The Hoarder

John Haber
in New York City

Jim Shaw: The End Is Here

Sally Smart and this one is smaller than this one

There is appropriation, and then there is hoarding. Jim Shaw could explain for me, but he is way too busy.

He wants a record of everything, from his passing fancies to his dreams. He seems not have let go of anything since he discovered comic books and sex—and who is to say which to him matters more? Not much has changed either since he discovered art. He just adds it to his collection. Can the hoarding go on forever? Maybe or maybe not, but New Museum calls its retrospective "The End Is Here." Meanwhile Sally Smart and a group show complete their collections, one of them in miniature. Jim Shaw's The Donner Party (Centre National d'Art Contemporain, Grenoble/MoMA PS1, 2003–2007)

From bad to worse

Shaw hit New York big time in 1991, without a single work to call his own. At least not from his own hand, but his "Thrift Store Paintings" filled an upscale Soho gallery with a collection of impulse buys in anything but upscale places. It came after the "Pictures generation" and a long, loud decade of appropriation, but with politics for him most definitely on hold. It came, too, as a culmination of what the Marcia Tucker, the New Museum's founder, had hailed as "bad painting." It gave new meaning to street art, much like Jean-Michel Basquiat in a very different way before him. And it anticipated a turn toward both trashy installations and outsider art that continues to this day.

In other words, it made an impact, for all the dismissals and reservations. Honestly, some wondered, could things get any worse? Apparently a lot worse, as measured, like so much of Shaw's output, not just in shock value, but in sheer numbers as well. The New Museum has about a hundred of the "Thrift Store Paintings"—easily enough work for many a career retrospective. And then it continues on three full floors, covering more than thirty years and, I can only guess, the neighborhood of a thousand images and objects, to take the measure of his excess. Shaw executes many of them himself, in meticulous detail.

Born in 1952, Shaw grew up in Michigan, like another artist reluctant to abandon adolescence, Mike Kelley. Where Kelley treats his pleasures and the viewer's fears, Shaw, two years older, never altogether gets over the shame. Together, they formed a band, and the retrospective includes some of his gently pulsing "sonic experiments." They also both left Michigan to study at Cal Arts. One can see its most famous teacher, John Baldessari, in Shaw's pose of naiveté and explicitness. As for the band, Destroy All Monsters, he knows from Francisco de Goya that "the sleep of reason breeds monsters," and he welcomes them.

His father was a graphic designer for Dow Chemical, and in La-La-Land he worked on animations for a special effects studio. That led to the "Distorted Faces" in the 1970s, based on celebrity photos. Already pop culture appears as and through a disturbance. Shaw could have been a terrific comic book illustrator, except that he never goes beyond a model from others. He never cares to. He wants to bring the Green Lantern and Archie into his nightmares, not to create the next superhero.

The faces grow, finely rendered in charcoal, and Shaw relishes skill, for all his lifting from others. More recently, his quotes have included Norman Rockwell, but serving up Jesus instead of a turkey for the family dinner. A quote from Jacques-Louis David stands between road signs pointing to industry and art. Even now, his works on paper pack in the minutiae. Still, he had to move on—to his own impulses and to collecting. Most of his work runs in series, and most of his series have never stopped.

You will not be surprised to learn that his purchases are as raunchy and disturbed as the rest of his art. His idea of a thrift store does not have room for cuddly children and cats, no more than that of Kai Althoff. At the same time, he starts an even larger collection, "The Hidden World." Its cult religious objects include pamphlets and banners from revival tents, but also t-shirts. For them, the end really is now. Shaw sees himself as tapping not just his unconscious, but the underside of Western culture and America.

Obsessions and fakes

Two series did come to an end, quite apart from the faces, and that 1991 show marked the turn between them. They go far to define his art. Since 1984, he had been working on "My Mirage," about a toothy adolescent named Billy and with inspiration from William S. Boroughs. It moves between drawings and found objects, with enough alterations to make it hard to know one from the other. The identically sized sheets also move freely between images and text, as well as between shamelessness and guilt—often in the space of a single sheet. And then he wraps up the 1990s with "Dream Drawings" that claim to capture whatever he could remember from each night's dreams.

Does that mean that anything goes—in what Martha Rosler has called a "Meta-Monumental Garage Sale"? Not at all. Like any true hoarder, Shaw has his obsessions, and he never lets go. One is still music, and I do not mean Beethoven. He found another inspiration in Iron Butterfly, somewhere between the trashiest sides of heavy metal and psychedelic rock. Some images in "My Mirage" adapt album covers, in one case crossed with a swooning nude Madonna by Edvard Munch.

Another is preteen pop culture, most notably comic books. Billy's do not have much in the way of superheroics, and many more enter Shaw's dreams. Another, of course, is religion, and if his choice of sects is not exactly mainstream, he has since created his own—OISM, about a priest born of her own egg and a "proto-feminist" prophet. Not that he has come any closer from adolescent male to feminist. Another theme is his love-hate relationship with art and America, as with The Donner Party at MoMA PS1 in 2007. A final room creates an entire theater from his own paintings and used stage sets, as Labyrinth: I Dreamt I Was Taller than Jonathan Borofsky.

