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at151112GoldenBook-EileenHarrisNorton.jpg
Jim Shaw, "The Golden Book of Knowledge," 1989
Gouache on board
Eileen Harris Norton Collection

Jim Shaw is one of a number of early CalArts graduates, (MFA in 1978) to help cement LA’s reputation as an important center for contemporary art through his regular shows at international galleries and museums. Yet, there has been no comprehensive overview in this country until now. Jim Shaw: The End is Here, an overdue survey of his work organized by star curator Massamiliano Gioni with Gary Carrion-Murayari and Margot Norton at the New Museum, is garnering well-deserved raves.

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Jim Shaw, "The Golden Age," 2013
Acrylic on muslin
Private collection, Paris
Courtesy Metro Pictures, New York
Photo: Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio

The show's title, first used by the artist for his graduate exhibition at CalArts, underscores his decades-long fascination with end of the world strategies as played out in the larger culture. One important aspect of the show is the fact that we can see the relationship between Shaw’s super detailed drawings and paintings, and their source material: comic books, record album art, religious and pseudo-scientific propaganda. The curators dedicated an entire floor of the exhibition to Shaw’s own collections of bizarre thrift shop paintings and dismaying pamphlets of religious cultists and true believers of every stripe.

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Jim Shaw, "World of Pain (Silver Version)," 1991
Photostat on Mylar with cardboard back
Collection the artist

Much of this material has to do with the apocalypse and preparation for an afterlife though there is a parallel strain of fascination with UFO's and conspiracy theories. The raw material is by turns hilarious and terrifying. Shaw's genius lies in the way that he transmogrifies corny curiosities into works of searing insight into a deeply American band of fundamentalism. Visually and conceptually, he borrows from these pictures and texts but reworks and re-presents them as Americana in extremis.

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Jim Shaw, "Billy's Self-portrait #1 (Famous Monsters Cover)," 1986
Gouache on board
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Photo © Museum Associates/ LACMA

Growing up in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan, Shaw, like most adolescents, was driven by the imagery of popular culture like Archie comics or Led Zeppelin. With his hometown friend and fellow CalArts student, Mike Kelley, he formed the art rock band Destroy All Monsters. Shaw has used music and video throughout his career but usually in a thematic relationship to his drawings and paintings. It is a theatrical, even operatic sensibility whereby numerous characters, invented and actual, populate a conceptual domain in pursuit of answers to the big questions.

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Jim Shaw, "Dream Object: Paperback Cover
('I saw a guy falling into a giant membranous, disgusting throat or other orifice.')," 2008
Gouache on rag board mounted on plywood
Courtesy Galleria Massimo De Carlo, Milan/London

This is evident as early as his 1985 series My Mirage, where Billy the innocent protagonist is led through temptations and provocations, like a Pilgrim's Progress set in the 1960's American suburbs. In the first years of this century, Shaw even invented his own distaff religion of Oism — just as L. Ron Hubbard invented Scientology — and Shaw has created a substantial body of work around the fictional followers and their beliefs.

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Jim Shaw, "Untitled (Distorted Face #4)," 1984
Graphite, airbrush and Prismacolor on paper
Courtesy James Corcoran Gallery, Los Angeles

Shaw's ability to draw realistically has empowered him to explore the tropes of illustration, the seductive, narrative power of representational art in styles ranging from cartoonesque to Renaissanceesque. Much of his work from the 1980's and 1990's is modest in scale, demanding concentrated attention to his countless details. These include drawings that he made by practicing a technique of wakeful dreaming, recording his dreams as they happened. His fascination with alternate states of consciousness as seen in his Dream Drawings and Dream Objects has continued over time but now are executed at much greater scale.

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Jim Shaw, "Labyrinth: I Dreamt I was Taller than Jonathan Borofsky," 2009
Installation; acrylic on muslin canvas stretched over plywood panels
Collection Eric Decelle, Brussels
Photo: Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio

The top floor gallery of the museum is entirely filled with Shaw's 2009 installation Labyrinth: I Dreamt I was Taller than Jonathan Borofsky, a title referring to another artist who has explored dreaming and strains of altered consciousness in his art. Borofsky was teaching at CalArts in the late 70's when Shaw was a student. He witnessed Borofsky and his students painting a series of unpremeditated murals. Shaw’s installation is something of an homage to the spirit of that time. It is staggering in its complexity. You walk among Shaw's painted, free-standing flats, the sort used in scenic design, while the walls are hung with paintings executed on top of faded, distressed theater backdrops from the 1930's and 40's. A quaint aura of lost innocence ripples beneath Shaw's elaborate renderings of the scrabbling unfortunate, businessmen, superheros, deities and politicians, all riotously intertwined in themes from art history, politics, and religion. Shaw has included a towering sculpture of Borofsky’s best known public artwork, the iconic clown ballerina in Venice, here giving the boot to a man in a suit. It is a nerve-racking and exhilerating installation, the apogee of this survey of Shaw’s exceptional, surreal art and the culture that informs it. In addition, the New Museum itself deserves praise for mounting such a challenging show just two years after their prescient and important retrospective of another controversial LA-based artist: Chris Burden, who then passed away this year. The show continues through January 10, 2016.

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