PRINT November 2000


In the late ’80s Jim Shaw went under. Plumbing the depths of his swampy unconscious, he brought back what seems a limitless supply of weirdness. Dreams at night were drawn by day; the idea was that, at some point down the road, he would fabricate the objects from his nocturnal visions, and he fell into what he now calls an addictive circle. The dream project (“Dream Drawings,” 1992–, and “Dream Objects,” 1995–) was conceived as a way to present oneiric artworks without all the baggage of Surrealism. But the obsessiveness with which he pursued that end is pure Buñuel. He describes his state of mind at that time as solipsistic—but this seems a modest, even coy assessment in light of the rich tangle of art-historical and pop-cultural references his work betrays.

Eventually, Shaw got around to realizing his dreams—in three dimensions, as it were. An eye-popping selection of those objects was on view this summer in “Everything Must Go,” Shaw’s Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center retrospective, which included his latest installment of the “Dream Objects” series, Teardrop-Shaped Room, 1999, an odd pastiche of strangely familiar images—Native Americans posing in traditional dress or in western wear, pulling the handles on slot machines—painted on cardboard half-tubes fitted together like a bamboo hut. When we spoke, I told Shaw that the piece made me think of the old “Keep America Beautiful” ad in which an Indian sheds a tear as garbage flung from a car window lands at his feet. Shaw responded that although he hadn’t quite thought of that reference, he was sure it had made its way into the work somehow. Considering the delirious range of booty plundered from the stream of Shaw’s imagination, who could doubt him?

Rachel Kushner is a New York-based writer and an editor at Bomb magazine.


I dreamed I was in a Japanese gallery and the first room was filled with miniature landscapes with veils over them, and fans were blowing the veils. That room led into a hallway that looked like a Polynesian bar made out of half columns, and it became a curving form like a teardrop. From a certain vantage point within the teardrop, I could see a pastiche of stereotypical images of Native Americans: the “noble savage” sort of depiction mixed with the modern stereotype of Indian gambling. In the next gallery was a small show by Jeff Koons of a statue of either him or me running and a painting of that statue as well as some bas-reliefs, including one of a small boy who was removing or putting on a Santa Claus mask, and paintings that reproduced the bas-reliefs exactly. This dream was the last straw in a sense, because it took me a full year to execute all the artworks in it (while the dream itself probably lasted all of five seconds).

Ever since we bought our house in Los Angeles, I’ve been suffering from buyer’s remorse. I used to be a relatively carefree renting bohemian with no debts, but the moment I signed this piece of paper I was the landed gentry with an enormous debt burden. So the specific plots of land under the veils at the beginning of the dream are related to that. My neighbor told me a Native American saying: You think you own your stuff, but your stuff owns you. And I have a lot of stuff. I’m getting into stereotypes of Native Americans here, but that’s what these works are about—as well as something to do with the Trail of Tears and the dismemberment of nomadic lands.

The last two parts of the piece, the Indian pastiche painting and the Jeff Koons sculpture, are about fixing the eye in a particular position and relate to the idea that you own what you see. I have always been a renderer, and my stock-in-trade has been photorealist rendering, which is a sort of sick adolescent ability to mimic something, and through that mimicking, own it. To some extent the whole “My Mirage” series [1986-91]—which is a semiautobiographical multiple-piece narrative—and some of the pieces in the dream project could be seen as mimicking the art of others, from James Rosenquist and Öyvind Fahlström to the films of Pat O’Neill to Mad Magazine. I see that as part of the perversion and tragedy held within this particular dream: the limited power of rendering and the sadness of that. Another source for the Koons sculpture came out of my confusion about a painting on the cover of Flash Art [Summer 1997], of Jeff Koons riding a balloon animal down the street. I somehow thought that was one of his pieces, not realizing it was part of a series of satirical paintings that Flash Art used for its covers. Misconstruing is sometimes more interesting than knowing the truth. I would hear rock lyrics as a kid and sometimes get them so wrong that they didn’t make any sense—and those were always the most interesting lyrics. Sort of like dream logic, which is all about puns and getting a parallel version of something.

Watching a PBS documentary about Mormonism, I kept thinking, When are they going to get to the part about multiple wives? But that didn’t come on the original tablets, it came in revelations. In Scientology, it used to be that getting “clear” was as far as you could go; at that point there wasn’t anything more they could teach you. Then they came up with a whole new body of teachings where you could become a Thetan—for a few thousand dollars more. I was really inspired by L. Ron Hubbard, by the fact that you could just make all this stuff up and people would believe it. I’m trying to embark on a new project, my own fake religion, using ideas from my dreams because I need to come up with things that are irrational enough to be interesting.

Initially, I wanted to do the fake religion project blithely, as a short-term thing on which to hang different sets of aesthetics. But then I decided I should really be more serious about it. I’m still working out the theology, and the first concept I came up with is that we start out dead and then get younger, and at the end of our lives we’re born—we experience time backward. This religion would arise at the moment when nomadism was being supplanted by agricultural civilization. But I’m working it out slowly. The last thing I’m going to do, since I’m working backward, is write the gospels.

The fake religion is a narrative, just as the dream series was a convoluted, endless narrative. It’s basically science fiction, and if somehow people ended up believing it a hundred years from now, that would be very perverse. But it would be a good joke, I suppose.