Jim Shaw’s survey exhibition ‘The End Is Here’ is funny and aggressively off-kilter. Yet, underlying his amazingly diverse, inventively homegrown approach to art is a career-long preoccupation with apocalypse. Taking its title from a satirical religious pamphlet that was his MFA thesis project at CalArts, Los Angeles, in 1978, the exhibition has a scattershot sublimity, with sources and affinities ranging from William Blake to surrealism and pop art, DC comics, science fiction, teenage psychedelia, thrift store art, political cartoons and the work of his contemporaries including Jonathan Borofsky and Mike Kelley. Prophets of doom have foretold the end of the world for centuries, recalculating the date of the apocalypse each time it’s failed to happen. Apocalyptic subject matter, such as the Last Judgment, has interested Renaissance artists ranging from Hieronymous Bosch to Michelangelo, and, ever since the end of World War II, the annihilation of life as we know it – at the hands of nuclear weapons, killer robots, invaders from outer space, stray asteroids, or infectious disease – has been a theme in both fringe and mainstream culture. The word ‘apocalypse’ is generally defined as a world-destroying catastrophe, yet its original meaning is ‘revelation’, and Shaw’s thematic concerns can be apocalyptic in both senses. Ezra Pound once said that ‘artists are the antennae of the race’, and ‘The End Is Here’ shows Shaw’s knack for picking up disturbing signals that originate deep in the human psyche.
As an experience ‘The End Is Here’ is like visiting a hall of mirrors – compact but maze-like, it’s a carnival attraction that offers glimpses of the infinite. Shaw’s work consistently explores a wide variety of personal and cultural mythologies through self-analysis and historical research, and he has a long-standing interest in cultural forms both imaginative and didactic. Curators Massimiliano Gioni, Gary Carrion-Murayari and Margot Norton have divided the exhibition into chronological, thematic and project-specific zones. These include ‘My Mirage’ (1986–91), a semi-hallucinatory trip through the collective unconscious of the baby boom generation; Shaw’s collections of thrift store paintings which he has collected for more than 30 years, and idiosyncratic didactic materials titled ‘The Hidden World’ which he began collecting as a teenager; ‘Dream Drawings’ (1992–99) and ‘Dream Objects’ (1994–ongoing); and ‘Oism’, the artist’s invented religion that he coined in the late 1990s. The top floor of the museum features recent large-scale paintings on theatre backdrops and the installation Labyrinth: I Dreamed I Was Taller than Jonathan Borofsky (2009). Shaw’s early work includes Martian portraits, paintings on religious prints and multi-part UFO Photos, including one that refers to the Zapruder film, which caught on camera the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. Part of the exhibition relates Shaw’s ‘distorted face’ drawings from the late 1970s and early ’80s to nearby works from the 1990s that are almost photorealistic, including a particularly striking one of his friend, Mike Kelley. Sometimes, Shaw pushes representational art as far as he can before the temptation to subvert it with one form of weirdness or another becomes too strong for him to resist. The eponymously titled pairing, Hudson Pencil and Hudson Bubble Gum (both 1993), for example, juxtaposes a traditional drawing of Feature Inc. gallery’s late founder with the same portrait done in pink, indigestible candy.
First published in Issue 176