Sweet charity

Jim Shaw

The dust - literal and metaphorical - accumulated on the racks and bins of unwanted stuff can make literal and metaphorical allergies flare up. Some people claim to be depressed, embarrassed, made queasy by their proximity to all these cast-offs. But I'm not thinking about them, or about those who buy second-hand out of economic necessity. I'm thinking about people like me.

To be honest, I don't spend as much time haunting these places as I used to. I have too much stuff already, and not enough time. But I understand the particular pleasures involved. Over the years I've chalked up a lot of junk-shop hours, and I still feel a certain amount of pride at my greatest finds: a green and yellow bowling shirt with 'Schroyer Funeral Home' embroidered on the back; a record - by one Johnny Conquet and his Orchestra - of cha-cha versions of Yiddish songs; a life-size plaster head, spray-painted gold, of a man looking a bit like a Roman senator and a bit like an overworked accountant. If these objects have anything in common, it's a giddiness that attaches to the imagined narratives of how in the world they came to exist. Did the funeral home really have a bowling team? Were they any good? Who did they play against - the team from the slaughterhouse? At what moment did some genius decide that Jews needed a Latin beat to pep up tunes from the Old Country? Who is that mournful man and why, oh why, is he gold?

So what I'm really talking about here is not the second-hand shop as a place but the specific kind of experience it offers. It's an experience, first of all, of renegotiating value, an against-the-grain fetishization of the failed, abandoned and just plain odd commodity. This revaluation is sustained and supported by a fairly well-developed sensibility (not quite camp, but close): an aesthetic of the twisted, the fucked-up, the weird-ass - that entire teenage vocabulary of ironic approbation. But beyond this, the junk-shop experience is, ideally, about awe, about jaw-dropping amazement that the everyday world is so much stranger than you ever suspected. Its motto might be: 'Where the fuck did that shit come from?' Which is, in part, a literal question. But it is also, and at its heart, an expression of vernacular wonder.

If the junk-shop sublime needs a poster boy, Jim Shaw could fill that role with ease. His entire artistic career has been a sustained engagement with the second-hand, the detritus of 20th-century visual culture, high and low. It's cluttered and overwhelming, and filled with strange things that seem uncomfortably personal. It's embarrassing. It's funny. It's funny because it's embarrassing. Filled with the stuff people have grown out of, it's art that needs to be sorted through. Outside the art world Shaw is known mostly for his second-hand shopping. Since the early 1970s he's collected anonymous amateur paintings. He has - within the terms of the aesthetic - a good eye. These are not simply bad paintings, but psychotically bad paintings, bafflingly odd bad paintings. Psychedelic still lifes, ham-fisted Pop-Surrealist landscapes, demented portraits and nauseating erotica - a breathtaking range of truly disturbing stuff. In 1990 he started exhibiting the collection he had assembled. The show has toured the world, been published in a cultishly successful book ('My personal favourite is the painting of the roll of toilet paper', says amysamm on Amazon.com) and been exhibited alongside Shaw's own work in galleries and museums.

Beyond the initial accumulation Shaw's only intervention in this work is to give the paintings titles. They are flat, deadpan, describing with a straight face precisely what is depicted: Man with No Crotch Sits Down with Girl, Ochre Baby Crawls on Man's Chest as Dog Looks On, Distorted Woman in Western Clothes with Grid. That tone is a good joke and, through repetition, it doubles the strangeness of the images themselves. It says to the viewer: 'What you see is exactly what's there.' Shaw has said: 'To me, what's interesting about the paintings is that I don't know why they were made. I can only conjecture what was going through the heads of the people who made them, so that puts me in the same position as anybody else looking at them. It's interactive in that sense.'

