A connoisseur of both popular and underground culture, Jim Shaw appropriates styles and iconography from his vast personal collection of comic books, religious pamphlets, medical textbooks, vinyl albums and amateur paintings found at flea markets. Belonging to the low end of American artistic production, such artifacts are, for Shaw, worthy of rigorous research. He distinguishes between the drawings of comic-book artists and medical illustrators with the same degree of sensitivity as art historian Bernard Berenson demonstrated in pointing out the distinctions between a Titian and a Giorgione. Thrift-store paintings and instructional materials from Shaw’s collection have been featured in stand-alone exhibitions—a testament to his expertise. It is from this trove of cultural debris that Shaw draws his pictorial vocabulary in the large allegorical paintings (all 2013 or ’14) on view at Metro Pictures.
Painted atop discarded theatrical backdrops, another vernacular art form, Shaw’s current works recall surrealist fantasy illustration from 1970s album art. It is easy to imagine them as part of the stage set or gatefold LP cover for the unrealized prog-rock opera Shaw began planning around 2008 titled The Rinse Cycle, a humorous tribute to Wagner’s Ring cycle. Inspired by religious concept albums by the bands Yes and the Osmonds, The Rinse Cycle is based on the mythology of a fictional religion, Oism, which includes a revolt of dwarves, time-travel wigs and land submerged by giant waves—motifs that appear in several works in the show. For example, the wall-size painting The Rhinegold’s Curse (2014), titled after part one of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, depicts the Rhine maidens from Wagner’s opera in the guise of the nudes on the cover of Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland. The likenesses of Wagner and Hendrix appear as burning candles in the rocky landscape, while dwarves march along the river with wheelbarrows of gold.
The dwarves in Wagner’s opera and Shaw’s Oist legends are conflated with Disney’s Seven Dwarves in Whistle While You Work (2014), in which they carry off the heads of decapitated superheroes or gods. Such diverse references, from rock ‘n’ roll and cartoons to religion and German romanticism, appear throughout the works in a stream-of-consciousness way, or perhaps according to a paranoid logic. Shaw, like his former Destroy All Monsters bandmate and CalArts classmate Mike Kelley, is drawn to the dark side of American culture, including conspiracy theories, cults and psychosis.
Shaw’s ability to seamlessly shift between registers is exemplified in The Deluge (2014). In this Michelangelo-esque creation story, the hand of God reaches out from a wave and, rather than fashioning Adam, morphs into Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in the climactic scene of North by Northwest. This convergence points to the archetypes that underpin Christian theology, Renaissance painting and Hollywood films. Shaw’s interest in Hitchcock is not surprising given this director’s predilection for the evil lurking beneath seemingly normal situations. An example of the “wrong man” storyline favored by Hitchcock, North by Northwest explores notions of innocence and guilt that originate in the Adam and Eve story. Dissecting the underlying themes and mythological facets of Hollywood cinema, Shaw takes a connoisseurial approach to pop culture that serves as more than an expression of fandom. It is a tool to understand the society in which we live.