For the casual observer, the elaborate and somewhat surreal mix of pop culture references found on the densely layered surfaces of Jim Shaw’s paintings might just as easily charm or repel, but they do not offer quick solutions. Familiar characters—ranging from Liberty Leading the People to Wonder Woman and most frequently Superman—join forces with less easily recognized characters from literature and history alongside fictional deities of the artist’s homegrown religion, “Oism,” against backdrops as wildly disparate as the Mississippi River and an atomic explosion paired with household appliances. Painted on recycled theatrical backdrops, many of the Los Angeles-based artist’s recent works are colossal in scale, completely immersing the viewer within fantastical realms of the recalcitrant artist’s apocryphal visions.
Since receiving his MFA from CalArts in 1978 with longtime friend and fellow-Michigan transplant Mike Kelley, Shaw has steadily grown to be among the most influential artists working today. The pair first collaborated in the Detroit-based noise-punk-anti-rock band Destroy All Monsters (with Lynn Rovner, aka “Niagara,” and Cary Loren), also known for their performance art and installations, before heading out to LA. The artist’s own influences span the 20th century from Surrealism, Saul, and Rosenquist, to Ruscha, Kelley, “a lot of actual popular art” (in the artist’s words), to comic artists such as DC artist Ramona Fradon, as well as advertising imagery. Though drawn to vintage ads, Shaw also looks to the Internet, using Google to provide variations of his source images that “are really dumb,” he adds with more than a hint of irony. The synthesis of these disparate elements is what shapes Shaw’s unpredictable artistic vision and makes him an appropriate, if ironic, prophet of our time.
The artist’s studio that he shares with wife, musician/artist Marnie Weber, is neatly tucked away behind a perfectly ordinary suburban home in a quiet suburb in northeast Los Angeles County that does little to betray the exuberant treasure trove that lies within. Passing through to the back studio, one traverses through methodically cluttered rooms where preparatory sketches sprawl over tables, shelves upon shelves are filled with books and comic compendiums, and walls are covered with artworks by the couple, their inspirations, and their friends. The distinctive smell of oil paint accompanied by the twangy rhythmic guitar of The Pretenders wafts through the air, hinting that the studio is not far off. Once inside, where Shaw is at work finishing one of many paintings to be photographed later in the afternoon, the picturesque chaos continues.
“I’ve been working on a lot of apocalyptic ideas, like this one,” Shaw describes, as he motions to examples leaning against the walls of his studio where an assistant works nearby. “And that green giant one is based on the Book of Revelations elements: the angel who’s pouring out a bowl of woe on rivers and forests, and this is the Whore of Babylon riding on the beast of seven heads and ten horns. The faces are mostly wealthy Americans from the late 1800s… I figure if you are dealing with contemporary issues its better not to use contemporary figures,” he pauses for a moment before concluding, “it seems like it would go south quickly.”
Speaking with the artist was hardly a typical interview, addressing in quick succession such wildly disparate topics as the DNA of the Mimic octopus, the apocryphal origins of seemingly innocent folk tunes such as “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain,” the Luddites, and the Swing Riots of Revolutionary-era France. Yet somehow, like the patchwork of references that exist in his paintings, it seemed to make perfect sense at the time. All the while, Shaw methodically amplifies the highlights of a cellophane-wrapped couple sitting atop a ’50s-style stereo cabinet gazing into a cosmic purple sky. “I had this other image that was a Saturday Evening Post cover. This young couple was sitting on a hillside looking at the night sky and instead of seeing normal constellations they were seeing appliances and a house, all the things we are trained to consume,” explains Shaw. “This is a variation on that idea… but here it is the idea of debt that encircles everybody.”
The subtext of Shaw’s paintings, however fanciful the surfaces may appear, is both culturally and politically astute. For the painting in question, he speaks about the lives of ordinary people becoming overwhelmed with consumerist propaganda—aka advertising—and the unyielding weight of personal debt that can result. Through images of allegory and advertising, he pointedly addresses growing concerns of possible economic tectonic shifts that seem to be increasingly on the verge of seismic activity: housing costs, student loans, as well as environment concerns centered on the affects of mono-agriculture and Monsanto-esque GMOs. Under the burden of these contemporary issues, “It gets me thinking about apocalyptic things,” he concludes.
Although most associated with LA, his most recent solo show in the City of Angels, and his first with internationally recognized gallery Blum & Poe, was held at the close of 2013. More recently his work has swapped the Southwest corner of the country for the Northeast, with overlapping solo museum shows in Massachusetts and New York, and another exhibition opening on the other side of the pond at Simon Lee Gallery in London, on November 8. The serendipitous pairing on the East Coast, with foreboding titles “Entertaining Doubts” at MASS MoCA (through January 31, 2016) and “The End is Here” at the New Museum (through January 10, 2016), leaves little doubt as to artist’s continual exploitation of these concerns.
