– Autumn/Winter 2008

Jim Shaw’s Real Mirage: A Partial Inventory

Doug Harvey

One of the most fruitful meta-curatorial practices of the contemporary era has been the exploration of the artist/curator/collector overlap - the act of sifting through a museum's holdings to compile an exhibition, or of institutions displaying the idiosyncratic collections accrued by artists themselves: from Andy Warhol's 1969 'Raid the Icebox 1' exhibition at Rhode Island School of Design (which pulled art and non-art objects from the museum's cold storage and arranged them in unconventional displays) to Eduardo Paolozzi's continent-and millennia-spanning 'Lost Magic Kingdoms' at the Museum of Mankind in London in 1985.

The artist-as-packrat exhibition 'Neotoma' at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles in 1995 featured, among other things, Jim Shaw's pulp paperback novel collection and Mike Kelley's assortment of discarded wire coat-hangers bent to open locked cars. Not to mention indeterminate boundary phenomena such as The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, which displays such oddball ephemera as magician and actor Ricky Jay's collection of decaying celluloid dice and the accumulated knick-knacks of a half-dozen Los Angeles-area trailer-park residents in artist and curator Tina Marrin's permanent exhibition 'A Garden of Eden on Wheels' (2000-ongoing).

Shaw's 'Thrift Store Paintings' exhibition - a collection of a hundred or so mostly anonymous paintings found at swap meets and second-hand emporiums around the US, first exhibited in Glendale, California in 1990 and reconfigured several times since - remains a benchmark in the artistic inversion of the protocols of fine-art collection and display. But it is less widely recognised that the bulk of Shaw's oeuvre consists of elaborate variations on this same theme of the accumulation and presentation of cultural artefacts. Take, for example, the sprawling biographical fiction of Shaw's first

  1. All Jim Shaw's quotes are from conversations and emails with the artist, June/July 2008.