Los Angeles

Jim Shaw

Rosamund Felsen Gallery

Given Jim Shaw’s penchant for treating his mental landscape as an archaeological dig, it’s not surprising that for the last few years he’s been mining his dreams. This show contained forty-five pieces based on images that Shaw has lugged back from his excursions into the Land of Nod. Executed in a wide range of media, including painting, sculpture, fake greeting cards, cartoons, models, photographs, and drawings in various mutations, the work reflected the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink quality of dreams. These souvenirs from far-flung psychic galaxies ran the gamut from tweaked cartoon pastiche, to eerie images of mutating snakes and armless, legless figures mummified in gold lame, to faux Color Field paintings, to objects that looked like they’d been lifted from a fun house.

Dream Object (I’m attaching yellow-green velvet . . . ), 1997, is a Howdy Doody doll with an erection, shouldering a clunky cross. Dream Object (I found a Geo. McManus Cartoon . . . ), 1997, is a beautifully drawn aping of the style of the mild cartoonist of the title, depicting his characters in decidedly uncharacteristic poses. One figure lies on her back, exposing her nether parts; another has his naked ass mashed against a full-length mirror; while a third totes a sign that proclaims: “POLICE BLANKETS.” Dream Object (Bottle, Torso, Buds, and Tie), 1997, looks like a 3-D model of a golf course. A pair of gouache and colored pencil drawings, Dream Object (Looking for a decomposing body . . . ), 1997, and Dream Object (We found a burned wardrobe . . . ), 1997, are delightful collections of absurdist images, afloat on green and pink backgrounds, respectively, in the droll ’50s illustration style Shaw mimics and manipulates so flawlessly.

Some of the more dimensional work, such as Dream Object (Poons’ sculpture), 1997, and Magic Hat, Rabbit, and Magic Box, 1996, bring to mind large, slightly scary versions of a child’s first attempts at fashioning clay representations of objects. These pieces are drippy, blobby, and lumpy—intentionally crudely modeled. The magic box itself is festooned with protuberances that look like bloody spears, flaming arrows, or badly injured feet. One can imagine a confused but conscientious mom smiling a tad uncomfortably at this work and cooing, “That’s lovely, dear. What’s it supposed to be?”

Judging by the snippets of reported dream narrative included on the show’s checklist, Shaw conveniently dreams with remarkable frequency about artworks he makes, stumbles across, is working on, or purchases. In fact, all but two of the twenty-seven pieces for which he provides dream texts somehow involve the production or viewing of art. This raises certain interesting questions. Perhaps the selection of mostly art-themed dreams was simply an organizational strategy for this show, but it tempts one to speculate about ways in which the artmaking process may serve to both goad and censor the outpourings of his unconscious. Perhaps Shaw has been making artwork based on his dreams for long enough now that the dreams are becoming compressed/repressed into readymades that lend themselves to waking reproduction and display.

It doesn’t much matter. Part of the show’s power and poignancy derives from the lengths Shaw has gone to in order to snatch images from his dreams, giving them the flesh of art materials and then exhibiting them like the wondrous, incomplete freaks that all reconstructed dreams are. What’s moving is that these pieces capture the yearning to reproduce an object or phenomenon that occurs in a dream so that the material can be contemplated in the light of day, while simultaneously communicating the impossibility of completely fulfilling that aspiration. There’s a provocative sense of strain hovering about the whole show, making itself felt as viewers consider a work’s relationship to a dream text, and reflect on how well the two match up.

Shaw’s work constitutes a form of documentation—notes from the mind’s disquieting underground. It is also a natural extension of his longtime pursuit of his own deep-seated terrors, semi-sublimated urges, and surrealist leanings, in the tradition of fellow Michiganite and cartoon enthusiast Windsor McCay. Just as dreams can be seen as a wrestling match between the literal and the coded, Shaw’s work seems to thrive on the energy created by a tug-of-war between his compulsion to confess and his drive to repress. An unflagging sense of whimsy and a belief in art as salvation keep the work from being pulled apart by the inherent tensions in his sensibility. There’s an almost religious sense of mission and obsessiveness humming from all of Shaw’s artistic endeavors, as though he feels he has no choice but to empty himself completely into art, to pump out the contents of his psyche as exhaustively as emergency-room doctors pump stomachs. Art obviously pervades this guy’s life twenty-four hours a day, seeping even into the nightly antics taking place in the teeming attic of his head—dreams of both the wringing wet and the bone-dry varieties.

Amy Gerstler is a poet and writer based in Los Angeles. She reviews regularly for Artforum.