New York

Jim Shaw

Metro Pictures

Jim Shaw’s recent show, “The Sleep of Reason,” revealed no major change in direction—once again, the work was made up of dream fragments—it just covered a lot more territory. With over ninety individual pieces, the gallery was filled to capacity with a little of everything: paintings (oil and otherwise), drawings (comic-book style and other genres), some mixed-media sculpture, looming large on the floor, and even a T-shirt (worn, according to the title, by some Nazi hooligans in a hotel). Stylistically, too, the show ran the gamut: Richter-style plaid oil paintings; oil paintings in an ersatz Expressionist vein; drawings and paintings in the style of EC Comics’ classic parent-bummer Tales from the Crypt; and even some stuff lifted from Marvel comics master Jack “King” Kirby. My personal favorite was the sculpture that occupied a large portion of the gallery floor: a huge Jesus head, as kitschy as those on religious candles bought at the bodega, with tiny saints sticking out all over the place (I’m a sucker for kitschy religious iconography). This piece, like much of the work in this and previous shows, featured an almost paragraph-long descriptive title: “There was this painted head of Jesus with statues of saints inserted in his face and beard. Then I saw another, tortured Jesus with suffering statues inserted.”

Shaw’s objects, various as they are, incarnate artworks dreamt of and recorded in his ongoing comic-strip-style series “Dream Drawings,” 1987–. If his nocturnal imaginings once fed almost exclusively on pop-cultural detritus, TV shows, and other forms of Cheez-Whiz, they now seem to revolve primarily around the LA art scene, and Shaw’s neuroses about artmaking. So we follow Shaw as he goes thrift-store shopping and digs up mutilated Dalis, makes paintings in various genres, has encounters with the staff at his New York gallery, and hangs out with Bob Flanagan, Mike Kelley, Larry Johnson, and other LA artists. In the long titles, in which, as always, Shaw gives a blow-by-blow account of the dream that gave rise to a particular piece, he sounds pretty much like anybody with a penchant for insistently recounting their dreams; the main difference is that more art-world figures than usual show up.

Shaw has been turning to the language of suppressed desire from the beginning—initially filtered through his alter-ego, the late-’60s adolescent Billy in the series “My Mirage,” 1985–90, which reproduced the kind of patented male-adolescent imagery (album covers, bubble-gum cards, comic books, and so on) he and Mike Kelley have been mining for decades. Now he’s allowed “the sleep of reason” to inspire the production of art objects unmediated by a persona. In fact, this latest show recalled his 1990 exhibition “Thrift Store Paintings” (where he assembled a large selection of the sort of work suggested by the title) except that this time Shaw presented the holdings of his own internal curiosity shop. The question of whether we’re supposed to read all this as an ironic allegory of artistic inspiration (the show’s title was borrowed from Goya’s less than idyllic vision of visitations from the muse) pales in the face of a much more attractive option: the “sleep of reason” as lifestyle. Now that he’s abandoned all pretense that the dreams he presents are actually someone else’s, there’s no particular reason Shaw couldn’t go on forever, just like this: get up late, watch a little box, go over to the studio and paint the sinister Mickey he saw last night, hang out with some friends, maybe go to an opening or two, watch some more box, go to sleep and do the whole thing all over again. It’d be excellent.

Mark Van de Walle