a regular thing).

There isn’t space here to pursue the more complex issues about pop culture, illustration, monster aesthetics and the ever-shifting form of the avant-garde. But Gorman’s show at Sanctuary raises many such interesting questions about cultural philosophy and how specific current events play out in our society.

One thing I admire about Gorman’s drawings is his willingness to go well past the norm (on which he has a solid grasp) and press the envelope hard to challenge you. Still, I can’t think of a single person I know with whom I couldn’t discuss the work in the show. And while many of his themes touch on traditionally non-kid topics such as sex, drugs, violence and gore, I didn’t think any of the drawings would either make my 6-year-old uncomfortable or be out of his range to discuss. I first thought the post-shootout Sesame Street scene would be too much — but I then decided it could start a great conversation about cartoon violence. When I asked him what he thought, he immediately identified what was going on and simply said, “Violence doesn’t fit in that scene.”

While Gorman’s approach largely follows cartoon-style illustration, he has his feet planted firmly in reality. The result is that his work and wit are solid, understandable and interesting. Between the cool venue, the strong work, excellent prices, and the great prints currently on view next door at Ed Pollack Fine Arts, I strongly suggest visiting Sanctuary this month.


Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

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