New York

Jim Shaw


Jim Shaw’s work constitutes a deep dipping back, a one-man magical mystery tour charting the development of the artist’s alter ego—an adolescent Every-boy named Billy.

The show includes pencil drawings—reminiscent of those doodled on the covers of bumpy blue three-ring binders—Lincoln-log constructions, plastic fish-tank plants, a strange topographical-map-like miniature pool table, and an ant farm gone wrong that suggests a failed science project. The 24 similarly scaled mixed-media works exhibited are all part of My Mirage, a conceptual illustration, repackaging raw slices of a boy’s life, that has been the focus of Shaw’s work for the past five years. Overflowing with references to popular culture, comic books, psychedelia, sex, drugs, and salvation, Shaw’s work does not simply reinvent familiar images of the period but often returns to the primary source, using the materials and methodology of the time, to make a statement from scratch.

In three pencil drawings—Murderers, Beatlemaniacs, and Billy’s Other Drawing, all 1991—the paper is thick with lead and covered from edge to edge with faces of various sizes. With Murderers, it is the absence of expression—the police-sketch quality—and the repetition suggestive of obsession that haunts the viewer. In Beatlemaniacs, the hysterical visages of female fans are captured and repeated, creating a frightening effect harkening back to Charcout’s photographs of hysterics. Billy’s Other Drawing—a tip of the hat to Tom of Finland—is representative of the protagonist’s ongoing struggle to define and identify himself; titling the work Billy’s other drawing, addresses his recurring discomfort with concepts of maleness.

Among the more elaborate mixed-media pieces, Charlie Loves All, 1991, which incorporates wooden sticks, gut, tooled leather, feathers, beadwork, and stitchery, never violates the crafty spirit of the ’60s, yet it succeeds in twisting the moment so that it is read with all the perspective gained in the intervening years. Charlie Loves All is not the cub-scout craft kit it first appears to be; it becomes darker and more disturbing as one recognizes the work’s religious nature. Indeed, the piece amounts to a sort of minitemple, a totem for Charlie—a Mansonlike cult leader within the My Mirage world.

As with much of Shaw’s work, what at first appears to be boyishly playful upon closer inspection proves to be both politically and philosophically resonant. It is the singularity of Billy’s point of view that allows Shaw to work in a full spectrum of media while maintaining a consistent voice or vision. The limits of the adolescent perspective define the work and ultimately pull it into sharp focus, acting less as a hindrance than as a flavor, enhancing this stew with a slightly gross-out bouquet that recalls the childhood chant: “Great green gobs of greasy grimy gopher guts, mutilated monkey’s meat, teeny tiny birdies’ feet, all mixed up in a pool of blood, and I forgot my spoon.”

All that Shaw casts his hand upon is bent and transformed with an exuberantly perverse spirit descended directly from Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, Iron Butterfly, and The Grateful Dead. His is a scrapbook manically playing high against low, hurling references and homages at us right and left until we surrender to his dream-turned-nightmare. The viewer works to decipher Shaw’s hidden messages in much the same way that one poured over record lyrics of the ’60s, finding great global significance in refrains such as “I am the walrus.”

The pieces are highly self-referential and chocked with repeating symbols, and figures; indeed, the structure only reveals itself after one has seen a substantial portion of the project, which is divided into five sections that will ultimately become chapters of a book. The Surinam toad appears on several occasions, and, interestingly enough, it is from toads that the chemical dimethyl tryptamine (“divine toad sweat”)—the most powerful psychedelic known to man—is derived. It is this kind of interdependent contextual footnoting that can, at times, make Shaw’s work difficult to comprehend—can give the uninitiated eye a sense of slightness when the pieces are taken individually. But seen collectively, My Mirage is a full-blown, overstuffed, visual, mental, and moral encyclopedia of the ’60s, which leaves the viewer curious to see what happens in volume two, when Billy grows up.

A. M. Homes