A view of Jim Torok’s clown room at Pierogi Gallery in Williamsburg (click to enlarge)

If you walked into the backroom exhibition space at Pierogi you might be forgiven for thinking you had just walked into a children’s room decorated by Werner Herzog and John Waters, by which I mean it is a sordid, moody, desperate, joyous, and campy. No really.

Jim Torok, “Life Is OK, Except for the Clowns” (2010) (click to enlarge)

This half hidden show is the better half of a larger exhibition by Jim Torok titled You Are A Vibrant Human Being: Portraits and Clowns, which combines two very different bodies of work. The clown room is filled with … wait for it … paintings of clowns sometimes overlaid with hand painted letters that that are characteristic of Torok’s more jokey and satirical work.

Since the show opened, I’ve visited it at least five times and each time I find myself dashing past his more conventional portraits to stand in the middle of the clown room filled with joy. Some of the paintings scream out with feel good phrases informed by the Oprah age, “You Are A Sensitive Caring Person” or “You Are Fine,” while others are more ominous, “I Don’t Want to Die.”

Jim Torok, “Nobody is Perfect” (2010) (click to enlarge)

These paintings feel loose and easy, and you could be fooled into thinking they were whipped out in a few hours, but that’s not really the point anyway. These paintings are pure escapism. They seem more interested in exploring absurd emotions that verge on the surreal. Clowns are an endearing symbol of childhood and innocence, but clown paintings are a punchline in the art world. Sad clown paintings in particularly feel schlocky and kitsch, and Torok seems to enjoy that his canvases play with all those ideas. These paintings feel free to be whatever they want. They laugh, they cry, and they are always fun.

“Things Will Get Better Some Day” is my personal favorite. The grinning clown is skillfully painted but he or she seems trapped behind large letters that offers up a shot of optimism. Yeah, I know the clown is right, but that won’t stop me from being the first to shed a solitary tear when the exhibition ends in a few weeks and this room of moody jokesters goes away.

Jim Torok’s You Are A Vibrant Human Being: Portraits and Clowns exhibition continues at Pierogi (177 North 9th Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn) until April 19.

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.