A similar impulse seems to inform the work Shaw has done based on his dreams: an anti-authoritative refusal to assign meaning, interactivity as a function of shared bafflement. Over the last decade he has produced hundreds of dense pencil sketches, each recording a night's worth of dreaming. The drawings are marvels of compressed information, using techniques from comics, from films, playing with panels and overlays, split screens, odd shifts in perspective. They're executed in a sort of skilled but blandly style-less style, with all the energy reserved for note-perfect mimicry of the horde of visual references that fill them. Like the po-faced titles of the 'Thrift Store Paintings', the flatness of rendering here only serves to point up the far-out-ness of the images. Among the things Shaw has dreamed about are: a flooded office; a six-foot-tall talking skunk; a buxom Maoist dominatrix; a roasted baby elephant, served at a party but not quite deceased; Dennis Quaid with the body of a walrus; God, naked, selling cigarettes in a night club. No psychological exegesis accounts for these depictions, and it's hard to imagine one that could. They are presented as if to say, 'your guess is as good as mine'. Shaw also dreams about comic books and monster magazines and paintings, art galleries and, yes, about thrift stores. If there's a recurring narrative in the dreams, it's an encounter with a previously unimagined object. The dreams, and the drawings that depict them, are crammed with stuff. Art stuff and Pop culture stuff and weird hybrids between the two. (One effect of the drawings is to naturalize these high/low crossings: one's unconscious is, after all, that democratic place where Barnett and Alfred E. Newman are secretly brothers.) For the viewer, the things Shaw comes across in his interior landscape are, in that time-honoured uncanny way of dreams, strangely familiar and familiarly strange. Their sources, the visual reference points, are iconic, generic, and specific - recognizable, if not already known. And because of Shaw's extraordinary fluency with every imaginable style, they are remarkably convincing: why yes, that's precisely what a collaboration between Robert Crumb and the Starn Twins would look like. Enough time spent with these drawings, and a slight confusion between artist and viewers sets in: are these his dreams or yours?

Shaw's next project seems logical, almost predetermined: all that great stuff, why not make it real? Which is what he's done over that last few years, constructing three-dimensional objects based on the drawings, literally realizing his dreams. He's transformed his mind from a repository of images to a junk-shop: not only can you look at all this stuff; potentially you can take it home with you. Massed together in a room, these things transform the gallery space into a Wunderkammer of the weird-ass. Two enormous Jesus heads lie face up on the floor, figurine saints ranged across their features like tiny mountain climbers; a Howdy Doody puppet with an erection bears a sickly yellow velvet cross on its shoulders. There's a rubbish bin filled with tiny painted canvases, Santa Claus dangles from a sling. Anthropomorphized foam buildings lie toppled next to a stack of cartoon drawings. How does one respond to objects like this, to things that remain strange even when you know they're art? What really gets to me are the vampire basketball players - Serbian and Bosnian vampire basketball players, to be precise - two paintings done on lumpy metal sheets, just as they appeared to Shaw in a dream. They're monster thrift store portraits, executed in the style of a deranged amateur - volumes rendered awkwardly and uncertainly, colours somehow off. The distortions in the faces and bodies seem unintended, unpremeditated. The players stand deadpan before a swirling Astroturf-green field, swollen vaginal forms floating behind them. Everything in these images is spelt out, their content comically overdetermined. You know these guys are basketball players because they're dressed in basketball uniforms and hold basketballs. You know they're vampires because their slightly open mouths reveal the classic dental work of the undead. You know they're from Serbia and Bosnia because that's what it says on their uniforms.

It might be possible, I suppose, to respond to images like these in proper art-critical terms, or to cite theory, talk about abjection or desublimation or something. Or one could think about the role of the Balkans in history and in the popular imagination, drawing lines from Count Dracula to Slobodan Milosevic. Me, I can't do any of that. At least I'd rather not. I can only listen to the voice of the slightly stoned teenager echoing in my head, and ventriloquize: 'Where the fuck did that shit come from?' This could be considered a defeat, or a wilful refusal of critical thought. I'd rather view it, though, as the effect of a kind of permission, one the work itself encourages. For me the power of Shaw's twisted art lies less in its obsessive referentiality than in the sort of viewer reactions it mobilizes and validates: what's important is not just vernacular imagery, but vernacular thinking, vernacular aesthetic response. Perhaps such response, embarrassing as it often is, is not quite ready for the discard pile. It might be more valuable than you thought. 'Where the fuck did that shit come from?' may be a simple-minded thing to say, but, as years of years of trawling through junk-shops have taught me, it's not a simple thing to think.

Steven Stern is a writer living in New York.

Issue 68

First published in Issue 68

Jun - Aug 2002

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