Review: Works by Jeff Starr


Jeff Starr’s art works present a cast of eccentric characters, figurative outsiders, ambiguous denizens of an outcast culture, strange and familiar at the same time. The paintings and sculptures from his earlier, and even more recent, series of works present human-like figures that are stand-ins for surreal psychological states. Stunted, distorted “others” lurk in a national memory, reminding us of the circus sideshow geek, the performing freak, the hobo, the town drunk, the oddball neighbor; absurd, isolated, scorned.  His subjects are recognizable, the surfaces masterfully handled, but they are not what they seem.

His painting compositions often place an isolated figure front and center, as if on stage; it does not blend in with its surroundings. He employs traditional painting techniques dating back to the European Masters. The ceramic sculptures don’t represent real people, or even cartoons of real people, but have a psychological feel and purpose; how you respond is the intent. They are not formal exercises but manifestations of ideas.  You recognize something from your own past, a hint of popular culture, a TV show character, a forgotten morality tale.

Starr’s well-crafted art works speak to the unconscious. His intent as the creator is obscure.  You can look hard at these works and superficially derive some meanings but where they will strike you is through (what I call) a collective American memory.  The unconscious is made visible, leaving us with a “funny feeling,” a realization that we recognize in his characters something that makes us uncomfortable.  Starr walks a line between the familiar and unfamiliar, giving us a glimpse into arcane culture that could be found nowhere but in these united states, a land of pitfalls, backwoods religion, surprises, jumbles of fragments, a mysterious America where the sacred and profane rub against each other freely.  Often too caught up in American consumer culture, we may need reminding of the America outside the urban centers of power and media, an America of the weird, bizarre and forgotten, the supermarket tabloid material, the territory of the “uncool”.

Distorting the human figure, even humorously, is often problem-laden; it can smack of misanthropy. But it always has the effect of engaging us with fascination or repulsion, like Siamese twins, or human organs seen in specimen jars.  Starr’s approach is to ask questions, give us a puzzle to solve, or interpret.  One can get caught up in his world, where the unexpected is presented with matter-of-fact directness.

Welcome to Starrville.



January 2013


About Peter Illig

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