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His Art Is Just a Scream : Jim Warren Boasts a Portfolio Most Macabre

October 07, 1990|DAVID HALDANE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONG BEACH — Jim Warren occupies a world of art in which the common laws of anatomy do not apply.

In it, eyelids open to reveal gleaming sets of teeth and waggling tongues. Long necks flow into hands playing pianos. And human faces seem to melt into unseemly caricatures of themselves, featuring elastic lips twisted into blood-curdling screams.

The faces are those of his wife, parents, siblings and friends. Some, especially the screamers, are based on his own face.

"He can scream better than anyone else," Warren's wife, Cindy, says proudly. "He can stretch his mouth out really far."

Meet the city's most successful artist of the grotesque. His specialty: painting movie posters, book covers and album covers likely to catch your eye. Recent examples include an album cover for rock star Alice Cooper; a book cover for science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, and promotional posters for an upcoming remake of the classic horror film "Night of the Living Dead."

"What I try to do, basically, is get people's attention," says Warren, who is 40. "It's like having Halloween all year around."

Warren wasn't always a horror artist; in the old days, he says, he was simply ambitious. Enamored of paints since receiving his first set at age 5, he was thrown out of the only art class he ever took at Long Beach's Jordan High School for not following directions. While the rest of the class was nestled quietly in a park painting trees, Warren says, he insisted on independently designing elaborate imaginary "covers" for the latest Rolling Stones albums.

It was Warren's high school classmates, in fact, who gave him his first taste of commercial artistic success by paying 25 cents apiece for odd little drawings he produced with colored pencils. By the time he graduated, he says, the price had risen to $40.

An original Warren painting now sells for up to $7,000.

For a while the struggling illustrator lived in his van and painted in friends' garages. Then in 1975 came a turning point: Warren entered his first public art show, an exhibition in Westwood, and won first prize.

Heavily influenced at the time by such surrealists as Salvador Dali, Warren began selling paintings to galleries and private collectors, as well as doing occasional album covers and magazine illustrations.

In 1981, his cover for Bob Seger's "Against the Wind" album received a Grammy award for being that year's best. And five years ago, he stumbled into horror, the genre that has been supporting him ever since.

"I realized that my fine art wasn't getting enough attention," Warren recalls, "so I decided to take a chance and do something really wild that people would not ignore."

The result was "The Ice Cream Man," a grotesque painting of a friend eating Haagen-Dazs. What makes it grotesque is that where his eyes should be are little maniacal mouths.

"It's about obsession. At the time, we were ice cream freaks," Warren says about his family. "I meant it in sort of a black-humor way; I didn't expect people to be as disgusted as they were."

But the disgust got him commissions and set his career on a path that continued. Since then, Warren has produced more than 100 book covers, dozens of album covers and many promotional posters for movie theater marquees.

Working out of a cluttered garage studio at his North Long Beach home, the artist begins by photographing models in the positions and bearing the expressions he wishes to capture in paint. He seldom uses professionals for this, preferring the services of his wife, stepdaughter, parents, nephew, brother and various neighborhood friends.

Whenever a screaming face is needed, Warren says, he poses for it himself while Cindy takes the photo.

The resulting paintings look weirdly familiar to anyone who knows the people involved. One haunting "family portrait" depicts a host of relatives with dripping faces and uncanny grins. On his well-known Alice Cooper cover, the face of Warren himself screams out from the palm of a tightly knuckled fist.

Collectors and ad executives like Warren's style. "He's got a great way of creating a macabre atmosphere, but with a sense of humor," says Ira Teller, president of Ira Teller and Co., a Beverly Hills agency that has commissioned Warren to create posters for several upcoming movies, including "Two Evil Eyes," "Scanners II" and "Ghoulies Go to College."

"He combines humor, realism and a surreal quality that makes a striking and unusual piece of advertising," he says. "It really jumps off the page."

Leonard Katzman, executive producer of TV's "Dallas," says he has eight Warren fantasies hanging in his Malibu home and his Culver City office. "He paints with his mind," Katzman says. "He doesn't paint pictures, he paints things that you might see when you're sleeping."

According to Warren, however, his art is not the stuff of dreams: "I seldom have nightmares and I don't have weird dreams. I don't take drugs. I just think (the pictures) up; I use my imagination."

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