Chasing His Own Tale: Jim Shaw’s Closed Circuit Religion
Jim Shaw’s enormously ambitious Oism project is at once a logical continuation of the kind on meta-narrative oeuvres that made him famous, and a distinct leap to a new plateau of social appropriation. In bodies of work like the celebrated My Mirage and the Dream Drawings and Dream Objects, Shaw discovered and honed a strategy for producing a huge variety of individual works in disparaged fine art idioms (painting, drawing, sculpture) and referencing equally disparaged pop culture vernacular (comic books, vintage illustration, psychedelic art), sneaking them into the art world conversation Trojan Horse style, under the guise of intricately woven, transcendentally ironic, semi-theatrical experimental fictions.
These works, as successful as they were in activating a social space once made public, were essentially predicated on the articulation of the inner psychic life of an individual—the fictional teenager Billy on the one hand, and the artist’s Unconscious on the other. Oism, which takes as it’s jumping-off point fantastic new American religions like Mormonism, appropriates an entire system of interpreting reality—with potentially thousands or even millions of voices contributing to its material realization. This is most obvious in the plurality of authorship already at play in the Oist oeuvre: the failed modernist painter Adam O. Goodman who had to work as a commercial illustrator under the name Archie Gunn; the artist who painted the Oist movie posters included in the Kill Your Darlings exhibit (plus the still photographers and costume designers who worked on the “original” productions); Mandy Omaha, the Oist counterpart of Judy Chicago overseeing the large collaborative work The Donner Party (and the individual artists who contributed place settings to the Chicago parody); and the disparate authors of the Oist Thrift Store Paintings and Oist Student Paintings.
Moreover, Shaw’s methodology has followed a similarly expansive course. The works in My Mirage were hand-made exclusively by Shaw, while the Oist work has seen the artist’s increasingly employment of artisans and collaborators—from the Amish wheelwright who fabricated the miniature wagon wheels and the semi-anonymous place-setting contributors in The Donner Party, to the Who’s Who of the Los Angeles art world that participated (as actors and improvisational musicians) in The Rite of the 360 Degrees performance and video. Shaw’s next big goal—to establish a storefront Oist church and there hold weekly webcast gospel noise music rituals—brings the inherent social and performative aspects that have always informed his work to the forefront. In doing so, Shaw claims a place alongside Los Angeles artists of the last decade like David Wilson of The Museum of Jurassic Technology, and Matt Coolidge of The Center for Land Use Interpretation (and their respective subcontractors and collaborators) as a master of the deeply ambiguous faux institution.
The ambiguity of CLUI and MJT lies in their simultaneous critique and celebration of the cultural institutions they mimic—governmental public interest information clearinghouses and natural history museums respectively. The success of this approach—as with much “parody”—is evident in the fact that military industrial and museum professionals are among CLUI’s and the MJT’s most ardent fans. It remains to be seen whether Oism generates this kind of support from the deacons, channels, and scribes of America’s (and the world’s) fringe religious communities. It doesn’t seem likely, but perhaps we’re looking to the wrong constituency to ratify Shaw’s parallel consensus reality. Unlike CLUI and MJT, Oism bears considerable analogical reading—first and most obviously as a critique of the cultishness of the art world. Specific installments like The Goodman Image File and Study and Kill Your Darlings amplify and caricaturize the late-Modernist equation of non-figurative abstraction with spiritual enlightenment—a notion that, like most religious movements, began with the best intentions but wound up the playground of corrupt, sanctimonious, and purge-happy thought police.
Similarly, The Rite of the 360 Degrees—with its grad-school art star initiate and hermetic all-male castes of emerging and established professional artists, influential academics, and photogenic critics enacting the ritual of admission into their ranks—can be seen at least in part as satirizing the pompous and proprietary boy’s club atmosphere that makes the art world so stifling. On a broader scale, with its overarching narrative of pure utopian urges derailed and co-opted by bureaucracy and materialism, Oism stands as a critique of the great Modernist enterprise—or for that matter, any great utopian enterprise. But particularly America itself.
Of course, as with any well-constructed mythology, Oism may be fruitfully applied to any situation. It functions admirably as a vehicle for Shaw’s ongoing autobiographical impulses. The Oist Thrift Store Paintings refer to his famous 1990 curatorial project; the Oist Student and Goodman paintings hearken back to his Michigan school days; and much of the subject matter of Oist works derives from either his dreams or his encyclopedic knowledge of popular culture. On the other end of the scale, Oism should theoretically provide a conceptual framework for understanding the entire universe, how it came into being, and our place in it. Which would make it a viable religion.
In an early essay I proposed L. Ron Hubbard as the greatest artist of the 20th century, due to his remarkable ability to convince so many people, against all evidence, of the authenticity of his fantastic resumé, the intelligibility of his theories, and the legitimacy of his spiritual authority. Perhaps Oism is the next step in this evolution of the aesthetics of belief—an immanently false but perfectly functional doctrine. The task of mimicking an entire historical religious movement in detail is certainly beyond the abilities of any one artist, no matter how productive. The only way for Oism to ever be truly complete is for it to begin to function organically; to take on a life of its own, drawing its congregation first from savvy art world types and doctors of comparative religion, then from the spiritually parched masses of the industrialized societies. The institutions and artefacts—the thrift shops, feature films, hymnals, and nail salons—imagined by Shaw could be realized by generations of successively less ambivalent Oists. In his dotage, Shaw will pass the reins on to his MBA daughter Collette, who will streamline the organization and send frozen missionaries to the Andromeda system. I can’t see any other way. For this great work to succeed in moving beyond the successes of My Mirage and the Dream Drawings and Objects, the Serpent of Suspended Disbelief must fasten onto its own tail—the Oist narrative circle must be unbroken, roll out of the art world and on into History. So be it.
Doug Harvey is Art Critic for The L.A.Weekly and played the Testicular Bagpipes in Jim Shaw’s The Rite of the 360 Degrees.