From Then To Now, our last in the current series of Online Viewing Rooms on Los Angeles-based artist Jim Shaw, highlights eight pieces that span the artist’s career and pinpoint important moments in the development of his work.
Presented in chronological order, the works are accompanied by short introductory passages and commentary kindly offered by the artist himself. Despite their brevity, these passages offer unique insight into the thought processes behind the works, shedding light onto the context of their making and pinning down important influences and sources of inspiration.
Tracing Shaw’s career from his student years to the late 2010s, the works featured take us on a journey through the artist’s most noted bodies of work, including My Mirage (1986–91), the Dream Drawings begun in 1992 and the New-Age religions inspired Oism project of the late 1990s.
"A budding pop artist / surrealist..."
Untitled (Pop 25) was created shortly after Shaw dropped out of New York's Cooper Union due to lack of housing, him being the only student not from the New York area. Originally from Michigan, he moved to Los Angeles soon after to attend California Institute of the Arts.
The work is an early example of Shaw's multitude of visual sources, from Pop Art and consumer culture of the sixties and seventies, to thrift stores, comic books and cartoons. The artist notes the influence of American cartoonist Robert Crumb in the lettering in the top part of the work, who is often cited as an early inspiration. Notice the rendering of the letter "P" in particular.
Untitled, from the Noir Portrait Series dates from just after Shaw graduated from Cal Arts in 1978.
"I thought I might try to earn some money doing illustrations, so, dipping into the Noir stills I’d collected in Hollywood nostalgia shops' 25-cent bins, I came up with this color example, but I never got any work in the field.”
Distorted woman, In order to render the noir faces, I used a grid to transpose them, and wondered what might happen if I did strange things to the grids. At first they were simply stretched out in various ways, but I wanted to go further in the distortions-this one had large jumps in scale, leading to the ridges. I’d learned to airbrush through a summer job painting monster masks at the Don Post Studio between years at Cal Arts.
"In order to render the noir faces, I used a grid to transpose them, and wondered what might happen if I did strange things to the grids. At first they were simply stretched out in various ways, but I wanted to go further in the distortions—this one had large jumps in scale, leading to the ridges. I’d learned to airbrush through a summer job painting monster masks at the Don Post Studio between years at Cal Arts."
"...a hippie...doing ecstatic dances amid the trash left behind at Woodstock."
Elysian Fields (Utopian Landscape III) from 1987 belongs to My Mirage (1986-1991), one of Shaw's most famous extended bodies of work.
My Mirage consists of more than a hundred and seventy works in a variety of techniques and materials including painting, drawing, photography, sculpture and screen-printing. Drawing inspiration from Shaw's own life experiences as well as those of his friends, this body of work is unique for devoting an entire series to single narrative.
The works tell the story of Billy, a white middle-class American boy growing up in the sixties and seventies. The five utopian landscapes in the series symbolize different stages of the protagonist's adolescence. In Elysian Fields which is featured here we see Billy, modelled after the artist himself, dancing among the trash left behind at Woodstock.
"I had in mind an amorphous field that represents the vaguely defined “other realm” of Oism. The figure here is taken from one of the Oist film stills I had made from nonexistent List films—here it’s the figure of “I", a trickster god, the shadow of “O”."
Following an early interest in fringe religions going back to his degree show, by the time Untitled (Dane's body) was produced, Shaw had already been working on his own made-up religion, Oism, and the aesthetics surrounding it for quite some time.
The airbrushed areas around the figures and faces in this work were based on the kind of "Abstract Expressionist doodling" Shaw did as an undergrad at Cal Arts while taking classes from Abstract Expressionist teachers and Gerome Kamrowski, whom he describes as a genuine American Surrealist.
"I had been attempting to make real as many of the artworks I’d dreamt of."
The triptych Dream Object Girls with Gun (Sarah; Hannah; Katrin) also forms part of a larger series of works titled Dream Drawings. For this series Shaw used his dreams both as the source and starting point for more than two hundred individual works which draw on the subconscious and borrow its fragmented logic to construct a narrative.
The protagonists of Girls with Gun are reminiscent of the "dangerous" and "mysterious" heroines gracing the covers of pulp novels, which had themselves already given rise to another series of works, the Paperback Covers. As such, it is also a great example of Shaw's continued interest in illustration, its conventions and vocabulary, which can be traced back to his childhood, his grandfather being a commercial artist and his father and package designer.
"I was sharing the pain, I thought I'd share the self."
Shaw locates the starting point of this series of works to a much earlier ripped up self portrait dating to the early 90's which was met by unprecedented interest. As a result of its popularity this work was followed by a number of similar self portraits, traced and begun by studio assistants. The artist felt that one of the reasons why collectors were drawn to these works was their laborious nature, the physical pain the artist must have inflicted upon himself in order to produce them; It dawned on him that if the attraction was indeed the assistants' ...pain, it should also be them who form the subject of these works.
Untitled (Saelee), 2007 (above) is a portrait of Saelee Oh and Untitled, 2004 (right) a portrait of Scott Cassidy.
Born in Midland, Michigan (1952) and now based in Los Angeles, California, Jim Shaw is one of the most singular voices of today’s contemporary art scene. Working in a variety of artistic media and borrowing heavily from the iconography of popular culture, Shaw is best known for his insistent exploration of the dark side of the American psyche.
Marc Jancou Contemporary has been collaborating with Shaw for more than a decade. The product of their most recent collaboration is Shaw's most recent monograph, The Paperback Covers which for the first time, brings together all the inventoried works of the artist's celebrated series of the same title.