– Autumn/Winter 2008

The Artless Dodger: Jim Shaw and His Endless Compendium

Claire Barliant

Tags: Mike Kelley, Robert Gober

A pack of younger artists have been responding tentatively to modernist icons recently, throwing themselves at their feet while chopping off their legs. In contrast, Jim Shaw's bold and unfiltered take on the history of art - along with that of religion and the American West - is always frankly irreverent in its use of these subjects. For some, his voice may be a little too frank.

Unlike much of today's art, which is cool and detached, primly following a Conceptual and Minimalist track, Shaw's work is garish, messy, confessional and indulgent. Perhaps its most striking difference, though, is in its relation to time. Though he is wildly prolific, Shaw takes years to complete his projects, which encompass such a range of media and formal styles that they are almost impossible to comprehend fully. Arguments against a hyperactive contemporary art market may be overblown, but there is a case to be made for the diminishing effects of the pressure to produce, and produce quickly. Shaw is hardly immune to this heat, but his idiosyncratic, omnivorous approach results in work that more or less operates in a manner antithetical to a market that likes to eat its prey whole.

Shaw is ruthless in the editing, revising and reconfiguring of his own work, and the often tortuous revision process itself seems to hold a key to understanding his practice. When he showed a selection of Dream Objects, paintings and home décor modelled in the shape of body parts at Metro Pictures gallery in New York last year, Shaw reshuffled its contents five weeks after the opening, and doubled the number of works within.1

The press release explained

  1. Jim Shaw, 'Dr Goldfoot and His Bikini Bombs', Metro Pictures, New York, 2007-08.

  2. Press release for the exhibition. Available at http://www.metropicturesgallery.com/index.php?mode=past&object_id=267&view=pressrelease

  3. 'Kill your darlings', Patrick Painter Inc, Santa Monica, 2003. Shaw made a series of paintings of Oist movie posters incorporating colour-field painting and other styles that have fallen out of favour. In an interview with Mike Kelley, Shaw said: 'The Pop artists maintained the large scale of late modernism, and whoever had jumped around stylistically in the past wasn't very well respected; Max Ernst did a lot of jumping around stylistically. I responded to that.' 'Here Comes Everybody: A Conversation Between Jim Shaw and Mike Kelley', Everything Must Go: Jim Shaw 1974-1999.

  4. See Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (1973), New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

  5. Fernando Pessoa, untitled poem, A Little Larger than the Entire Universe: Selected Poems (trans. R. Zenith), Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 2006, p.308.

  6. 'Here Comes Everybody: A Conversation Between Jim Shaw and Mike Kelley', op. cit.

  7. Ibid., p.32.

  8. Lionel Bovier and Fabrice Stroun, 'Interview with Jim Shaw', in L. Bovier, F. Stroun and Yves Aupetitallot (eds.), Jim Shaw: O (exh. cat.), Zürich and Grenoble: JRP / Ringier and Le Magasin, 2004, p.45.

  9. Doug Harvey, 'Chasing His Own Tale: Jim Shaw's Closed Circuit Religion', Ibid., p.24.

  10. The Rite of 360 Degrees takes this story as one of its points of departure.

  11. Originating from the Greek idea of Oceanus ('a circular river that girdled the earth ... with neither outlet or source', writes Jorge Luis Borges in The Book of Imaginary Beings (Trans. A. Hurley), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2005, p.147) the ouroboros represents the protean, a term also rooted in the oceanic - Proteus was a Greek god who attended to Poisedon, and could change form at will.

  12. Dave Hickey, 'Lost Boys', Air Guitar, Los Angeles: Art Issues Press, 1997, p.179.

  13. See L. Bovier and F. Stroun, 'Interview with Jim Shaw', op. cit., p.46.