The baby boomers’ obsession with the mid-20th-century Americana of their childhoods—that anxious nuclear-age mix of religion and sexuality immortalized in comic books and B-movies—can seem like a yearning for the overly familiar, a desire for the comfort of clichés. Throughout his four-decade career, Jim Shaw (b. 1952) has journeyed deep into the dark heart of this obsession, exploring and celebrating the weird objects of collective fixation, but never indulging in nostalgia. As much as he is an artist, Shaw is a careful connoisseur. His retrospective—packed in nearly equal measure with selections from his own expansive and highly varied body of work and the vast collections of artifacts he has assembled from what’s often called “vernacular culture”—felt like a joyfully raucous tumble into white, low-church America.
Shaw’s heterogeneous work ranges from faux-paperback covers, comic strips, drawings and paintings to giant stage flats, sculptures and videos—all of it channeling the visual abundance of postwar popular culture. The earliest works in the exhibition date to Shaw’s undergrad years at the University of Michigan in the early 1970s, when he was part of the band-cum-art collective Destroy All Monsters along with several classmates, including artist Mike Kelley. Shaw’s photocopied flyers for the band, whose performances were often impromptu, combine imagery gleaned from an eclectic array of sources: ’50s tire ads, pinup spreads, medical books. These flyers contain elements of the basic visual vocabulary that Shaw has returned to repeatedly. In addition, they have an ambiguous status—as works of disposable graphic art that also exist within an avant-garde tradition—shared by Shaw’s later works.
Shaw attended the California Institute of the Arts in the late 1970s and absorbed the school’s post-studio curriculum while developing his virtuoso skills as a draftsman. (He had a parallel career designing special effects for movies.) The son and grandson of commercial artists and designers, he is adept at wielding airbrush, pencil and pen. In Distorted Face (1979), an acid-yellow glow appears to backlight a woman’s stretched-out face, casting it into deep purple shadows. The effect is of a celluloid still that appears to be on the verge of melting. Four large untitled drawings from 2015 (about 6 by 4 feet each) feature meticulously rendered fragments of heads, which dissolve into airbrushed squiggles around their edges. Untitled (Large Face with Famous Monster Logo), 2003, depicts an ordinary middle-aged woman’s face under the banner title of the horror fan magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland.
The delicate photorealism in the portraits gives way to descriptively rendered drawings and paintings based on Shaw’s dreams. The artist’s embrace of Surrealism’s dream logic becomes an extended exploration of the back-and-forth influence between vanguard art movements and styles associated with contemporary religious illustrations, lowbrow movies, countercultural music, comics and pornography. Nowhere is that more evident than in the 89 panels and three videos comprising the series “My Mirage” (1985-91). Here, Shaw adopts many popular illustrative styles and spans many mediums in works that resemble everything from trippy album cover psychedelia to comic book covers to naive erotica. The series is a personal allegory of sorts, conveying a loose, abstract narrative about the coming of age of a Midwestern boy. Taken together, the works in the series chart a voyage from innocence, through frenzied sexual discovery, to spiritual redemption in a New Agey cult setting, but what’s most impressive is the way each work mimics a style of illustration the protagonist would be either making or looking at during that particular stage of life. The visual complexity of each piece is engrossing, as in Billy Goes to a Love-In (1991), which details a misbegotten night in comic panels. The comic, which at first seems slightly misshapen, is “tattooed” over the entirety of a young man’s tightly cropped chest and abdomen, the outlines of the panels following the contours of his nipples and pecs.
In what is one of the most singular and generous parts of the show, Shaw gave over an entire floor to the display of his collections, with one gallery devoted to thrift store paintings and another to religious paraphernalia. The trove of thrift store paintings, first shown in a public library in California in 1990 and then at New York’s Metro Pictures gallery in 1991, has become one of the most iconic collections of objets trouvés of recent decades, in large part because of the drily observant titles that Shaw has applied. Works like Abuelita Cooking Tiny Food have a deadpan hilarity, as the title makes the incongruous scale of the cook and her food seem willed rather than accidental. Most of the paintings are unattributed; for those that are signed, Shaw included the name of the artist on a laminated guide sheet that contained details about all of the found paintings on view, as he did with Fast Food Last Supper, by Dan Anderson. Without Shaw’s highlighting of the barely sketched-in semi-figurative cloudscape above a cacophonous pile of fast food joints we would miss the painter’s religious message. The range of interests on exhibit in these works is encyclopedic, from self-pleasuring first ladies to floating yard toys, but the hanging and titling managed to give each piece the dignity of its intention.
The densely installed collection of religious and oddball political pamphlets, record covers, banners and books in the next gallery pointed to another strand of Americana that informs Shaw’s practice. The various religious messages include brimstone warnings, tarot symbols and Mormon photo essays on proper comportment. Some of the religious pamphlets and signs include expressions of sympathy with Lyndon LaRouche and other crackpot politicians. A display of such material in a temple of secular cool like the New Museum could seem like a patronizing anthropology of kitsch. Yet the sheer effort and commitment that Shaw put into his collection obviates any ironic overtones; the display functions instead as a thorough guide to a highly complex mythos that is as widespread in the U.S. of A. as it is outside mainstream culture. Shaw ended up inventing his own religious cult, with backstory, called Oism, fleshed out here in a painting, a video and photos that lack the fervid weirdness of the real things next-door.
The top floor featured huge paintings on reclaimed theater backdrops, with some propped up as stage flats. By the time we got to this part of the retrospective, the wide range of borrowed images, from elastic superheroes to mid-century political cartoonist Herblock to Charles Philipon’s 1831 caricatures of a pear-headed King Louis-Philippe, added up to a familiar cast. At his best Shaw uses such imagery to surprisingly intimate ends; here, one missed the heart-wrenching personal follies that he communicates through the common culture.