BY Ara H. Merjian in Reviews | 30 OCT 14
Featured in
Issue 167

Jim Shaw

Metro Pictures, New York, USA

BY Ara H. Merjian in Reviews | 30 OCT 14

Jim Shaw, The Rhinegold’s Curse, 2014, acrylic on muslin, three parts, each: 2.4 × 1.2 m

Populated by Superman/chicken hybrids and human corn-cobs, comic book characters and candles in the shape of Richard Wagner’s effigy, Jim Shaw’s latest group of paintings, ‘I Only Wanted You to Love Me,’ inflate their mix of philistine Pop and highbrow allusion to a grand, sweeping scale. These are hybrid images containing strange physical admixtures and synthesizing various myths, contemporary and ancient. ‘YOU ARE ALL WHORES AND BLASPHEMERS’ reads the textual screed of The Flood (2014), its receding, cartoony letters set off against streaks of water, awash in some modern riff on Biblical wrath. In what might be considered the show’s central piece, The Deluge (2014), a buff and shirtless Cary Grant whisks Eva Marie Saint to safety in the wake of a stylized wave, which – along with the steam from a tug boat – appears to form part of the damsel’s body, metamorphosing in turn into an outsized hand, alighting before an outsized nose carved out of a cliff face.

As even these brief descriptions suggest, Shaw’s images appear steeped in an outlandish and droll imagination. A lightning rod of America’s proto-punk culture, Shaw has left his mark on everything from assemblage and drawing to conceptual interventions (for instance, his celebrated collection of paintings gathered from second-hand shops, ‘Thrift Store Paintings’, 2000–ongoing) and covers for imaginary paperback novels. Having invented and developed his own religion, Oism – the principles of which he continues to shape in word and image – Shaw walks a fine, spirited line between empiricism and esotericism, earnestness and irony.

The artist’s has worked on an increasingly large scale since 2006. The present paintings continue in that vein. Hung unstretched, these sprawling canvases accommodate an enormous amount of detail, notwithstanding their dimensions; the fine weft of the muslin on which Shaw paints affords detailed applications of acrylic. In several instances (The Rhinegold’s Curse, 2014, Judges 19, 2014, and The Deluge, for example), the paintings’ backgrounds appear faint, slightly washed-out, while foreground imagery appears crisp and brightly coloured. The effect is almost as if Shaw has painted over banal, saccharine landscapes à la Asger Jorn or Enrico Baj. Only his scenes do anything but recoil from kitsch. They elaborate its textures and guilty pleasures with MacDonald’s signs and Land O’Lakes iconography. Even his characteristically literary titles offer a decidedly tongue-in-cheek gloss on their imagery; Wedding of the Ear (2013), plays upon an anthropomorphized ear of corn, while Whistle While you Work (2014) conjures up the theme from Walt Disney’s Snow White (1937), duly matched by a procession of labouring dwarves.

Garish hues and droll citation often appear alongside more refined, even recondite, allusions. Wedding of the Ear crosses The Flash (of comic book fame) with Gothic architecture worthy of some pre-Raphaelite fantasy, while the dwarves that animate the foreground of the three-panelled The Rhinegold’s Curse effortlessly inhabit Icelandic and Wagnerian epic, alongside mystical runes and a lyre-strumming mermaid.

Trains A Comin’ Through (2014), updates St. Sebastian’s martyrdom with locomotives rather than arrows, while Judges 19 (2014), conjures up a gruesome verse from Genesis – entailing gang rape and the dismemberment of a concubine – in the form of a supine, fractured female body, with the ground splintering into glimpses of hellfire below.

The disembodied wig perched upon an errant tank, bursting from some ancient near Eastern citadel in Delilah (2014) evokes something of René Magritte’s Surrealism, in which incongruous objects appear reconciled with aplomb. That Shaw has turned explicitly to Magritte’s work in the past (in his painting Bonne idée, Good Idea, 1989) comes as no surprise. Yet it is also perhaps in light of 1980s figuration that we might consider Shaw’s imagery, its juxtapositions at once absurd and phlegmatic. The Italian ‘Anacronisti’ painters Stefano Di Stasio and Paola Gandolfi leap to mind, as does David Salle, who similarly layers swathes of imagery in separate planes while managing to link them in a chain of vague association.

Shaw’s paintings perform a more seamless conciliation between their objects and spaces, however, as in Delilah (which, by the artist’s own account, features Farrah Fawcett’s famous mane, as it came to him in a vision). Upon closer inspection, in any case, the citadel in the background of the image derives from a latter-day architectural pastiche, as indicated by the signage barely visible at right: ‘Citadel Outlet,’ from the Samson Tire Factory, a California Art Deco landmark. Not only, then, do seemingly irreconcilable images inhabit the same space, but a near Eastern desert (the site of ongoing American military intervention) is, in fact, revealed to be a landscape much closer to home. Shaw’s images repay deeper looking for, as much as their fun-house amusements seem to indulge in mere wit, their figuration conceals various, coy literary insinuations and puns that open onto more serious considerations, from Biblical interpretation to consumer culture to foreign policy.

Ara H. Merjian is Professor of Italian Studies at New York University, USA, where he is an affiliate of the Institute of Fine Arts and Department of Art History.