Jim Shaw, From Trash Bins and Swap Meets, a Prodigious Body of Work
By: Randy Kennedy
The artist Jim Shaw, whose retrospective opens on Wednesday at the New Museum in Manhattan, works in a modest converted house here on the outskirts of Los Angeles amid such a jumble of paintings and drawings it seems as if you could extract at least another three retrospectives out of it.
The mess is not exactly Collyer brothers level, but the other afternoon Mr. Shaw had to dig through layers of works in progress to unearth a box with a book he wanted to give to a reporter. The box crowded the furniture in the living room along with two old church organs, his studio manager’s Irish wolfhound and shelves bulging with titles like “Jokes for the John” and “Petroleum Collectibles.”
“For a lot of the things that I buy on eBay,” said Mr. Shaw, 63, in the middle of a meandering studio tour, “I’m the only bidder.”
The clutter is in keeping with the nature of an artist who has rummaged more thoroughly and strangely than almost any of his generation through the trash bins and swap meets of 20th-century American culture, forging a prodigious body of work that melds his eccentric collections with his comic-Surrealist paintings — and in a way that makes it hard to separate the two. As the critic Christopher Knight has written, Mr. Shaw “debunks the modernist myth of art as keeper of an ultimate, essential truth,” while being “sincerely obsessed with the perfectly human search for spiritual peace.”
His career has prowled the vicinities of fringe churches, cults, dangerous political movements, visionary art scenes and failed philosophies — and the ways they try to represent themselves visually and verbally — making him into what might be called an underground artist’s underground artist. (Though he is one who, in keeping with the sort of contradiction he loves, shows at an important New York gallery, Metro Pictures).
If you wanted to know more, for example, about the U.F.O. society known as the Unarius Academy of Science, with publications like “The Voice of Orion”; or about Jack Chick’s disturbing religious tracts; or about American Freemasonry; or how the Branch Davidians are related to the Millerites; or about the 1970s extravaganzas of the Rev. O. Lee Jaggers and Miss Velma (married first cousins) at their Universal World Church in Los Angeles, Mr. Shaw is one-stop shopping.
The New Museum show, “The End Is Here,” which runs through Jan. 10, will be a kind of reunion tour for a body of work that Mr. Shaw is perhaps best known for, his vast collection of thrift store paintings, which made their first gallery appearance in New York in 1991, in an exhibition that has come to be revered for its unexpected impact on the ways people thought about painting at the time. A selection, from some 400 canvases that were eventually acquired as a group by a Brussels collector, are now back in New York, along with others that Mr. Shaw has collected recently, grouped into categories like “religious paintings” and “the depressed ex-girlfriend section.”
“Jim has always been very important and influential to me because of the way he blurs the distinction between insider art and outsider art, which is something I’ve been involved with for a long time,” said Massimiliano Gioni, the New Museum’s associate director and director of exhibitions and the curator of its show, along with Gary Carrion-Murayari and Margot Norton.
“I think he is progressively fascinated by forms of visual culture at the moment of their disappearance,” Mr. Gioni added, describing Mr. Shaw’s obsessive collections of amateur art, religious tracts and other cultural castoffs as “an iconographic sanctuary.”
Mr. Shaw, who has lived and worked in Los Angeles since the 1970s, grew up in Midland, Mich., the home of Dow Chemical, where his father was a product designer. Along with the artist Mike Kelley, a fellow student at the University of Michigan, Mr. Shaw was a founder of the short-lived but influential punk-noise band Destroy All Monsters. And along with Mr. Kelley and Paul McCarthy, another Los Angeles transplant from further east, Mr. Shaw became known in the 1980s and 1990s for a creepy brand of art – sometimes identified under the catchall term “abject” — that took a good, hard look at the hairy underbelly of the American dream.
Mr. Shaw’s work in particular, Mr. Gioni said, holds tight, without irony or condescension, to “forms of visual culture that would otherwise go away — and indirectly what he collects and shows becomes a commentary on what a museum is, who gets to preserve these stories and cultures and how they get shown.”
While Mr. Kelley, who died in 2012, and Mr. McCarthy became highly successful in the commercial art world, Mr. Shaw still speaks about his career like a kind of middle manager at an office supply company, mentioning his mortgage and the outrageous costs of education. (Mr. Shaw is married to the artist Marnie Weber and they have a teenage daughter.) While there is some false modesty in this, Mr. Shaw, who worked for years in Hollywood special-effects departments to pay the bills, said he had never really been able to adjust the calculus of his artistic obsessions to the art world’s desires.
“I just came to the conclusion that if I tried to make things for the market, it was never going to work,” he said during the studio walk-through, wearing badly stained khakis, a turquoise Hawaiian shirt and a pair of reading glasses on his nose in front of his regular glasses. Showing off a large new painting, almost completed, of a surrealist landscape scattered with jars holding fetuses, he fake-grimaced and said, “I have no idea who’s going to want to buy that.”
In some ways, Mr. Shaw’s career has suffered under the shadow of Mr. Kelley’s, a close friend with whom he shared many interests — comic book characters, underground cultures, vernacular traditions twisted by Pop culture. But with the retrospective, and a that opened in March and also closes in January at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, Mr. Shaw is getting the kind of attention that his work, which has been followed for many years in Europe, has never had in the United States.
It’s not easy, through his bone-dry, unassuming demeanor, to tell quite how he feels about that. But last week, back in New York to help hang the show, he looked up admiringly at large, kooky religious banners — ones he came across years ago at the Pasadena City College flea market — hanging prominently in the middle of the museum’s third floor. One banner’s hand-painted message seemed to comically invoke Mr. Shaw’s quasi-religious career itself: “Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth.”
Mr. Shaw looked around and shook his head. “There’s so much more that could be in here, you know,” he said.