“I’ve followed Jim’s work for a good 20 years, since I was in college, and have always admired his chameleon-like nature,” curator Denise Markonish explains. “I wanted to find a way to work with him, and when I saw the banner paintings I thought it was perfect for a place like MASS MoCA.” The exhibition centers on the “themes of fallability,” often through the iconic image of Superman, including two new commissions of massive installations by the museum, The Issue of my Loins and Not Since Superman Died. The latter consists of multiple banners hanging in sequence in the hallway; instead of triumphant resolve, the scenes offer moments of peril, “an injured and endangered Superman” amid the rising waters suggesting a great flood, effectively leaving the viewer uncertain of the hero’s fate. Superman also becomes a stand-in for the fallen heroes of our own time brought down in almost episodic fashion as weekly entertainment. “I think that is something that is in Jim’s work consistently,” says Markonish, “the fact that we are always entertaining our own doubts and sometimes our doubts are entertaining.”
For Shaw, the legacy of comic books—with a preference for DC—can be traced back to his childhood. “My family has a lot of loyalty, and Marvel comics were kind of crappy when I was first reading [them]. They would have really ugly colors and didn’t have any super heroes. All they had was monster comics,” he pauses for a moment then adds: “So they were really one step above Charlton… In retrospect they were really weird and now I am fascinated by the weirdness of them.”
What motivated the artist to rekindle his pre-adolescent fascination decades later was not simply youthful nostalgia, but an unexpected discovery after the death of his father: a series of drawings dating back to the 1950s that his father had created in a correspondence course. Markonish sought to illustrate the connection between this unearthed treasure and the Superhero’s narrative: “I think the real interesting moment in [Superman’s] history is when he shows humanity, like when kryptonite gets him, and I think that’s something that Jim really wanted to pick up on in this show, especially starting with these drawing that he found in his dad’s house.” These drawings are installed on opposite walls leading up to the mural-scaled The Issue of my Loins multi-media image, pairing Superman’s crotch with glowing Kryptonite crystals. Despite the overt absurdity, Markonish explains, “I think in some ways it is a very personal work. How he is holding Superman, or anyone, to this idea… that they are fallable.”
Unknown to Markonish at the time, another show was soon in the works, a retrospective exhibition, “The End is Here,” organized by New Museum curators Massimiliano Gioni, Gary Carrion-Murayari and Margot Norton. “This is Jim Shaw’s first survey in New York and probably the most complete exhibition devoted to his work to date,” explains Gioni in the auditory guide to the retrospective, in which he concludes, “Jim Shaw has been a very important presence in the art of California and the art of LA, and one of the most mysterious, weird and generally visionary artists of the last 30 years in American art.”
By comparison, while “Entertaining Doubts” focuses on more recent works, the multi-floor exhibition at the New Museum runs deeper into the artist’s overall oeuvre, with selections from earlier series, including “Dream Drawings” (1992–99), “Dream Objects” (1944–present), My Mirage (1985–91) and excerpts from the artist’s personal collection such as the Thrift Store Painting collections that Shaw famously showed at multiple exhibitions in the early 1990s.
Central to the New Museum exhibition is the immersive multi-media installation, Labyrinth: I Dreamt I was Taller than Jonathan Borofsky (2009). The work, originally commissioned to stand in front of a partially completed theatrical backdrop by Picasso in Toulouse, France, reverberates with an intense symphonic visual cacophony. Historic references abound, with imagery relating to the Spanish Civil War and Dali’s Landscape with Boiled Beans (1936), Goya’s Disasters of War, occultist Aleister Crowley, and perhaps the earliest known earthwork by Jacques-Louis David depicting the revolution-inspired Goddess of Liberty, the Vietnam War, Nixon’s distinctive visage, militaristic idioms and amorphous forms. The complex stratum of socio-political figures, both revolutionary and non-revolutionary characters, echoes the war-torn history of the 20th century.
Speaking in his studio, Shaw describes the Borofsky installation as a work of self-reflection: “I was interested in political art, and I was also reminded of when I was in CalArts, there was a lot of sort of clunky political work that was done by students of Jonathan Borofsky, so I titled the piece I Dreamt I was Taller than Jonathan Borofsky, and part of that was to question my own work that I was doing.” But the large-scale installation piece also posited a critique “of the tendency of the art world to forget people like Jonathan Borofsky when somebody else comes along that is doing something similar.” Surrealist references loom large in the Borofsky installation, and are perhaps the most unifying aspect of Shaw’s multifarious legacy. Throughout which, dream imagery has served as both influence and content in Shaw’s paintings. “For dreaming you need a lot of rest, and I only get that during summer and long vacation breaks… but I do try,” he explains. “I can get in an associative thinking state that is useful, is very conducive to having ideas—aimless thinking, mind-less versus mind-full thinking, that’s what I depend on,” he reflects. “And puns.”
Viewing Shaw’s paintings is a bit like pairing a Pop-culture pop quiz with taking an e-ticket ride through the artist’s imagination. For his current shows, Gioni summarizes Shaw as both collector and interpreter of the best and worst of American Culture; Markonish lightheartedly recalls how she describes entering the exhibition as an experience akin to perusing the artist’s brain. Or, perhaps, the installations are reminiscent of the wild hallucinations that notoriously resulted from the sensory deprivation experiments of the mid-20th century. Whatever the comparison, it can only be described as epic.