Old weird America, that’s what rock critic Greil Marcus called the United States. It doesn’t get any weirder or more American than the work of Jim Shaw, as evidenced in a retrospective at the New Museum in New York titled The End is Here. Everything, but everything, that Shaw has dreamt, imagined, feared, studied, or fantasised has derived its shape from the cookie cutter forms of the nation’s popular culture – from magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland to movies to comic books to (pre-Internet) radio. The total submersion of anything resembling high culture into this ocean of fashionable forms probably explains why, until recently, major museums have been reluctant to take the measure of this prolific artist. Even the late Mike Kelly, a band mate and classmate of Shaw’s in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the 1970s, is easier to deal with than Shaw and provided more of what felt like serious art. But Kelly, too, had to wait his turn (he committed suicide in 2012, two years before his U.S. retrospective). Or it might be a case of California-itis. In contrast to many BFA graduates from the University of Michigan who chose to go to New York in the 1970s, both Shaw and Kelly went west to Los Angeles, the home of pop art. L.A. is a one-company town, where the only reality, at least on the surface, is ‘the movies’ and their attendant media offshoots. Thus, film imagery populates Shaw’s work – science fiction dominates in the Martian Portraits and also in The House of Wax, where actor Vincent Price is seen melting away, and there is a group of Noir portraits. Three extended series of drawings, Dream Objects, Dream Drawings, and Fake Dream Drawings, mix explicit Zap Comix type sex (of the S. Clay Wilson rhetorical variety) with references to the Hanna-Barbera cartoon studio, Errol Flynn, and a shark mating with Mothra, the giant, winged Japanese screen monster from the age of atomic bomb anxiety. Even with a big-ticket item such as the large acrylic painting The Deluge, in which significant effort and resources have been invested, the encounter with religious painting is transformed into an elaborate send up of Adam and Eve with Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint from Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest in the title roles.
Working big and thinking small signal an anxiety in the face of art historical traditions and the supposed responsibility of the artist to make a statement and construct meaning – especially intense for someone talented enough to do almost anything with a brush, pencil, or airbrush, and especially in L.A., where it is a cardinal sin to stop being entertaining. The exhibition’s largest single installation, Labyrinth: I Dreamt I was Taller than Jonathan Borofsky, mixes large cartoon cut-outs and a vast canvas referencing Picasso’s Guernica, Salvador Dali’s surrealism, and Richard Nixon with apocalyptic sci-fi imagery, whose titular reference is to a contemporary American artist whose work is also eccentric and figurative. Confronted by the naiveté, crassness, fecundity, and archetypal audacity of mass culture, what does an artist like Shaw do with 2000 years of Western art, with Picasso, Bosch, Dali, William Blake, Surrealism, Op Art, and text art, all of which appear in his work only to be exploited and then relegated to a kind of museum of exhausted possibilities? The show’s title says it all: The End [of Art] is Here.
Other constituencies represented in the exhibition, however, care less about the end of art than the end of the world. The true heart of the survey, its most revealing and unsettling components, didn’t belong to Shaw at all. An inveterate collector of fringe ephemera, he has a serious inclination toward insistent, goofy, and visionary exhortation. One room contains his collection of thrift store paintings, autodidactic (one assumes) art whose desperate energy manages in so many of the tableaux to sabotage the striving after conventional quality. With less education and a little more conviction, Shaw might have been one of them. Another floor of the exhibition displayed The Hidden World, his collection of banners, posters, catalogues, comic books, and vinyl album jackets for a slew of religious and inspirational records. Shaw calls it didactic art and has published the collection in book form, which looks like it could have been distributed by Gideons (the evangelical Christian association) in high-end hotel rooms. As Robert Frank long ago discovered when he travelled across America, the country’s real business is religion, in this case with two faces – apocalyptic paranoia and competitive entrepreneurship. A huge hand-lettered banner proclaims: FALSE PROPHETS. That all others are wrong. That selling revelation is OK. THEY ALL AGREE. Another image advises us: Remember the wife of Lot! The End [of the world] is closer than you think.
In old weird America, this has the potential to happen at any minute. Shaw was born and raised in Michigan and went to the California Institute of the Arts for his MFA. The two states, which do not resemble each other in most ways, nevertheless share a preoccupation with revealed religion coupled with a can-do, cannot-be-wrong attitude. The men who blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 in order to strike a blow against government overreach, plotted the crime in Michigan. A decade earlier, at the fundamentalist Loma Linda University Medical Center in the desert east of Los Angeles, near (now infamous) San Bernardino, physicians transplanted the heart of a baboon into a human infant. Life and death, beauty and blasphemy – only God can resolve these dichotomies, and the great, frightening idea of America is that the citizens will do whatever it takes to summon Him.
Jim Shaw: The End is Here is at the New Museum in New York until 10 January 2016.