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SCOPE

Jim Warren's album-cover paintings may be shocking but the artist isn't.

October 29, 1987|TERRY SPENCER | Times Staff Writer

The paintings are meant to shock. One shows a man ripping his own head off while laughing hysterically behind sunglass-covered eyes. In another, a strawberry blonde with a viper's tongue stands frozen as gnarled hands claw over her bare shoulders. A third depicts a man frantically eating ice cream, but with each eye masked by an angry mouth of clenched teeth.

You can imagine the ghoul of an artist who would do such work. But in the case of Jim Warren, you would probably imagine wrong.

With collar-length brown hair and gentle brown eyes, Warren looks and acts like someone from the "Leave It to Beaver" show that he watched as a child. Sitting in his slightly cluttered Belmont Heights apartment in Long Beach, dressed in faded jeans, a casual shirt, with a tennis racket tucked into one corner of the room, it is not difficult to imagine Warren as a grown-up version of Beaver's older brother, Wally.

But the Beav's dad would never have let any of Warren's horrifying work come near the Cleaver house, even though critics say it is among the best of its genre.

Warren, 37, is one of the foremost designers of heavy metal record album covers, as well as horror movie posters and book jackets. The Long Beach native drew the cover of Alice Cooper's latest rock offering, "Raise Your Fist and Yell," which was released this week. The cover depicts a panicked face shrieking from the palm of a bruised fist as it backhands the world to smithereens.

Paul Grushkin, who recently wrote a book about the history of record album covers, called Warren "one of the best."

"What fascinates the kid (buying the album) is that cover," Grushkin said. "It, not the music, is often what makes him bring out those dollar bills."

Warren also draws the book covers for popular horror writer Clive Barker, whom People Magazine recently called "the next Stephen King."

"My goal is that when a person walks by a bookshelf or an album shelf that my picture will grab them and make them look," Warren said.

He won a Grammy Award in 1981 for his first album cover, Bob Seger's "Against the Wind." Quite sedate by Warren's standards, it depicts five white stallions charging down a deserted beach.

"I told the record company I don't do horses, but they said 'You can do it. Just use your imagination,' " Warren said.

Describing his style as photo-realism, Warren said he uses his own photographs, as well as those from magazines, as models. He then oil paints parts of various people--a mouth from one, the eyes of another, the face of somebody else--into a "Frankenstein's Monster" of an image.

"I use photos of myself, friends, everybody I know," Warren said. "Then I draw them on the canvas. Then I alter it in some way, bulge the eyes or something. I use the photos to get the shadows and the details."

His paintings' trademark is the screaming mouth, for which Warren himself modeled. That got him his first outside modeling job, the poster for the current movie "Prince of Darkness." It shows a man's horrified mouth, a beetle sitting on the tongue.

"They used real dead bugs, too, and the little legs would break off in my mouth," Warren blanched, the memory not a fond one.

He began drawing seriously while attending Jordan High School in the late 1960s. There he failed the only art class he has ever taken.

"I was stubborn and had my own ideas," Warren said. "The teacher thought I was good, but I just didn't follow instructions. I was drawing mock album covers instead of the still lifes that she wanted."

After high school, Warren had a stint as a local promoter for rock concerts, but quit in 1975 after two of his concerts turned into full-scale riots.

"I found out teen-agers and alcohol don't mix," the artist said.

He said he then began selling his "fantasy" paintings--"Cruder versions of what I do now"--to friends for "a quarter, two bucks."

Showings at art galleries soon followed and he did make sales, but the drawings so upset some of the more staid art crowd that he was rarely asked back.

"The biggest comment I would hear is 'How awful. That's gross,' " Warren said. "But I guess I'm the only one who took that to be a compliment."

But, he points out, none of what he draws depicts actual bloodshed.

"I don't like real violence. If I saw an accident or something I'd probably get sick," Warren said. "I like horror movies, but when I watch them, they are just fun. They don't scare me."

His weirdest experience came when he did a painting for the rock star Prince two years ago. Warren said Prince would only speak to him through intermediaries.

"That was when he was in his Purple Rain period and he wrote very specific instructions about what images he wanted in the painting: A tattooed man hugging a tiger; a naked black child carrying an American flag; a girl on a see-saw; an old woman crying; a girl eating ice cream," Warren said. "I asked his management company a couple of times to have him call me to explain what it all meant, but after a while I realized they couldn't talk to him either."

Prince's representatives then called him and told him to get on the next plane to Cincinnati and to bring the painting.

"I told them it wasn't dry yet, but they didn't care," Warren said. "They took me to a hotel and one of Prince's bodyguards showed up and took the painting. Two days later, somebody called and said Prince liked it. I charged him more than I would have just because he bugged me."

Warren will not discuss his income, but says he has achieved the goal of every artist--he does not have to work a second job.

Sensing people's expectations, Warren says some are disappointed that he does not look or act like an artistic freak.

"I guess I could pretend to be weird," Warren said.

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