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Artist Review: Erv’s Nerve Strikes a Funny Bone

Warning: “The Nerve of Erv!” exhibit of paintings by Erv Kaplan at the Deborah Page Gallery is not pornographic – at least not by what one hopes are enlightened 21st century standards – but one is still tempted to say that Erv does have a lot of nerve.

Erv’s paintings feature cartoon-like human male figures – and they certainly are male. Each one has a unique private part customized to his job, hobby, or societal role. A crane for the construction worker. Links for the hot dog vendor. Santa’s possession sports a bell, like those rung by sidewalk Santa Clauses. A pilot has a propeller. Need we say more?

But actually, Erv Kaplan’s good friend Ray Bradbury said it well in the introduction he wrote to Kaplan’s 1972 book, Ob-Scenes, which features similar cartoons:

“He says: here is man, of much pomp and great circumstance, but, look! like the Emperor now! I see him without clothes. And minus bra and britches, aren’t men and women very very funny indeed?”

Kaplan is a retired animator whose credits go back to the 1950s with the minimalist-styled cartoons of UPA. He worked on Gerald McBoing-Boing, Mr. Magoo, and later at Filmation, numerous cartoons for television such as The Cosby Kids. But his private hobby was drawing mischievous little sketches.

“I had drawn about 100 of these little sketches – ink drawings,” says Kaplan. “When I worked on them I didn’t think in terms of the idea – what I looked for were symbols. Like, I’d see a screwdriver and I’d think: how can I use that screwdriver? So the gag came before the gentlemen.”

And in 1972, these drawings caught the eye of a co-worker at an animation studio.

“In that room with me was an artist who was working on an animated film for Ray Bradbury,” says Kaplan. “He started to collect all of those little sketches that I had done. And then when Bradbury came into the studio, this individual kept showing him all of these sketches and [he] thought that they should be published in a book.”

“Later on I did small etchings and I sent them to Playboy. They loved the idea, so they published a two-page spread in 1975 and it was called ‘Phallusies.’

“They published more in 1977 and in 1980. When I talked to Bradbury in 1999, he said that I should do more. And so I was published again in Playboy in the year 2000, along with an article by Bradbury about my work. That was called ‘The Nerve of Erv.’ ”

Which leads us to the current exhibit of that name. Kaplan had been doing a series of architectural paintings, which he showed to Deborah Page for a potential show. “When they asked me about my background I mentioned Playboy magazine and she wanted to see the material. I did two little 8 by 10s, one a golfer and one a tennis player, and brought them in to show her and she loved it and said, ‘This would be a great show for this time of year.’ ”

Erv Kaplan did 22 paintings for the Page Gallery. As of this writing, 11 have already been sold. On the exhibit’s opening day a couple bought six paintings. Kaplan notes: “I did talk with the people and I was pleased with their attitude – that they enjoyed it. That is really the ultimate – the fact that people came in and they loved the work and laughed and enjoyed themselves.”

“The Nerve of Erv” runs at the Deborah Page Gallery, 1028 Montana Avenue, 310.458.4400, through January 15.

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