Yesterday yours truly got the chance to go to the opening of XXXL Painting, at something called I believe "the submarine wharf" in Dutch, a satellite building operated by the Boijmans van Beuningen museum in Rotterdam. Although they were 3 artists in the show, the only one I'm talking about here is Jim Shaw, whom I had the chance to work with almost 15 years ago now. Then and now I believed and still believe he's a massively underrated artist, at least in the United States. He has regular museum shows in Europe, like many great US artists who are recognized late at home.
The foreground shows a sofa shaped like and ear, part of the Dream Objects series, and the background is if I recall correctly a piece called The Worship of The Compound Interest, which must date from 2006.
I think in large part it is due to the fact that, like his friend the late artist Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw is someone who created his own path using influences that were, at the time (from the late 1970s to the late 1990s), largely outside of the frame of reference of the mainstream art world: Surrealism of the least noble kind (Dali instead, of, say, Ernst or Magritte), comics before they got ennobled with the "graphic novel" new tag, Science-Fiction, and vernacular culture, rather than the high late modernist tropes of conceptual art.
The inside of The Worship of The Compound Interest
Jim Shaw is also a very versatile artist, who, like Kelley, can work in pretty much any medium: drawing, painting, sculpture, installation, video, performance. That can sometimes be confusing for the poor curators, collectors or critics who can't process more than one idea at a time and find Shaw's work too complicated. I'm only barely kidding here, but when your work cannot fit in one's preconception of a medium to begin with, if it expands in all mediums then people may have trouble processing it.
Like, is he a video artist? A sculptor? a, gasp, post-conceptual artist? A multimedia one? Can we fit his work in next year's fancy complicated Biennial's subject that has nothing to do with anybody's life but makes the curator's feel better about his/her intellectual chops?
Another reason he's underrated, I think, is because a lot of his very sophisticated skills look too traditional: this man is obviously a first-rate draftsman, and very few people working in contemporary art these days are so good at drawing. Ergo, he seems too close to a comics artist to be a *serious* contemporary artist. His realistic drawings are too uncomfortably close to an undervalued popular mass entertainment form to be taken seriously. When so many press releases coming out of art galleries or museums tell you that so-and-so is subverting their medium by, hmm, "appropriating" somebody else's work, finding someone who's actually doing so by creating real objects rather than spouting graduate school clichés is seriously disturbing.
Jim Shaw in front of one of his backdrop painting.
Jim Shaw is also a very prolific artist who's perpetually making work, in a manner that recall outsider artists: making work seems to correspond to a deep obsessive need and not to the desire to conform to the art world expectations of what an artist career should be. For example it often follows a narrative path that expands over the years to develop a theme, a story, a concept or a project. In the 1980s he developed the My Mirage series, which documented various phases from early childhood to puberty in the life of an all-American boy named Billy, undergoing changes that also mirrored societal shifts in US society, politics and culture: white-bread innocence, followed by hippie psychedelia and redemption through born-again Christianity and the Reagan years.
For Jim Shaw's work is actually deeply political, but not in a propagandist way telling you how you should think and act. Rather it is reactive, mirroring the helplessness we all feel when confronted with the inequities and corruption of modern life in Western society. It is a desperate acknowledgement of how fucked-up we are, by someone who doesn't pretend to offer solutions in the name of a supposed special role the artist should be bestowed with. It's all the more desperate because this particular artist has a long memory and a good knowledge of art history. Many of his works integrate references to famous or not so famous artworks, or comics, or cartoons, elements of visual culture that are brought back as reminders that the artist is a witness rather than a prophet.
As such many of these references are familiar to the viewer, even when we can't exactly place them. Another thing you must have noticed by now, if you've looked up these pictures attentively, is that even though all of the works here are "in the same style", that is Jim Shaw's, the ease with which he incorporates other visual artists' styles in his own work to transform them into something other goes beyond simple virtuosity. I mentioned appropriation above, here you have someone who doesn't appropriate's other people's images lock, stock and barrel but transform them into something that is uniquely his. But also ours, because it is recognizable to us as a sort of white noise for visual culture in general: we might not recognize Rembrandt, Dali, 1930s comics, but we have some sort of memory of these images and it gives us a background to comprehend what's going on there.
And what is going on there has many layers of information embedded into the painting, but is easy enough to understand as a satirical artwork that skewers the collusion between politics and finance in Western society, with the help of overbearing religions, and how they really screw up ordinary people's lives.
In this particular exhibition, because the subject is gigantic paintings, you can see something else that could make the contemporary viewer uncomfortable: that monumental format recalls the allegorical history paintings of Academic fame (you know, the 19th century one that supposedly all of Modern art was fighting against). Except that instead of using Ancient mythology as a vehicle for edification, Shaw uses art history, contemporary visual Pop and vernacular culture to expose not so much the dark psyche of Western civilization, but the damage inflected by the idiocy and corruption of politics and finance in the United States and abroad.
So Jim Shaw's work is everything that is unfashionable in terms of art world success because it is resolutely outside of contemporary art conventions - we like to think that these don't exist especially since we left Modernism behind, but that isn't the case.
It is very funny, it is satirical, it uses traditional artistic skills, it is political and it rebels against a big tenet of American culture and history, the emprise of religion on US society.
It refers to classical art history when nobody knows it anymore (seriously, the number of curators I meet these days who don't know anything that happened before Minimalism is, ahem, disturbing), but also to underground comics and cartoons, experimental music, slasher movies, Christian propaganda, while making fun of the tenets of Modernism and Post-Modernism alike (there are so many parodies of artists from Christopher Wool, Frank Stella, Jeff Koons, Jackson Pollock, Larry Poons, Judy Chicago, etc. in his career). The high, the low and the middlebrow. It quotes history in its most repulsive moments (wars, slavery, betrayals, torture), reminds us of how stereotypically we often assimilate it or swallow it uncritically.
In short, it is truly subversive, because it refuses to conform to how we came to view political art over the last few decades. No black and white xeroxes exhibited along bad photographs telling us that yes, Corporation X is evil and is aided and abetted by President Y, telling us that we should react! Rebel!
No weekly discussions with speakers/lecturers/famous Ted talk persons held within the space of the museum where the artist delegates someone to preach to the choir about some obscure yet current topics ("knitting as a form of resistance against consumer's society"). No Photoshopped images of famous actors to denounce celebrity culture!
No incredibly serious public actions that, hm, what are they supposed to do already?
Shaw's art is elegantly and humorously unpleasant, and this is why he is a serious artist whose work should be taken seriously. It may take a long, long time because as I said earlier he's incredibly prolific and the work is very complex, but if you like your art intelligent and subversive and visually interesting, you should get yourself interested in everything Jim Shaw.
Dani Tull, Jim Shaw and Daniel Hope, shortly before performing improvised live music.