Some art has to be seen in the right context. The Michael Meads drawings I encountered occasionally in the past suggested the work of a rural Southern Fellini who landed on Bourbon Street during Carnival and had been hallucinating ever since. But this Ogden Museum of Southern Art show puts his work in perspective with insightful arrangements of more and bigger drawings, and while his obsessive, orgiastic, rococo psychedelic effects are still predominant, this selection in the museum's large contemporary gallery offers an unexpectedly coherent overview in which his flair for local color and classical mythology come together in a broadly cohesive melange. Although Meads' odd marriage of grand scale and obsessive minutiae still seem over the top, the result suggests a Cecil B. DeMille take on a south Louisiana Satyricon with detailing by a down-home Alabama Aubrey Beardsley. We see as much in Grand Pageant of the Mystic Krewe of St. George, a mammoth drawing where a head rather like that of the late George Dureau appears in a corner slyly surveying the chaos around him — an appropriate homage to a legendary painter whose canvases suggested New Orleans characters as figures in a mythic opera.
Drama and intrigue characterize most of these works, although the cast of thousands often causes them to blur into riotous tangles of subplots. In The Baptism, Nordic warriors, medieval royals and Victorian villains vie for dominance as the Louisiana Supreme Court building goes up in flames in the background. In Ghosts Along the Levee (detail, pictured), a marching group parades in the shadow of a vast skull amid demonic beings. Buffoonish and picaresque yet apocalyptic, Meads' drawings often recall George Grosz's expressionistic Berlin grotesqueries while expressing related sensibilities with regard to the Carnivalesque depravities that characterize the human condition today. In his smaller drawings and photographs, he comes across more like a social realist, but it all adds up to a bravura performance from a unique artist who makes universal statements from homegrown ingredients.