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Apocalyptic Populism 

He's been called a "maniac out of a swamp in Louisiana, full of caffeine and as un-fussy as they come." He's also been called "another low-brow hair in academia's ass," and that was supposed to be a complement. While it's true that he's been giving printmaking workshops at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg and teaching art in Laurel since relocating from New Orleans last summer, Sean Starwars is more of a populist provocateur than an academic. Indeed, his woodblock prints of regular folks and somewhat irregular situations are pleasantly misanthropic and obliquely perverted in a red-blooded, Red State sort of way.

But he's currently in something of a quandary. His most recent graphics on scraps of surplus billboards seem tailor-fwoft

made for urban guerilla tactics. Printed over the original billboard ads, they have a random, dadaistic quality that cries out for the streets of big cities, where they might be pasted on walls and buildings alongside the existing graffiti, cigarette or liquor ads or what have you. But the tidy towns of the Magnolia state lack the necessary anonymity and visual clutter, and a recent visit to New Orleans convinced him that no acts of graphic anarchy would even be noticed in the midst of Katrina's nihilistic legacy, so he settled for a wall at Barrister's Gallery instead, where his poster-like prints comprise a pungent graphic collage of moderately twisted imagery.

It's a realm of Middle American families with the toothy, leering grins of serial killers, humanoid pigs wielding joysticks, homicidal clowns, dipsomaniac monkeys, big breasted twins in bondage and all those other much beloved archetypes from the soft, white underbelly of American pop culture. A kind of American gothic wailing wall, Dirty Work celebrates the joys of hypocrisy and the dark side of whitebread America, and if, in the cavernous confines of Barrister's, it blends in with its surroundings so well as to seem almost invisible, that is just one of those imponderables best left to the anthropologists to unravel.

As one who holed up in his studio during the supposed forced evacuation of New Orleans after the flood, Jim Sohr knows a thing or two about angst. "I felt like Anne Frank hiding from the Nazis," he said recently. In this Springtime in Moravia expo at the Big Top, the approaches that served him well in the past are reprised in provocative canvases that explore the psychic dysfunctions prevalent in America today, especially in the fear and loathing left in the wake of recent presidential elections. Here he displays a deft touch with the sorts of Picassoid flourishes that convey whacked out emotional disequilibrium in his strongest series of paintings in recent times.

And so Weeping Woman I (Oh No! Bush Hijcked Another Election) recalls the shrieking angst of Picasso's Guernica and his series of weeping women paintings that followed, all part of the Spanish painter's protest of General Franco's bombing of innocent civilians in the Basque town of Guernica. Icons of more than mere helplessness, Picasso's weeping women amounted to a Greek chorus of pathos in which angst became a primal scream, terrifying in its own right. A bit more ambiguous is Tree Huggers, a painting of a forest of tree trunks, each with a nude blonde holding on for dear life. Subtitled "People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals ("I'd rather be naked than wear fur") has Formed an Alliance with the Anti-Logging Coalition," this appears to express Sohr's bewilderment with "wacko" fringe groups while showing off his own flair for "wacko" painting compositions.

Mythological and literary references also abound. Ancient Mariners is a highly whimsical ship of fools, a vision more like something concocted by the Krewe du Vieux than anything ordinarily associated with Coleridge. And The Valkyrites is Sohr's version of Valkyries. Instead of beautiful women who carry Norse heroes to Valhalla, they embody the notion that "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned -- they're all looking for Jim." And that about sums it up. Like the Czech province of Moravia in 1939, these paintings are all about waiting for the other shoe -- or hobnail boot -- to fall.

click to enlarge This detail of  Dirty Work , Sean Starwars'; wall-size collage - of wood block prints, conveys his obsession with the dark - side of middle-American culture.
  • This detail of Dirty Work , Sean Starwars'; wall-size collage of wood block prints, conveys his obsession with the dark side of middle-American culture.
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