The title of Jim Shaw’s current retrospective at the New Museum, The End is Here, comes from the title of his first zine made in 1978, displayed in a vitrine on the first floor of the exhibition. Gathered in the museum’s theater last month, curator Massimiliano Gioni and Jim Shaw discussed the artist’s range of influences for his early graphic work and the thinking behind the development of the exhibition. The iconography and formal properties of comics, magazine illustrations, and books feature prominently in Shaw’s work and make up a significant portion of the show. Gioni highlighted this early on in the conversation, noting, “You’ve spoken about how a lot of your visual influences or your visual education happened through magazines.” Growing up in Midland, Michigan, Shaw explained, “My cousin introduced me to comic books and monster magazines.” His interest was less in the exemplary storytelling of Marvel, but rather in the science-based stories of DC comics. The open spread of “The End is Here” shows the outline of two hands about to shake, surrounded by bright red bursts and bold lettering questioning, “Should you shake hands with a martian?”
But Shaw’s interest in comics and magazines is due to more than scientific curiosity. Zines are often cited as a particularly democratic medium, affordable to make and distribute. “Making your own mass media,” Gioni inquired, “was that a way to change the world more than a painting on the wall?” Shaw did not hesitate with his answer: “Coming from a small town, I was exposed to art through catalogues and books and magazines. That was, I thought, the ultimate medium.” After a pause he added, “Now I guess it would be the internet.”
It’s interesting to think of Shaw regarding books as “the ultimate medium,” or any medium as such, considering his work spans so many media. The exhibition, which fills three floors, includes films, drawings, and paintings; the large top floor installation “The Hidden World” is composed of backdrops and wooden set pieces, and the huge variety of assemblage paintings of My Mirage (1985–91) includes materials such as plastic army men and mirrors. Still, the conceptual form of the book is an overarching influence.
After attending Cal Arts, where he formed the band and artistic group Destroy All Monsters, which included Mike Kelly and Niagra, Shaw worked in special effects. “If I was going to make a video,” he explained to Gioni, “I’d storyboard it.” Storyboarding shares the formal qualities of the panels of comic strips. In a less literal sense, one of his most visually and media diverse series is My Mirage, which includes over 100 works — only about 60% of which are on view at the New Museum. Gioni described the series for the audience as, “a visual novel that tells the story of an American boy [Billy] and his adventures in counterculture and religious fundamentalism,” calling it a “a sort of encyclopedia of different styles,” and finally claiming that Shaw has a talent for “camouflaging in other people’s styles.” Shaw agreed, citing his influences: the work of Surrealist artists Dalí and Magritte, Pop art posters and 1960s imagery, and the instantly recognizable styles of Matisse and Picasso. Some works are completely abstract while others are more reminiscent of concrete poetry with text shapes that drive the narrative of Billy’s life forward. “The weird thing is that a lot of elements that I would use again and again are from before my own youth,” clarified Shaw, in response to the potential “nostalgic” quality of this series. “They are stuff that was occurring in media when I was born or shortly after, stuff that R. Crumb would use in his brief collage period, stuff that Rosenquist would be using. Slightly out of date from the moment I was using it.”
But more interesting was the artist and curator’s dialogue on the role of the artist, particularly that of curator versus appropriator — a point on which the two differed. While the first and last floors of the show feature iconic works by Shaw such as “My Mirage” and “The Hidden World,” sandwiched in the middle is a floor of works that muddy his role as creator. The floor includes a room with over 50 paintings hung salon-style up to the celling. These paintings are reminiscent of the work of amateur artists and Sunday painters, with a bit of a twist. Titled “Thrift Store Paintings,” Shaw collects these works from secondhand shops. While there a few “fake” ones in the mix — ones Shaw has himself created to look like amateur works — for the most part the series is of found works.
Gioni told Shaw: “’The Hidden World’ and the ‘Thrift Store Paintings’ are two of the most interesting points in your career, and also in my understanding and thinking of what exhibitions can be.” This is primarily the case because they demonstrated, as Gioni explained, that “the barriers between professional art and so called professional art were more complicated.” Shaw highlighted his interest in the imagery of these works, such as the series of Obscene First Lady paintings, depicting various naked first ladies. But when pushed further in terms of his role in this collection, he refused the role of author. “The ‘Thrift Store Paintings’ are also an artwork of yours, a readymade, don’t you think so?” Gioni asked. “I think of myself as a curator,” Shaw replied definitively. “I mean all I did was not include all the stuff I thought wasn’t interesting.” Pushing further Gioni rephrased, “Are you using them, appropriating them, showing them?” “I’m showing them,” concluded Shaw.
Authorship has become a contentious subject, especially in the postmodern age of appropriation. Yet to see an artist definitively refuse this label is striking. Claiming authorship is powerful and being labeled the artist still holds an amount of power, at least over monetary value, if nothing else. But this seems of little importance to Shaw. Instead, he explained he has a “sincere interest in the group.”
In the room alongside the “Thrift Store Paintings” is a series of hanging banners, posters, and ephemera, again not authored by Shaw but considered his collections — an archive of materials that contextualize his work and his modes of thinking. Shaw was the first to admit he’s prone to amassing stuff. He struggles to limit his intake, mainly for practical reasons. Luckily for him, “Now you can collect images on the internet and it doesn’t take up room and get dusty,” he explained, raising laughter from the audience. Again, the choice to include these materials is potentially controversial. In this first New York retrospective, Shaw gives up a whole floor to these objects of which he claims not to be the creator. Asked by an audience member about their curatorial process and relationship, Shaw is first to declare, “It was Massimillio’s idea to include the collections that take up a third of the show.” Gioni laughed and replied, “Both the artist and the curator have to be moderately unhappy about the show.” On a more serious note, he explained, “They pose lots of questions about who is an artist, and up to which point is somebody an artist? Is an artist when he chooses somebody else’s work? And what’s also the responsibility of an artist in relationship to other forms of expression and other iconographies, which I think is very much what Jim’s work is about.”
Perhaps the inclusion of these objects will shift the discussion away from claims of authorship to inescapable webs of influence. Rather than shy away from the anxiety of influence, Shaw revels in it, exploring every possible object that has impacted his artistic thinking, ranging from ethnic busts from a Masonic temple to The Big Book of Wild Animals, embracing the interdisciplinary nature of our cultural climate.
Jim Shaw: The End is Here continues at the New Museum through January 10, 2016.