NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — There’s a big, funny, emotional, and political exhibition at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA). The exhibition, entitled Entertaining Doubts, presents a massive retrospective of the Los Angeles-based artist Jim Shaw.
It’s always been a challenge to get one’s arms around Shaw’s work. Part of a rich but varied tradition of LA artists who studied at Cal Arts under the legendary conceptual artist John Baldessari, Shaw draws upon multiple sources, including his personal psychological obsessions and dreams, as well as his omnivorous appetite for American pop culture, to make witty and downright weird art. Listed in no hierarchical order here are just some of Jim Shaw’s obsessions, as expressed in Entertaining Doubts: human hair, primarily women’s wigs, contemporary and has-been politicians, superheroes, garden gnomes, classical theater, money, flooding, corporate greed, pop stars of a certain era, gems, comic books, and advertising. The work is at once universal in its popular imagery and intensely personal in its self-expression. It would be a bore and frankly remove all the magic from the art to try to decipher everything in this dizzying mix. I find a deep sense of anxiety in the art, amidst its equally apparent humor. Both are unifying elements in this important and compelling body of work, and the tension between the two help create Shaw’s lasting allure.
The show at MASS MoCA is also an introduction to a new body of work designed especially for this one-of-kind museum space. The work is an extended meditation on the vulnerabilities of that most iconic of all American superheroes, Superman. We see “the man of steel” in an array of challenging situations reflecting the mendacity of all of our lives, the petty humiliations and small triumphs that punctuate being an adult. And make no mistake this is a very adult Superman, humbled by age — more Willy Loman than Elvis Presley in his prime. In one painting, he is perched proudly on a pedestal. In the next, he has tumbled and broken like an image of a former Soviet dictator after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Shaw has even dissected our hero, placing cutout silhouettes of his bulging muscle groups on a platform, some hanging and some on the ground like cuts of meat.
The new work, including Fruit of My Loins and Not Since Superman Died, is displayed in several interlinked rooms. The first set of work is actually by Jim Shaw’s father, who took classes at a correspondence drawing school in the 1950s (where students learned how to draw by mail). Lined on the walls are these drawings and the letters the school sent responding to his drawings. Although some of the work and the correspondence are amusing, one cannot help but notice the near-constant criticism. One end of this room culminates in a wall-sized blow-up of a line drawing of Superman’s crotch, rendered like a part of a comic book panel. Upon closer inspection, the black-and-white drawing actually contains an opening, a dark, cave-like room with blocks of glowing kryptonite inside, its set dressed like a cheesy amusement park display. In the next room, hang huge painted theatrical backdrops in which we see Superman falling to earth and struggling to rise. Man, icon, or father figure, each contains the seeds of his own defeat. The Freudian connections between father, drawing, art critics, Superhero, emasculation, deadly Kryptonite, and ultimate failure would be a therapist’s dream. Shaw is “entertaining doubts” about his work, his heroes, his personal history, and his life. The fact that he does so with such amusement and such artistry makes his tougher images, well, entertaining.
Shaw and his curators have made gorgeous use of the enormous spaces available to him at MASS MoCA. A series of painting and assemblage pieces from the mid-2000s, created over vintage theatrical backdrops, hang altogether to create a hallucinatory, mystifying universe for the public to walk through. A Renaissance chapel, the desert, the Mississippi River, and a bucolic Currier and Ives country snow scene are some of the backdrops that Shaw has used. Superimposing dream-like fragments on top of these stock images, he visualizes simultaneous but separate realities.
Containing 200 pieces, the show is big, perhaps too big, and not everything works. I found several of the sculptures a bit weak in comparison with the fully developed oeuvre of paintings. That is with the notable exception of one piece that held my rapt attention. Entitled “Hair House,” fully formed and like a waking dream, it stuck in my mind. Standing over seven feet tall, it is a model of a McMansion-style suburban house that seems to float in the air on top of a thick cascade of human hair. It’s a knock out.
Much is often made in the art press of Shaw’s background as a punk rock musician, his production of zines, and his use of pop iconography. This sensibility certainly abounds in his art, but to appreciate the work solely as a mirror to pop culture misses its more personal depth. Based upon both his imagery and his public commentary, I would posit that Shaw is also drawing upon the content of his dreams, littered with the detritus of daily life along with memory, longing, fear, self-doubt, and whatever other psychological states one inhabits.
By his own admission a major consumer of pop culture as a child, Shaw has internalized childhood images and re-presented them fresh in his work. Part of Shaw’s popular appeal is that his visuals are nostalgic for his viewers. But look beyond these familiar bits of immediate gratification, and you will find an artist exploring his own inner workings in a most profound way.
In a 2012 BBC World Service radio interview Shaw describes his fascination with the word, “paedomorphia.” In Shaw’s words, “If infantile or adolescence things continue on into adulthood, that’s called ‘paedomorphia,’ and I thought well, that’s me. I guess, or that’s my artwork. And then I realized, that’s American culture.”
I came away from Entertaining Doubts with the feeling I was witnessing a new phase in the lifecycle of Shaw’s work. Shaw, who, until now, has been considered kind of punk, adolescent, and cheeky is showing us mature work that reflects on grown-up self-doubt, expressed through the iconography of childhood. He is now clearly more the man, than the man-child.
Jim Shaw: Entertaining Doubts continues at MASS MoCA (1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams, MA) through January 2016.