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Issue 174

Questionnaire: Jim Shaw

Q: What should stay the same? A: Nature.

BY Jim Shaw in Interviews , Questionnaires | 24 SEP 15

Image courtesy the artist

What images keep you company in the space where you work?

Every time I finish a show, when I desperately need some time to crash, I rifle through odd, old magazines looking for stuff to jar or inspire me. I carry a file around for inspiration, but a few images randomly end up on my drawing board. One shows a 1940s female model looking up with the phrase ‘Have you ever been paid for dreaming?’ Several are from Dow Diamond, the magazine of Dow Chemical Co., which is the main employer in my home town of Midland, Michigan. There is a page with the title ‘the fruits of discontent’ about the value of consumer desire, in which a family looks at a city in the clouds; another titled ‘the crucible of chemistry’ with an image of the alchemical salamander emerging from fire. In one ad for life insurance, an upset commercial artist turns away from his drawing board and says: ‘I need money in the bank, not life insurance!’ Another shows a blow-up of an airbrushed, 1940s Dell mystery paperback cover titled Too Busy to Die, and a photo from a cigarette ad of a guy who could be a lumberjack drinking out of a tin cup, with drips running down his craggy face.

What was the first piece of art that really mattered to you?

The first piece of art that I couldn’t get out of my head was a painting in the Rochester Historical Museum of a loincloth-clad Native American who’d been shot in the back (punished by fellow tribe members) with several arrows that dripped blood. I was four at the time and it haunted my childhood. In high school, I saw Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog, 1929) for the first time, and I think that had the greatest impact on my art.

If you could live with only one piece of art, what would it be?

Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement (1536–41) or maybe the sculpture of Laocoön (c.1st century ce), but I guess you have to be a Pope to possess those. Or how about Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass (1915–23)?

What is your favourite title of an artwork?

Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs (1959).

What do you wish you knew?

I wish I knew how to be a better human being.

What should change?

Basic human greed: all organisms are greedy, but we are the only organism whose greed can consume all nature. Perhaps we could at least curtail ‘the fruits of discontent’, so crucial to maintaining the cycle of created want and indebtedness that ensnares most of us in the mechanics of late capitalism.

What could you imagine doing if you didn’t do what you do?

I’d like to compose great, complex music, but only in my fantasies, since I haven’t the skills or talent for composition – or writing, for that matter. The advantage of working in visual composition is that you can see everything in the image at once. Time-based arts (writing, music, film, drama) demand an ability to look at a totality that can’t be seen at one time.

What music are you listening to?

A constant rotation of old blues, jazz, gospel and ‘world’ recordings from the 1920s and ’30s, Scott Walker, Sun Ra, psychedelic oldies, 20th-century composers (Béla Bartók, György Ligeti, Sergei Prokofiev, Terry Riley, Igor Stravinsky, Alexandre Tansman etc.), prog rock, post-punk, John Fahey, Martin Carthy, The Incredible String Band, and a few contemporary bands.

What are you reading?

I read slowly, and mostly for research, so again on rotation: The Origin of Satan by Elaine Pagels (1995); Empire of Cotton by Sven Beckert (2014); The Gnostic Faustus by Ramona Fradon (2007); Roll, Jordan, Roll by Eugene D. Genovese (1974); The Counter-Revolution of 1776 by Gerald Horne (2014); The Empire of Necessity by Greg Grandin (2014) and, occasionally, Locus Solus by Raymond Roussel (1914).

What do you like the look of?

My problem is that I like the look of everything: cracks in the sidewalk, the clouds I saw through the airplane window yesterday, banyan trees, any form of naturally occurring pattern, any visual formed for imparting information or propaganda, odd aesthetics that develop on their own, often to defy gravity, like Rose Bowl floats, or competitive African-American hairdos or food sculptures.

Jim Shaw is an artist who lives and works in Los Angeles, California, USA. Recent major solo exhibitions include the Chalet Society, Paris, France (2014); BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, UK (2012); Los Angeles County Museum of Art, USA (2012). ‘Jim Shaw: The End is Here’, the first survey exhibition of his work in New York, USA, is on view at the New Museum from 10 October until 10 January 2016, and his solo show at MASS Moca, USA, runs until the end of January 2016.