Skip to main content

LATEST UPDATES: Tracking COVID-19 | Vaccines | Racial Injustice

The Pop Culture Genius of Artist Isabel Samaras

Photo caption:

Cover of the book On Tender Hooks: The Art of Isabel Samaras.

If you're a fan of pop culture, or if you go to Comic Con every year, then you'll be thrilled to hear about the the work of artist Isabel Samaras. She's been a cult favorite for years, and on May 1st, Chronicle Books is publishing a beautiful, hardcover monograph of her work called On Tender Hooks: The Art of Isabel Samaras. Samaras is a painter in the lowbrow or pop surrealist tradition who works on wood, lunch boxes, and TV trays! She celebrates pop culture in all of her paintings, often marrying narratives and characters from movies and television with classical paintings by the Old Masters. This is a woman who read about Géricault's painting The Raft of the Medusa, which depicts the true story of shipwreck survivors in 1816, and immediately pictured the same image, but with the cast of Gilligan's Island! In fact, the castaways of Gilligan's Island are recurring figures in her work, along with Batman and Robin, the cast of Bewitched, and the Munsters. Here are the lovable castaways in her version of The Birth of Venus:

Photo caption:

The Birth of Ginger, Oil on Wood, 16 x 20 inches, 2002

Love that Ginger has tan lines, an impish note to an already playful image. Just to further solidify Samaras' pop culture street cred, she's seen Star Wars 73 times! As a kid, she adored TV, and the characters she met in television land stuck around and populated her imagination. Samaras decided to become an artist, and after graduating from Parsons in NYC, she spent a month in Italy, which transformed her from an illustrator to a painter. Then, one fateful day wandering around a junk shop in Spanish Harlem, she found a stash of old tin lunch boxes. She bought one, sanded off the boring plaid design, and added an image she'd always wanted to see - an erotic love scene between Batman and Catwoman. This was the first in a series of assorted, adult-themed lunch boxes that were exhibited in her first show in New York's East Village.

Samaras moved on to painting TV trays (featuring the likes Elvis, Michael Jackson, Dean Martin, and Tatu from Fantasy Island), and then another trip to Italy changed her course again. She writes in On Tender Hooks: "...Italy was filled with days spent wandering museums and feasting my eyes on the works of Botticelli, Caravaggio, Raphael, Correggio, and the whole gang. I loved how some of the artists stuck big red draperies in everywhere, even if the scene was outside. I love painting any kind of foldy fabric. And hands. And fur! Looking at the pictures made my fingers itch!" Samaras returned to the States (San Francisco) and started painting on wood and, encouraged by artist Mark Ryden, switched from acrylic to oils. Her paintings continued to reference pop culture, fairy tales and monsters, all marked by her signature wit and meticulous technique.

Photo caption:

Baby Bear, Oil on Wood, 32 x 24 inches, 2008

On Tender Hooks is a terrific compilation of Samaras' work, and includes an essay by her, an interview between Samaras, Shag and The Pizz, an essay by critic Colin Berry (who also served as editor) and a short story by Lucy Blue. According to Samaras, "people who like classic monsters, fairy tales, and cheesy American cultural icons will get a kick out of this book."

Photo caption:

The Martyrdom of Pee Wee, Oil on Wood 20 x 13 inches, 2004

Chronicle is also publishing a limited edition package that includes a 8x10 Giclée print of Samaras' image Honey Dripper (Goldilocks and the Three Bears), 2008. Each edition will be signed and numbered by the artist. The On Tender Hooks Limited Edition package will release in May, but Chronicle is offering a special pre-publication price of $150 through May 1st. The post-publication price of the Limited Edition package is $250.

An interview with Samaras in her studio

Web movie: An interview with Samaras in her studio

An interview with Samaras in her studio


San Diego News Now podcast branding

San Diego news; when you want it, where you want it. Get local stories on politics, education, health, environment, the border and more. New episodes are ready weekday mornings. Hosted by Anica Colbert and produced by KPBS, San Diego and the Imperial County's NPR and PBS station.

  • Your curated weekly guide to local arts and culture in San Diego, from Arts Calendar Editor Julia Dixon Evans, delivered to your inbox every Thursday afternoon.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Curious San Diego banner

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or sign up for our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.