‘I’ll Know it When I See it’: Artist Jim Shaw Explains His Frieze London Presentation

The artist talks about the inspiration behind his gilded wallpaper-mounted installation at Frieze London

BY Matthew McLean in Frieze London | 04 OCT 18

Matthew McLean  You’re installing your works on gilded wallpaper which references both the interior of Mar-a-Lago and Nero’s Domus Aurea. What inspired this presentation?

Jim Shaw  I was on a tour of the Vatican and walked through a vast hallway that was decorated with endless grotesques, many of them depicting pagan images, particularly nymphs (topless) and satyrs (I believe with their genitals showing) and was driven to investigate the history of the grotesque. I found that its revival was part of the Renaissance rediscovery of the classical world, and Nero’s recently unearthed palace seemed pretty grotesque in itself. I had been working towards artworks that would evoke the grotesque inequalities of the present through the lens of the past, initially the Gilded Age. I originally wanted to do an installation that would evoke a rediscovery of the ruined Mar-a-Lago in the far future as a corollary to the finding of Nero’s ‘grotto’. This was quite a bit more than a fair booth could handle, needing a collapsed roof, aged, water-soaked walls, etc, so instead it’s more of an Edwardian (?) study or drawing room.

MM  Have you ever been to Mar-a-Lago? 

JS  No, never.

MM  What’s the most apocalyptic place you’ve visited in America?

JS  It’s a toss-up between Detroit and Salton Sea/Slab city.

Jim Shaw, Tragedy Display, 2018, acrylic on muslin, 154 x 122 x 5 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Simon Lee Gallery © Jim Shaw 2018

MM  The work possibly invites a comparison of present-day USA and Imperial Rome. What do you make of the parallels?

JS  The obvious one is between Trump and Nero, but I imagine the American empire unravelling much faster than Rome, post Nero.

MM  The motif on the wallpaper could be described as ‘grotesque’ – both in the language of ancient Roman decoration and in a more modern sense. What does the word ‘grotesque’ mean to you?  How would you relate that term to your practice more widely?

JS  I’m interested in the original meaning, a wall decoration that irrationally mixed animal and vegetable forms, as well as the contemporary. I think there was a ‘mod’ term in our Beatles dictionary, ‘grotty,’ but I may be imagining that. I think nearly everything about present day culture, economics and life are grotesque, in the contemporary meaning of the word.

Jim Shaw, Hush Money, 2018, acrylic on muslin, 86 x 61 x 5 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Simon Lee Gallery © Jim Shaw 2018

MM  The works you’re hanging against the gilded wallpaper are paintings, but have a collaged aspect – for example, Roy Cohn’s face superimposed on the body of a Hush Puppies basset hound. Does collage or cut-up technique have a role in your compositions, or in your imagination?

JS  The surrealist superimposition of seemingly unrelated images is a central factor in my work, along with the random chance aspect of collage, but also, there is a steady use of visual puns, a rhyming of like forms that in my mind echoes the logic of dreams and the basis of political cartooning.

MM  These works appear to draw, like much of your work, on a wide range of found imagery – popular and art historical. What are some of the sources you’ve been mining for these most recent works, and how did you come across them?

JS  Google image search mostly, my subconscious mind wandering for a lot of them. If I find a particularly interesting image, I file it away until there comes a day when it ‘rhymes’ or has a use in my newest concerns.

MM  How will you decide the hang of the works in relation to each other at the fair?

JS  I’ll know it when I see it. The ‘portraits’ were meant as a sort of ‘draw’ in that they also fit with the wallpaper.

Jim Shaw, Official Portrait #1, 2018, acrylic on muslin, 76 x 61 x 5 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Simon Lee Gallery © Jim Shaw 2018

MM  Your 2015–16 survey at the New Museum was entitled ‘The End Is Near’ – the same title as your CalArts MFA thesis from the 1970s. Do you feel the present American political climate constitutes a kind of ‘end times’?  Or are end times always still to come?

JS  I’m afraid for my daughter as she will probably live through the chaotic changes that we are just seeing the beginnings of. Climate change will lead to much larger refugee problems, and robotics and AI will put most of us out of work, as well as continue to dehumanize us. Are nationalistic totalitarian, or ‘alt-right’ regimes the likely future? It’s up to all of us to imagine something better.

MM  The to do list clutched by Marat in your work Seven Deadly Sins (2013), a painting on a found theatre backdrop shown at the Marciano Foundation in Los Angeles last summer, included the injunction ‘Have more dreams’. Do you think in times of crisis or struggle, dreaming becomes more idle, or more vital?

JS  Dreaming may be all we have left.

MM  Have you ever tried depicting the current President directly, explicitly?  Would you consider it? 

JS  Life in Hell?

Jim Shaw’s solo presentation was located at Frieze London 2018 at Simon Lee Gallery's booth, stand E6.

Matthew McLean is creative director at Frieze Studios. He lives in London, UK.