And then there is sex. Billy's locker-room talk cannot get enough of it, and a book cover converts Ian Fleming's Moonraker to Manlicker. Shaw's dreams amount to a single orgy lasting nine years. One night he stumbles on his penis on the way to the bathroom—not unreasonably, since it had grown to four feet long. In case you were worried about keeping all these themes apart, he also makes out with a very horny Wonder Woman. In a 1996 landscape based on Surrealist classics, Sigmund Freud armed with a magnifying glass, like a great detective, stares at a cross between a giant tit and giant tear—fixated on the repressed, while ignoring the spectacle everywhere before his eyes.

The curators, Massimiliano Gioni Gary and Carrion-Murayari with Margot Norton, have pulled off quite a feat in assembling it all. They deserve a rest, as does the viewer. Can Shaw do more than chronicle his obsessions? Can he so much as distinguish the unconscious from an adolescent dream? Probably not, but he does not embarrass easily, at least in public. Should you doubt that his "Dream Drawings" actually derive from his dreams, he has a series of "Fake Dream Drawings" to match.

That does not make them any less glib or any more resonant, and he is at his dullest in his paintings. Will you recognize the distorted celebrities, and should you? Did you know that Jonathan Borofsky called a painting I Dreamed I Was Taller than Picasso? Almost surely not, and that sense of nostalgia just out of reach of consciousness never goes away. People tend to love or hate Shaw, and your response may hinge on whether you still miss Iron Butterfly—and whether you still feel that there is something about your childhood that you hate to admit. If so, it is time to start hoarding, like the hoarders elsewhere in "The Keeper."

Small mercies

The trash keeps piling up. So many galleries have turned to installations to make an impact, the bigger the better. And so many artists have turned to found objects as the legacy of appropriation, fears of the real giving way to the digital, a living record of their studio, or simply what they can afford. They bring the street into the room, and their dreams may end up in the gutter. Yoko Ono with stones to hold in one's hand, Sarah Sze with blue powder and disposable plastic cups as light itself, and Shaw with adolescent impulses barely disguised as a yard sale—as different as they are, they may be on to the same thing. The more the merrier and maybe even a delight.

Paulina Bebecka begs to differ. As curator, she calls her exhibition "this one is smaller than this one," in insistent lowercase—and yet it, too, gains in strength from more of the same. The objects run to furry animals and feces, tossed lightly aside or plated in gold. Skeletal hands like pendant jewelry share the table with long red fingernails like witchery or claws. Cockroaches crawl over the edge as literal gold bugs, while overweight dancers after Fernando Botero tumble down. They add up to a play table from the world's largest kindergarten.

The twenty-eight contributors are hard to tell apart even with a checklist, but then the show's title suggests the impossibility of comparison. Once again size matters, so long as it is small. The theme is hardly novel, as with shows in recent years of "Small" and "Miniature Worlds." Just days before, a Chelsea gallery selected only small work in painting or collage, as "The Tiny Picture Show." Collectively, such contributors as Jean Arp, Kurt Schwitters, and H. C. Westermann have been taking pains for a century. For Lee Bontecou, much the same impulse went into working larger than life.

The lowercase show, as I shall call it, differs in its shared imagination, like a single installation run wild. It is not about that great impulse in late Modernism, from Ad Reinhardt to Robert Ryman, to cherish small differences. After all, this is child's play. It also has a nasty edge to its play. When Andrew Thomas Huang calls his video an infinite loop, he could be seeing it as open-ended or a trap. Its rotating object has the sheen and crumpled outlines of much else on stage as well.

Jennifer Catron and Paul Outlaw accumulate tiny bunk beds, like a doll's house without a protective roof. They stand for the deaths at Heaven's Gate. No wonder they lie empty. Sculpture by Richard Ibghy and Marilou Lemmens recalls California's Light and Space movement, but in miniature. Sticks frame translucent surfaces in delicate color. Yet they bear handwritten legends out of some mad economic theory.

In the back room, Sally Smart presents a history of modern dance, in the form of tattered clothing and a blackboard. The Choreography of Cutting numbers among her "pedagogical puppets projects," with an equal emphasis on the pedagogy and the puppet show. The chalkboard has a convoluted diagram of Modernism, without the ridicule of Reinhardt or William Powida—and overlaid with costumes and photographs. More ragtag assemblages hang from surrounding walls, in case Smart or her puppets care to pull them off, try them on, and start dancing. Is she, too, junking art or preserving ephemera? If you feel obliged to choose, you are thinking small.

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"Jim Shaw: The End Is Here" ran at the New Museum through January 10, 2016, "this one is smaller than this one" and Sally Smart at Postmasters through March 12, and "The Tiny Picture Show" at Pavel Zoubok through January 23.


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