To some, Irving Norman’s stylized dystopian paintings represent an urban hell; to others, they’re a mere exaggeration of the one we already live in. Norman’s masses are entrenched in perpetual warfare, governed by crooked, money-greedy leaders and controlled by technology. His critical messages, inspired by his time spent serving in the Spanish Civil War, were certainly unpopular at the time they were created—the height of McCarthyism. “I try to go beyond illusion to tell the truth,” Norman once said. “[T]hat doesn’t always make me popular.” His distorted, ghoulish figures always look to be in pain, even when they are smiling or, rather, grimacing. In Meeting of the Elders, bar charts hang like tapestries in a great hall where a cigar-smoking council emerges from stacks of gold coins atop human-skin rugs. Norman’s Air Raid Shelter resembles a nuclear reactor, with the people inside twisted into Guernica-like agony. Even a topic as simple as rush hour is intensified to the point of anguish: Dozens of cars become jail cells to the weary commuters of The Bridge. Norman borrows from religious imagery for his grand triptych and towering crucifixion, and from neoclassicism for his epic battle scenes, which look as though they could have taken place on the set of the movie Metropolis. Perhaps the bleakest and most hard-hitting of Norman’s predictions (he passed away in 1989) is our era of cause célèbre in To Have and Have Not (Charity Gala), where futuristic models and socialites mingle and dance on a runway surrounded by the pockmarked and skeletal. The exhibition is on view from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, to Sunday, Jan. 27, 2008, at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Free. (202) 885-1300.