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Jim Shaw’s Real Mirage: A Partial Inventory Afterall 2008


One of the most fruitful meta-curatorial practices of the contemporary era has been the exploration of the artist/curator/collector overlap - the act of sifting through a museum's holdings to compile an exhibition, or of institutions displaying the idiosyncratic collections accrued by artists themselves: from Andy Warhol's 1969 'Raid the Icebox 1' exhibition at Rhode Island School of Design (which pulled art and non-art objects from the museum's cold storage and arranged them in unconventional displays) to Eduardo Paolozzi's continent-and millennia-spanning 'Lost Magic Kingdoms' at the Museum of Mankind in London in 1985.

The artist-as-packrat exhibition 'Neotoma' at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles in 1995 featured, among other things, Jim Shaw's pulp paperback novel collection and Mike Kelley's assortment of discarded wire coat-hangers bent to open locked cars. Not to mention indeterminate boundary phenomena such as The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, which displays such oddball ephemera as magician and actor Ricky Jay's collection of decaying celluloid dice and the accumulated knick-knacks of a half-dozen Los Angeles-area trailer-park residents in artist and curator Tina Marrin's permanent exhibition 'A Garden of Eden on Wheels' (2000-ongoing).

Shaw's 'Thrift Store Paintings' exhibition - a collection of a hundred or so mostly anonymous paintings found at swap meets and second-hand emporiums around the US, first exhibited in Glendale, California in 1990 and reconfigured several times since - remains a benchmark in the artistic inversion of the protocols of fine-art collection and display. But it is less widely recognised that the bulk of Shaw's oeuvre consists of elaborate variations on this same theme of the accumulation and presentation of cultural artefacts. Take, for example, the sprawling biographical fiction of Shaw's first major narrative experiment, My Mirage (1986-91), whose some 120 works in different media reference a huge spectrum of late twentieth-century visual language, ranging from bubblegum cards to Frank Stella, exploring the discrete subcultures of childhood, psychedelia and born-again Christianity while piecing together the story of Shaw's Candide-like teenage surrogate 'Billy'. Shaw's overarching conceptual structures, while distinctly narrative and often rooted in sequential linearity, nevertheless are holographic in the mechanics of their communication - specific, overlapping and often hermetic references sketch out a vast field of suggested-but-unarticulated narrative content (including the narrative of modernist formalism). While we can't always make out which specific biographical circumstances, for example, generated Billy's The Temptation of Doubting Olsen (1990) - a painting of an imaginary comic book cover - it is nevertheless surrounded by an aura of implicit data, and when even just two or three of Shaw's works are gathered in one place their mutually interpenetrating back stories begin to suggest a whole parallel universe.

Materialising every dream or articulating every potential nuance of sprawling projects such as Shaw's fictional-esque religion of Oism, which Shaw first conceived as a graduate student and which has occupied his attention since around 2000, is patently impossible. Any sample or cross-section of the big picture of Oism, whose manifestations encompass music, video, installation, performances, comic books, sculptures, drawings, photographs and paintings (including those supposedly found in Oist thrift stores), is encoded helplessly within the whole. It occurred to me that this model might provide a fruitful new way to explore the role of influence, reference and appropriation in Shaw's creative process, particularly by applying it to the reservoirs of symbolic and formal material from which his work derives: the artist's vast and remarkable collection of books, records, comics, magazines, artworks, videos, posters, knickknacks and other cultural ephemera, a hybrid personal/collective unconscious now largely clogging the interstitial spaces of his studio in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale.

Nor was I wrong. As Shaw sifted through the thousands of items stashed in his long storage hallway, singling out several hundred for identification and elaboration, all the familiar themes from his studio practice emerged - crackpot science, fringe religions and adolescent culture; forgotten fine artists, unrecognised commercial designers and inspired amateurs; misinterpretation, disintegration and transcendence; experimental narrative and grotesque sensationalism; and collage - always collage. Among Shaw's influences is the Los Angeles based psychedelic-era comedy troupe The Firesign Theatre, admired for their ability to deliver avant-garde collage aesthetics to a popular audience. Their multi-track studio recording techniques, used to produce looping, layered narrative soundscapes such as the seminal Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers (1970) and I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus (1971), resulted in a surprising string of underground hit records and extensive radio exposure in the early FM radio era; at the same time, their very success (along with the stigma of being categorised as comedy) has slowed recognition of the importance of their work as both great literature and audio art.

