‘The Rinse Cycle’, the title of BALTIC’s career-spanning survey of work by LA-based artist Jim Shaw, might call to mind the banal routines of domestic life. Yet, as in so much of Shaw’s thrift-store-inspired art, that world is also the space in which an improbable range of cultural references – cult and puritanical religions, 1950s B-movies, comic books, Pop, suburban kitsch – are brought together in usually unpredictable ways. As in the work of the late Mike Kelley, Shaw’s classmate and collaborator at CalArts in the late 1970s, the artist’s preoccupation with the popular culture of his youth is genuinely ambivalent. Comprising more than 100 works, ‘The Rinse Cycle’ was Shaw’s first-ever full-scale survey in the UK. To his credit, exhibition curator Laurence Sillars was able to draw subtle thematic and formal connections across the multiple intersecting strands of Shaw’s practice.
The series ‘My Mirage’ (1986–91), which served as the entry point to the show and set the tone for much of what followed, consists of a voluminous collection of drawings, paintings and objects attributed to ‘Billy’, a persona that Shaw has constructed in bricolage fashion out of the consumer and counter-cultures of the ’60s. Through a sequence of vignettes, we follow Billy’s adolescence in mythical small-town America, his subsequent experiments with hallucinogenic drugs under the influence of a pagan cult, and his eventual rebirth as (what else?) a Christian televangelist. While this narrative sounds familiar, perhaps even cliché, Shaw’s incessant mining of the images and genres of his youth raises questions about what sense of agency might derive from a self that is dispersed across these vernacular and commodified forms. The endless pastiche of styles – from Peanuts cartoons and psychedelic rock album covers to the iconography of new religious movements – might function to disrupt notions of biography or signature style, but they can also be seen to affirm the decentred subjectivity and fragmented routines of Postmodern society. That designation works to date Shaw’s art to the recent past, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, his reliance on material culture offers a useful antidote to today’s logic of digital post-production where images, rendered increasingly virtual and nomadic, seem to follow the flows of capital all the more insistently.
While ‘My Mirage’ reveals an unlikely visual affinity between evangelical Christian iconography and the fantasy landscapes associated with the cover art of prog-rock bands like Yes, Shaw’s ‘Oist’ paintings (2002–11) rehearse the tropes of Abstract Expressionism via references to various distinctly American new-age religious movements. Oism, a fictional religion modeled loosely on Mormonism and the Christian Science movement, was allegedly founded by a proto-feminist prophet in upstate New York – the location of actual cults such as the Universal Friends. In Oist theology, images of the human body were once prohibited but, as the religion was transformed from a Utopian commune into a corporate business, figurative artists began to infiltrate its ranks. Thus, in paintings such as Untitled (Faces in a Circle) (2009), an all-over field of gestural brushstrokes is broken up by a ring of glassy-eyed Oist devotees sporting identical hairstyles. This elaborate conceit offers Shaw a means to tackle the problem of abstraction and figuration in this ‘post-secular’ moment. Although he is fully aware that there can be no simple return to outmoded forms of painterly expression, Shaw is nonetheless interested in asking how the legacy of Abstract Expressionism might be put to ends more than reverential or parodic.
In his ‘Dream Drawings’ (1992–96), Shaw explores the interconnections between mass culture and the similarly syncretic structure of his unconscious. Drawing on his experience as a storyboard artist during the 1980s, Shaw reconstructs vivid scenes from his dreams, infiltrated by images and characters derived from popular media (e.g. a TV movie biopic of Frank Sinatra) that are themselves conducive to day-dreaming. The ‘Cake’ series (2010–11), a collection of paintings that pose tortured male figures against apparently abstract backgrounds – some of which have in fact been taken from a close-up photograph of an iced cake – manages at once to invoke 1950s domestic fantasies and Victorian physiognomies of the mentally ill.
Shaw’s large collection of paintings purchased from thrift stores and flea markets – which were shown in the nearby project space, BALTIC 39 – are a testament to the artist’s deep fascination with the domestic folk art and vernacular surrealism of postwar America. Unremittingly bizarre, these paintings give form to an abject sensibility that has been rendered suspect or otherwise fetishized in the hyper-professionalized art world. Seen from this vantage-point, the power of Shaw’s art lies in its ability to tap into this unschooled aesthetic without the comfort of ironic distance, an approach summed up in the apocryphal Native American saying that the artist uses to title this postscript to ‘The Rinse Cycle’: ‘You think you own your stuff, but your stuff owns you.’