Jim Shaw at Rosamund Felsen
Jim Shaw has been recording and drawing his dreams since the mid 1980’s, and his previous show at Rosamund Felsen was comprised of a selection from the many resulting uniformly scaled, stylistically anonymous illustrations. In spite of the masterful contrast between their formal restraint and the almost frightening complexity and wit evinced by the dream stories themselves, the work was an unavoidable letdown after Shaw's best known work: the phantasmagorical My Mirage, a sprawling self-conscious narrative brimming with sensorial richness and novelty. In his most recent work, Shaw has managed to reclaim this extravagant generosity, not by retreating into his previously successful formula of virtuosic control, but by moving further into the chaotic dream material and dredging its treasures even further into the daylight world.
Every piece in Shaw’s latest oeuvre appeared to him first in a dream. Ranging from mutant renderings of The Family Circus, Peanuts, and generic greeting cards in a lobby display case, large paintings of monumental figures made up of hundreds of smaller tangled bodies, a midway style photo-fun scrim of a spinal column with cut-out head-holes to a dozen works that would blend seamlessly with Shaw’s Thrift Store Paintings collection, most of the works depend on Shaw's considerable drawing skills to materialize them from the oneiric aether.
As testimony to this strategy's success, much of the art is solid and original enough for a lesser artist to base an entire career on. Most suprising is the success of the sculptural pieces, the green flocked hydrocal golf course floor sculptures, for example, evincing an effortless shift into the third dimension. Shaw’s dreams remain as clogged with pop culture and art world references as his previous work has been. But where the musings of My Mirage’s fictional protagonist Billy would be translated meticulously into a magazine cover or comic book page grounded firmly in consensus reality, the dream objects often operate at several removes from the recognizability of such literal appropriations. Even when the work is attributed in the dream to a real artist like Joan Jonas, the resulting work (in this case a set of swirly footprint paintings alternately captioned ‘Daisy’ and ‘Adolph’) is often connected to its real-life counterpart by only the most unfathomable unconscious logic.
Shaw's previous work often carried quite specific and literal critiques of cultural conventions and institutions, and the dream objects continue to subvert these authoritarian postures. But in abdicating the position of master narrator in favor of the organizing intelligence of the deep psyche (or random cortical electrical discharges; the end result is the same) Shaw undermines the self-important centrality of the rational intellect itself. Other recent attempts to similarly dislodge the hegemony of taste have resulted in weak, visually insipid and just plain stupid art, but as Jim Shaw’s dream works show, in the right hands and subconscious, none of the humor, mystery, intelligence and visual splendor of great art need to be thrown out with the bathwater.