A similar prejudice obscures the innovations of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Active in London in the Swinging Sixties, the Bonzos initially came to popular attention as an English music-hall revival act on the children's television programme Do Not Adjust Your Set, before radically and rapidly evolving into a Dada-inspired psychedelic novelty group, whose fragmented but encyclopedic references to popular culture were another early influence on Shaw's cut-and-paste aesthetics. Their debut album Gorilla (1967) features the track 'The Intro & Outro', which Shaw considers 'one of the greatest recordings ever made', although their second LP, The Doughnut in Granny's GreenhouseUrban Spaceman), is generally considered their masterpiece. In Shaw's words: 'It's a succession of sound collages culminating on the second side with "My Pink Half of the Drainpipe": "You who speak to me across the fence of common sense…", and it reaches that point where he just holds the note and the music continues and continues… I used to use that to drive people crazy at my junior college.'1

(1968, originally released in the US as

Shaw's interest in collage strategies extends across the full spectrum of pop media, and back into the worlds of fine art and literature. Charles Henri Ford is best known as the editor of View, the 1940s New York-based Surrealist magazine that, over the course of its seven-year run, published work from major avant-garde literary and art-world talents from Marcel Duchamp to Jorge Luis Borges, many for the first time in the United States. Ford was an important poet and the boyfriend of Surrealist painter Pavel Tchelitchew. After Tchelitchew's death in Rome, Ford returned to New York and became a sort of éminence grise in Pop circles. 'I picked up this book, Spare Parts [1966], from a remainders book company for $3 when I was a teenager. It's a collection of Ford's multicoloured photolithograph collage poem posters made from newspaper and magazine clippings from 1966 - it was an edition of 1,000 or something.'

Another pseudo-journalistic print portfolio that caught Shaw's adolescent eye was Eduardo Paolozzi's Moonstrips Empire News Volume 1, a series of one-hundred silkscreen prints created between 1965 and 1967 in London. Moonstrips Empire News was the first instalment of a projected five-hundred-page magnum opus articulating Paolozzi's critical view of contemporary society through his voracious, appropriationist appetite for pop culture. The prints' modular, McLuhanesque pastiche of pop iconography, together with Paolozzi's signature curdled mechanistic horror vacuii, was a major force in moving Pop art beyond the cul-de-sac of arch, dispassionate quotation - though Paolozzi always maintained that he was operating in the tradition of 'radical Surrealism'.

'One weird thing about the work I'm doing now', observes Shaw, 'is that a lot of it actually references the nostalgia of Robert Crumb's childhood.' The same year as Paolozzi's Moonstrips Empire NewsZap #1King Bee #1 that had the greatest specific impact. 'They're different from just about any other Crumb - almost entirely collaged out of late 1940s and early 50s magazines. This advertising style - usually with speech balloons - from when he was growing up, is the very same period that I'm using for these backdrops for my new Oist prog-rock opera.'

was published, another, more street-level experimental periodical first saw the light of day. (1967) unleashed Crumb's potent marriage of archaic cartooning styles, psychedelic mythology, storytelling skills and obsessive draughtsmanship on an unsuspecting world. While Crumb's mutant funny-book stories formed an important link in the post-War grotesque tradition that informs much of Shaw's oeuvre, it was an array of uncharacteristic works printed in Apex Novelty's 1969 tabloid underground comic

While Dadaist objects, such as the collages of Hannah Höch and masks of Marcel Janco, ably localised the schizophrenic discontinuity of twentieth-century consciousness onto representations of the human body, the true cut-and-paste posterboy of modern disintegration was make-up artist Jack Pierce's realisation of Frankenstein's monster for the 1931 United Artists movie Frankenstein. Boris Karloff's flat-headed, dead-skinned stitched and bolted bogeyman was a cultural timebomb, erupting in the mid-1950s through a number of surreptitious subcultural channels. Alongside Ed 'Big Daddy' Roth, custom-car builder and creator of the hot-rod icon Rat Fink, the key figure in the early promulgation of this post-War grotesque tradition (and an important influence for Crumb, Shaw and many others) was the idiosyncratic comic artist Basil Wolverton, whose intricately deformed characters graced the covers of early MAD magazines in the 1950s. Comic-book aficionados are often unaware of Wolverton's lifelong side career of illustrating Bible stories for Herbert W. Armstrong's The Plain Truth and various pamphlets, including the apocalyptic 1975 in Prophecy! (published in the mid-1950s), which detailed the gruesome plagues and extreme weather that would herald the end days.

