Jim Shaw: Thinking the Unthinkable
Jan 12 through February 25
By LITA BARRIE, February 2023
Jim Shaw’s absurd, off-kilter, edgy paintings and sculptures synthesize an unexpected range of artistic styles – surrealism and pop art, DC comics, political cartoons, movie posters, cult religious iconography, thrift store art and classical mythology – to create complex visual puns that rhyme in an uncanny way. Shaw told me that he could not settle for a signature style because he has “self-diagnosed ADHD” and thinks of himself “on a lot of spectrums.” He quotes Alfred Jarry, “To be weird! That is my goal,” and emphasizes the value of letting his mind wander, which leads to the next weird thing to explore. Shaw’s ceaseless curiosity is contagious because he combines an omnivorous appetite for the detritus of American culture with a deep understanding of American political history; this gives the viewer a lot to look at and think about. It almost requires a book to decipher the encyclopedic references in just one Shaw painting.
Shaw’s first solo exhibition at Gagosian, Thinking the Unthinkable, uses the title of Herman Kahn’s 1962 book about nuclear war to explore the celebrity use of psychedelics and dream logic. In three paintings in the exhibition, scenes from movies are also superimposed on the faces of their stars. In Cary Grant on Acid #2, the face of a smiling Grant is etched with his LSD-induced hallucination of fleeing a world of baby legs and menstrual blood. His lower face features the iconic shot of a terrified Grant running from the machine-gunning crop duster in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), while a penis rocket – based on Shirley Temple’s vision of Grant as a knight in shining armor in The Bachelor and The Bobby Soxer (1947) – is overlaid on his forehead. In The Fountain of Salmacis, Esther Williams’ LSD vision of herself as a hermaphrodite posed as Botticelli’s Birth of Venus is superimposed over a portrait of Jeff Chandler. The imagery is reversed in Esther Williams, where an image of Jeff Chandler in drag is overlaid on a smiling image of the star – who ended her relationship with Chandler when he revealed his crossdressing, saying he hoped her kink would match his.
Shaw’s exhibition contains repeated symbols – staircases, columns, mushroom clouds, eggs, the alphabet, H-bombs – which are cross-referenced in circuitous chains of thought which keep the viewer moving back and forth between paintings to discover visual rhymes in the forms. Hairway to Steven borrows the title of the absurdist Butthole Surfers’ album to extend the pun even further, with Aerosmith’s lead singer Steven Tyler dressed in a Masonic apron and carrying a trowel descending a symbolic three-dimensional Masonic staircase made from golden hair, surrounded by Masonic columns and tracing boards. Similarly, Down By the Old Maelstrom (where I split in two) features Wally Wood-esque showgirls descending an invisible staircase that spreads out from the agitator fins of a vintage washing machine in mid-wash. The showgirls carry signs with individual words – “In,” “The,” “Beginning,” “Was,” “The,” “Word” – the opening line to the Gospel of John in the Bible. This painting was inspired by a humorous washing machine advert which tickled Shaw’s fancy because the illustrator was obviously on speed. I Dreamt of a Cornucopia Stairway From Which Ghostly Comedians Were Descending is based on one of Shaw’s old dreams of a run-down historic house where ghosts of old TV comedians (Jackie Gleason, Red Skelton, Jerry Lewis and Pinkie Lee) descended with old Bakelite radios, held in the manner of Egyptian hieroglyphics. Shaw often plays on the ludicrousness of situating out-of-date consumer goods where they clearly don’t belong.
I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise contains yet another staircase, column and H-Bomb. This piece combines inspirations from two movie musicals: the monumental, rotating spiral staircase column that held showgirls, dancers, and an orchestra in The Great Ziegfeld (1936), and the Gershwin song, “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” from An American in Paris (1928). Shaw has often used men in top hats to symbolize decadence, and the tuxedo-clad male chorus is a variation on that recurring theme. Botticelli’s Birth of Venus is again used as inspiration for No Bikini Atoll, which mashes its imagery together with an early frame of the Operation Crossroads Bikini Atoll H-bomb test, conducted in the Marshall Islands in 1946. While the cloud shape mimics the form of the beautiful Venus figure, the title is a pun inspired by a treasure map in an old Beany and Cecil cartoon which often incorporated satirical references to then-current events in the 1960s. Even in its darkly humorous presentation, Shaw’s painting allows the viewer to pause and reflect on the horrifying beauty of the destructive power of the atomic bomb.
Shaw continues his hilarious juxtaposition of references in The Bay of Pigs Thing, which is based on a 1960s swimsuit advertorial of models who join a group of marines to simulate the 1944 Normandy landings. A torrent of water gushes from the center of the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. An assault amphibious vehicle rides the wave, and figures associated with the Watergate scandal and the assassination of John F. Kennedy run toward the viewer.
The omnipresence of Hollywood serves as inspiration for several other paintings. Cadamus Sewing the Teeth of the Stain Serpent and The Goddess of Desire feature monumental figures based on mythological characters who tower over iconic Hollywood buildings. Going For the One is based on publicity photos of Raquel Welch as the title character from Myra Breckinridge (1970). Shaw places the sex goddess on a pedestal of the 20th Century Fox logo in front of images of the Century City twin towers borrowed from the cover art of the Yes album of the same name. The satirical movie adaptation of the Gore Vidal novel proved to be a notorious failure to revive the studio’s fortunes after the underperformance of Cleopatra in an era when sex goddesses were a mainstay of Fox films.
Shaw’s artworks always have absurd titles which act as a “hook” for the viewer. Since he was a teenager, Shaw was attracted to the crazy humor of Frank Zappa, Monty Python and Luis Buñuel films and told me he “wanted to be funny in a more profound way.” Few artists combine such ridiculous humor with fastidious draftsmanship, painting chops and conceptual complexity; this has made Shaw one of the most influential and visionary L.A. artists from the 1970s. WM
Lita Barrie is a freelance art critic based in Los Angeles. Her writing appears in Hyperallergic, Riot Material, Apricota Journal, Painter’s Table, ArtnowLA, HuffPost, Painter’s Table, Artweek.L.A, art ltd and Art Agenda. In the 90s Barrie wrote for Artspace, Art Issues, Artweek, Visions andVernacular. She was born in New Zealand where she wrote a weekly newspaper art column for the New Zealand National Business Review and contributed to The Listener, Art New Zealand, AGMANZ, ANTIC, Sites and Landfall. She also conducted live interviews with artists for Radio New Zealand’s Access Radio. Barrie has written numerous essays for art gallery and museum catalogs including: Barbara Kruger (National Art Gallery New Zealand) and Roland Reiss ( Cal State University Fullerton). Barrie taught aesthetic philosophy at Claremont Graduate University, Art Center and Otis School of Art and Design. In New Zealand, Barrie was awarded three Queen Elizabeth 11 Arts Council grants and a Harkness grant for art criticism. Her feminist interventions are discussed in The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand and an archive of her writing is held in The New Zealand National Library, Te Puna Matauranga Aotearoa.view all articles from this author