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A surreal look at the Coast

Detail from ‘The Regulator,’ right, and ‘Bob's Rainbow,’ a self-portrait, by Robert Warrens on exhibit at the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi.
Detail from ‘The Regulator,’ right, and ‘Bob's Rainbow,’ a self-portrait, by Robert Warrens on exhibit at the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi. jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

The works are large, colorful and instantly compelling. They’re also deeply personal.

Louisiana artist Robert Warrens uses life experiences to tell stories in his artwork, often using dark humor to tell those stories.

“Monsters, Creatures, Apparitions and Other Beasts” is now showcasing Warrens’ works in the IP Casino Resort Spa Exhibitions Gallery at the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi. Through May 27, museum visitors can enter Warrens’ world and perhaps share his perspective.

Warrens was “heavily influenced by the Chicago Imagists of the ’60s,” said Ohr-O’Keefe Executive Director Kevin O’Brien. The Imagists, artists associated with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, incorporated surrealism and eschewed the snobbery of the New York Pop scene of the same era.

Born in Wisconsin, he taught for a decade in West Virginia, then arrived in South Louisiana in the 1960s. He found likeminded artists in New Orleans, and they became known as Visionary Imagists. In 2005, Warrens and his wife, Sylvia Schmidt, lost their Lakeview cottage in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and moved to Mandeville, where they had an “art house in the woods.” They still live in Mandeville, where Warrens, now in his early 80s, continues to work.

Katrina and the BP oil spill of 2008 became a double attack on the region, heavily influencing Warrens’ work as well as his own personal life. In fact, Warrens often uses experiences in his works. “A Dream Rescuing Precious Treasures After the Levees Broke” shows him and Schmidt in a rowboat, Schmidt draped over objects lost in the flooding, anguish showing in her face. Nearby is a self portrait, “Bob’s Rainbow.”

“He’s almost a figurative artist,” O’Brien said. “They’re not really abstract images but almost satirical.”

An environmentalist, Warrens was devastated by how the hurricane, a natural disaster, and the oil spill, a manmade one, both affected the South Louisiana environment. To work out his emotions, he turned to art. Not just paintings but also sculptures, such as “Ring of Fire.” The mixed media work shows a floating figure encircled by a ring of flames.

In “Painting the Ring of Fire,” Warrens, Schmidt and their dog are wing walking atop a wooden biplane over the oil-slicked water. Warrens has an easel set up while Schmidt watches their dog jump through a flaming hoop.

Warrens also sometimes includes subjects, beyond his wife and their dog, in more than one work. For example, the owl of the sculpture “Chairman of the Board” also can be seen in the painting “Reason Sleeps I.”

“It’s personal iconography,” O’Brien said. “He’s lived through all of this. He’s not just painting an image, he’s painting what he’s experienced.”

“I’m always thrilled by his work,” O’Brien said.

Tammy Smith: 228-896-2130, @Simmiefran1

If you go

What: ‘Monsters, Creatures, Apparitions and Other Beasts,’ works by Robert Warrens

Where: Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art, 386 U.S. 90, Biloxi

When: through May 27

Details: The exhibition, spanning 50 years, is in the IP Casino Resort Spa Exhibitions Gallery. Regular museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Admission is $10 for adults (18 and over), $8 for seniors (60 and over), $5 students (with ID), free for children under 5 and $8 for AAA members and military (with ID). Members get in free with membership card. The temporary welcome center is the the Center for Ceramics on the second floor.

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