The third major force in 1950s pubescent grot wasn't a graphic artist, but a collector of Hollywood ephemera named Forrest J. Ackerman, who on a hunch compiled his collection of stills from then near-forgotten horror films such as Dracula (1931), King Kong (1933) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) into what he and publisher James Warren thought would be a one-shot publication for pre-teen boys. Famous Monsters of Filmland wound up running for twenty-five years. 'My cousin introduced me to monster magazines and comic books, which were the only masculine thing I could have access to in a house surrounded by women,' recalls Shaw. 'You had to go out of town to buy monster magazines - it was like pornography. None of the stores in my hometown carried them. So I had to surreptitiously go along with my sisters when they bought clothes in Saginaw, Michigan. I didn't realise how big an influence they were until I did my book of distorted faces, and I realised it looked like a group of Famous Monsters covers.' Shaw is just one among several generations of influential cultural workers whose young minds had been warped by FMoF, some of whom - including Steven Spielberg and George Lucas - helped to shape Western popular culture according to Ackerman's images.

One of these two directors' more improbable Hollywood collaborators was the illustrator Ron Cobb, designer of an ecology symbol - a green sign, similar to the Greek letter theta and suggesting a planetary form, which was used by environmentalists throughout the 1970s - and author of a highly influential cartoon style that incorporated post-apocalyptic vistas and fetishised machinery with an acerbic but essentially humanist worldview. 'Cobb started out doing Famous Monsters covers, then he became the political cartoonist for the LA Free Press,' remembers Shaw. 'And then he did design for movies like Dark Star [1974], Conan the Barbarian [1982], Star Wars [1977] and Alien [1979]. One day he got a check for $200,000 for E.T. [1982] and he hadn't even worked on it. He'd worked on the story for Night Skies, the much darker movie that E.T. replaced. To me that's the ultimate Hollywood success story.' Shaw parlayed his own FMoF fandom into a late-1980s stint doing special effects animation for films such as A Nightmare on Elm Street III: The Dream Warrior (1987) and Earth Girls Are Easy (1988).

As much as Shaw's work has been nurtured by the dark underground springs of wrongness coursing beneath the placid surface of 1950s America, the surface itself has also been the object of considerable obsession. Many of Shaw's favourite graphic artists of that period are remarkable for the cool, clean economy of their linework. Original SpiderMan penciller Steve Ditko is a prime example, and his paranoiac Ayn Rand-inspired self-published comics such as Mr A and Avenging World are an unexpected dividend, mirroring the exaggerated Apollonian precision of the artwork in their black-and-white philosophical polarities. But Shaw was actually slow to warm to the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby/Steve Ditko revolution at Marvel comics - naturalistic (albeit fantastically mutated) anti-heroic characters operating in contemporary Cold War culture and rendered in a dynamic and self-conscious Pop-house style - that revived the medium in the early 1960s.

'I was already pretty into comics when the Marvel thing with the Fantastic Four happened, so I had this bias towards DC,' admits Shaw, 'even though I could sense that it was wrong.' Curt Swan, who had been drawing the frivolously surreal Shaw favourite Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen since the mid-1950s (until Marvel-defector Kirby took it into the stratosphere in the early 1970s) was one of DC Comics's masters of the crisp school, but it was an even more prominent member of the DC family who earned Shaw's greatest accolades. 'My favourite was Murphy Anderson's inking of Carmine Infantino originals, which would have been [space opera hero] Adam Strange in Mystery in SpaceThe Atom and Hawkman and also worked with Curt Swan - was a really precise inker because he used a quill pen instead of a brush.' Comic fandom and criticism have underrated Infantino because of his lack of a conspicuous individualistic style, yet his slick craftsmanship has a hypnotic so-right-it's wrong regularity and a streamlined modernist visual attractiveness that keep giving long after graphic auteurs like Frank Miller have worn threadbare. In spite of Shaw's low opinion of his own skills as a comic-art draughtsman, he has continued to pay homage to DC's Silver Age for inspiration, both in his recreation of dreamt comic covers and a recent series of Oist comic stories.

comics. Anderson - who drew

Probably the most dedicated and resolutely fringe artist and publisher in comic-book history is Los Angeles native Jack Chick, whose histrionic fundamentalist Christian tracts have sold over half a billion copies to date, making him the world's most widely read living author. Inspired by the 1950s comic-book propaganda of the Chinese communists in Rancho Cucamonga on the outskirts of Los Angeles, Chick's ministry has been churning out his little cartoon narrative rants about the occult, abortion, homosexuality, rock music, politics, Harry Potter and the theory of evolution since 1960. He is particularly devoted to exposing the Roman Catholic Church as the secret inventors of Islam, the Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, communism and the Holocaust - in addition to being doctrinally misguided. In spite of his enormous presence as a writer and artist, Chick has never issued a photograph of himself and hasn't given an interview since 1975, leading some to refer to him as the Thomas Pynchon of the Christian comic crowd. 'I'd be thrilled to get some original Chick art,' says Shaw, 'but it's probably impossible. I've never heard of anyone owning any.'

