The New Museum’s “Jim Shaw: The End is Here” presents a retrospective of the 63-year-old West Coast artist who frames his exploration of fringe movements and pop Zeitgeist in inquisitive, art historical terms. My main takeaway from the Shaw exhibition: more is more. Especially when you hang it salon style across big galleries and fill vitrine after vitrine with esoterica. The survey of work from the 1970s onward, on view until January 10, fills three floors.
The second floor opens with a wide range of small works from the 90s–drawings of dreams and painted reimaginings of pulpy book covers. Both tend toward the erotic and the surreal. These works lay the ground for recurring subject matter in Shaw’s oeuvre: pop rendered vivid and uncanny. However, the next room of relatively stripped down recent paintings dispelled any suggestion that Shaw’s interests could be so neatly contained. In these paintings, the difference between loose background and tightly rendered foreground gives the dense art historical and political allusion room to breathe (as in the excellent Seven Deadly Sins pictured above and below).
On the fourth floor, Shaw’s collections of thrift store paintings and of religious paraphernalia are on display, allowing the visitor to see the source material for much of the artist’s subject matter and share his fascination in lowbrow and weird Americana. The bad, enigmatic thrift store paintings are an odd prism with which to view American culture and the painters’ psyche; Shaw puts himself in their category by repeatedly displaying this collection in galleries.
Perhaps most impressive is Shaw’s dizzying collection of “didactic art,” featuring tent revival banners and tarot cards, medical texts and masonic heads. The material is probably vaguely familiar to most Americans, but I certainly never examined such cultural artifacts first hand. Even here, it is difficult to do so, simply because there is so much material to take in.
It is nuts–both the remnants of these fringe movements themselves and the attempt to collect and classify them into some kind of sensible order. Rather than succeeding, Shaw’s collection breaks down the border between what seems crazy and what seems reasonable. It makes you question the line in the sand between lunacy, belief, and fact–although personally I will continue to draw that line at the theory of aliens living among us.
The pièce de résistance is on the fifth and last floor. Labarynth: I dreamt I was taller than Jonathon Borosky is a show-stopping stage-set of art and culture references blurred into a surreal suggestion of narrative that one can’t pin down. Instead, one wanders among the painted backdrops, raw wood supports, and sandbags examining the imagery. Details, like the one pictured below, surprise you as you spot Colonel Sanders of KFC fame below a large eagle. Characters, seemingly derived from the tarot card set you viewed in the didactic art collection on the floor below, make an appearance as well.
The phrase “the sleep of reason produces monsters” came to my mind while viewing the show. The artist copied winged monsters from Goya’s famous etching earlier in the show, just as he refers to Dali, Picasso, and figures in the style of the game Monopoly in his final, ambitious work. It seemed fitting for this uncanny melange of found objects and paintings and drawings, in which oddball aspects of American culture start to feel strangely familiar.