Los Angeles

Jim Shaw

Dennis Anderson Gallery

Jim Shaw’s show here contained some of the most obsessive, darkly imaginative, funny, and painful work that has stared back at this viewer from any wall in a long time. Consisting of more than 70 pieces of uniform, pagelike size, all hung at eye level, the installation formed a continuous ring around the room, surrounding and trapping visitors. The wide variety of volatile images seemed distilled from inflamed fears, wracked attractions and repulsions—a catalog of conflicting longings and repressions dating from adolescence and beyond. The experience was a little like being swallowed by a whale, but instead of being confronted by the great creature’s digestive system, viewers were engulfed by the juices of the artist’s psyche. Each piece is a unique and unsettlingly accurate send-up of/shrine to some pretty squirmy areas; religious terror, sexual guilt, desire, confusion; the lure of drugs, death, and the grotesque; youthful artistic aspiration, kitsch, hallucinations; the fear of going crazy, the anguished feeling that every minute everything’s coming apart. This might make the work sound overambitious, but Shaw is so adept at focusing on specific aspects of the terrible secrets he chews up and spits out, and at maintaining a balance between his torrent of obsessions and his control over their presentation, that his work never degenerates into the bubbling morass it often describes. One way Shaw exercises control over his output, and provides the viewer with some distance and humor, is by filtering his raw, often idlike material through satirized formats lifted from contemporary media and recent art history. His work is broad in its concerns and both intricate and ingenious in its execution. Shaw is an able, avid mimic, and this show contained pieces that imitate the look of a black-light poster, a Mad magazine sequence, a Monster magazine cover, surrealist art, a Dick Tracy comic, a page from a Dr. Seuss book, leaves from an anatomy textbook (which grow progressively more demented), and various popular illustration styles, to mention but a few. Shaw also employs text where it suits his purpose, ranging from Beach Boys lyrics, to a fake Ann Landers column, to half-erased nihilistic jottings on a chalkboard, the readable portion of which has the flavor of a fundamentalist outburst and graphically forms a perfect cross.

Because most of his pieces satirize some existing publication, style, or genre, there isn’t an identifiable Jim Shaw look. Peering at one or two pieces won’t give you a bead on what he’s doing, partly because Shaw hops from medium to medium. Works in the show were made from oil on canvas, ink on board, pencil on paper, silkscreen, acrylic, gouache, mixed media, lightboxes, mirrors, Astroturf, mud, watercolor, molded plastic, cue chalk, and other materials. Shaw also makes videotapes, which were available for viewing at the gallery. A favorite is The Anderson, 1987, an animated short in which the artist digests and explodes Oedipal theory via a model family strongly resembling the Jetsons.

Wend your way through a Jim Shaw exhibition and you may be confronted by a painting of a landscape dotted with mason jars containing grotesque faces, another dotted with mushroom clouds, still others featuring dinosaurs or crucified Christs. Or you may stumble on a splattered anatomy model of a man in bed with a model of a goat, or a poster that proclaims “CEASE TO EXIST,” Or a gloriously demented picture of Shaw’s alter ego “Billy,” in a spiral-eyed, red-and-green distorted homage to glue-sniffing, whose text reads, “BUDDING ARTIST BILLY BUILDING MODELS IN THE BASEMENT FINDS THAT SANTA’S BROUGHT A BRAND NEW BAG OF STICKY BRAIN DEBASEMENT.” This show seemed the product of an artist so driven that he couldn’t stop himself from working if he wanted to. Lucky us.

Amy Gerstler