Chick's artwork is unusual in that it is motivated solely by its role as a vehicle for revelation rather than any normative aesthetic or financial goals. A similar example of form following function is the found antediluvian 'rock books' and related interpretive paintings of Richard Shaver. Shaver was an automobile factory worker in the 1930s who, by his own account, suddenly began to be able to read minds, then to telepathically listen in on torture sessions conducted by malignant reptilian aliens living within our hollow earth. The extensive accounts of his subsequent investigations were published as non-fiction in Ray Palmer's influential pulp sci-fi magazine Amazing Stories, and laid the foundation for the contemporary paranormal research subculture. Later in life, Shaver realised that certain rock formations were a sort of holographic record of culture before the great flood, and began interpreting the subtle imagery he found in cross sections of polished agate by copying them in paint, with added detail and explanatory text. 'In my younger days I went to seek out Shaver in his temporary hometown of Amherst, Wisconsin, hoping to come across some of his artwork,' recalls Shaw. 'Instead I came across Ray Palmer's son, who was running the family business, which by then consisted of FATE magazine - but they had back issues of Flying Saucers and Other Worlds. I bought everything they had, but they didn't have any of Shaver's paintings. I finally was able to buy one from Brian Tucker, an LA artist and Shaver scholar.'

Crackpot science has been a consistent inspirational source of creative wrongness for Shaw. 'I just finished this book called The Music of Time [2000] by Preston B. Nichols, the guy who's been behind these books on the Montauk Project, and he claims he's not only involved in these secret US military time-travel experiments, but that he's the genius behind bubblegum music, the Moody Blues first symphonic music and the great recordings of Phil Spector. The Rolling Stones would show up in the middle of the night in Montauk and record "Sympathy for the Devil" [1968]. There were two members of the bubblegum band Ohio Express - who recorded "Yummy Yummy Yummy I've Got Love in My Tummy" [1968] - called the Hamill brothers, one of whom was Mark Hamill of Star Wars fame. But Mark Hamill doesn't ever mention being in the group. He has no reason to hide something like that … unless it depended on time travel!'

Another 'differently credible' scientist was the model for a central (fictional) figure in Oist history. Shaw explains: 'Annie O'Wooten, the founder of Oism, became so enamoured of the ideas of this inventor that she brings the church to near-bankruptcy investing in his various schemes. When these turn out to be frauds, she loses control of the church to a group of men, but the inventions turn out to be the source of a lucrative home appliance business.' Sometimes mentioned in the same breath as Nikola Tesla, the late nineteenth-century free-energy crackpot John Ernst Worrell Keely claimed to have discovered a way to transform tuning-fork harmonics into mechanical energy. He gave highly controlled demonstrations of his remarkable (and remarkably Paolozziesque) hydro-pneumatic-pulsating-vacu-engine and music hydro-vacuum motor to potential investors - particularly Mrs Clara Bloomfield-Moore, who funded Keely heavily for a decade until his inability to produce practical results (amidst widespread accusations of fraud) frightened off even this stalwart believer. After Keely was struck and killed by a streetcar, his laboratory was examined by Moore's son and a journalist from Scientific American, leading to the discovery of a massive silent-air compressor and a network of hidden pneumatic pipes that had secretly powered his harmonic devices.

Shaw's collection bears an analogous relation to Keely's hidden system of streaming air: stacks of vintage fundamentalist magazines such as Destiny and Moody Monthly; original song-poem vinyl by Rodd Keith and The MSR Singers, a variety of Christian ventriloquist acts and Sacramento hippie instrument-inventor Bobby Brown; imported tomes on forgotten Surrealists such as Clovis Trouille, Jean Benoit or Alberto Savinio (Giorgio de Chirico's brother); videos of Eastern bloc filmmakers such as Aleksandr Ptushko, Karel Zeman and Wojciech Has; taped cable-access broadcasts of The Three Geniuses, Christian Science ventriloquist David Hart & Chip and Zero Abortions; and so much more. Every nook and cranny of Shaw's laboratory (and mind) wheezes and creaks with the pressure of this culture-saturated atmosphere. The difference is that Shaw's elaborate mechanism works: every once in a while a phase shift occurs, and some new and monstrous holographic nugget is belched into the world. Nothing is free and nothing is perpetual, but in Shaw's baroquely recombinant universe, the evolutionary potential of human creativity is apparently boundless.

— Doug Harvey
Footnotes

1.

All Jim Shaw's quotes are from conversations and emails with the artist, June/July 2008.