Sitting amid a collection of his offbeat and oddball paintings, Chuck Agro scanned the room and said, "I've always been an observer."
The artist, teacher, and now, at 49, family man was relaxing at a small table in the back room of the Earl McGrath Gallery, where his entertaining menagerie of colorful characters, "My Embarrassing Beautiful Friends," is on display through April 9. This is his fourth solo show with McGrath, including two in Los Angeles.
Mr. Agro's unique, inviting world is populated by cartoonish figures with misshapen heads of various hues. "One Hipster Too Many" looks like he's had a rough night in Williamsburg. "Epiphany Again" wears an intoxicating smile. "All Balls, No Heart" is like an aged, saddened E.T. Dozens of lost souls wander through "The Event Where Careers Were Made or Lost." And "Girlfriend Wants To Be an Actress" is a bizarrely sexy, amorphous female.
The work elicits many visceral reactions, especially amusement.
"There's something I find inherently funny in people in this over processed world," Mr. Agro said. Articulate and knowledgeable, he clearly loves talking about art - as it relates to both the creator and the viewer.
Perhaps the most intriguing piece in the show is "The Last Critical Eye," in which a character with a huge head is seen from the back, looking at an empty yellow frame hanging on a vertically striped wall.
The last critical eye, of course, is actually that of Mr. Agro's audience.
"I wanted to evoke an emotional response from the viewer. I wanted to make them laugh. I wanted to make them cry. I wanted them to get angry," Mr. Agro explained.
"And I wanted the process to be physical - rough, big, heavy things that were actually imposing and drew the viewer in while the imagery repelled them, so they would want to touch the surface and then be pushed away."
Mr. Agro begins his pieces by first meditating, then drawing with his eyes closed, letting the images develop themselves. After using enamel-based paints, he covers the canvas with several coats of polyresin, which "puts a buffer between the viewer and the image. It creates a distance."
The resulting figures are infectious and original - and, despite the title of the exhibition, none of them are based on real people. However, Mr. Agro is quick to add, "All of my friends are embarrassing and beautiful."
"The expressions he can get are so true and so wistful," said gallery owner Earl McGrath. "There's sort of a mournful glee to it. It's just so sweet, and I think everybody who gets it, that's what they like about it. It's compassionate."
During the interview, a family from Texas got it immediately; they walked in off the street, came into the gallery, and were so impressed that they bought "The Event Where Careers Were Made or Lost" on the spot. (That work, and others of its size, goes for around $10,000.)
Mr. Agro began drawing as a child, when he was a fan of such cartoons as the old black-and-white "Popeye," "Felix the Cat," and "Beany and Cecil."
"The thing I was best at as a kid was drawing. ... If I could draw like anybody when I was a kid, if I could reach to that one person, it would have been Neal Adams' Batman. God, that was gorgeous. His Captain America - those are phenomenal drawings."
Although his art has a cartoon quality that is reminiscent of the work of Philip Guston, Charles Addams, and R. Crumb, Mr. Agro notes that his greatest influences are Fernand Leger, Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning.
"A lot of these spoof my love of abstract expressionism," he said.
Born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., Mr. Agro grew up in an artistic family. His father, Angelo, was a jazz musician who owned a nightclub there. After high school, Mr. Agro did some traveling, served on a submarine in the military, and worked in nightclubs and bars, where he honed his observational skills by watching all kinds of people, before earning a B.F.A. and an M.F.A. in painting from SUNY Buffalo.
His first art-related job was at Hallwalls, a Buffalo gallery founded by a group of artists that included Charlie Clough, Robert Longo, and Cindy Sherman. After getting his M.F.A., his Hallwalls connections landed him a cheap Greenwich Village sublet as well as jobs in a few galleries. Eventually he got a long-term freelance gig working with the Museum of Modern Art; Mr. Agro helped organize MoMA's move from Midtown to Queens and then back again.
For the last 14 years, the longtime Brooklynite has taught at New York University, where he began as a guest lecturer and now teaches classes in drawing. He noted that his current students are in a retro mode.
He remembered that when he was a student, "You never listened to music that was 10 years old. These kids are still listening to Hendrix and the Doors as if it's brand new. So time has collapsed for them."
He also pointed out that their approach to content has changed dramatically.
"They're very interested in the cinematic qualities of art. You're seeing more of a personal narrative, and they're picking up on it, they're talking about it," Mr. Agro explained. "A lot of it has to do with what they've gone through the last few years, between September 11 and the current war. They have something to talk about, which they didn't five years ago."
Mr. Agro himself is revisiting a series that he began prior to September 11, of paintings of colorful skulls. "Anyone who had thought about showing them at the time said, 'We can't show these for a couple of years,'" he said. "They felt as if they were about that day."
Mr. Agro now lives in Cobble Hill with his second wife, Christine, and their son, Caidin, who will turn 1 later this month. Christine is a professional psychic whose clients include humans and animals.
"Caidin likes to watch me work," Mr. Agro said. The artist is also happy that his son has helped change his own self-described selfish nature.
"The only person I ever had to worry about before was me," he explained, breaking into a smile much bigger than the one he wears when talking about art. "Children are primary; you want to give them everything."
"My Embarrassing Beautiful Friends" through April 9 at the Earl McGrath Gallery, 20 W. 57th St., 212-956-3366, www.earlmcgrathgallery.com.