Listening to artist Jim Shaw describe his work, one yearns for an encyclopedia.
“I wanted to do something about the river as a barrier between this world and the next,” explains Shaw, standing in front of a large vintage theatrical backdrop of a river scene. On it he’s painted dozens of ghostlike, comic characters.
“I’d been working on William Blake, and I realized that Blake was riffing a lot on the figurative work of Michelangelo, so most of the male figures came from a Michelangelo sketch for a mural that never got painted,” he says. “I also wanted to incorporate comic characters that were mythological or religious. But then I also borrowed some Nazi figures from a painting in Hitler’s private residence. There are women from a Rubens painting of the battle of the Amazons. Wonder Woman was taken from a David painting. Venus was a minor superhero from the ’50s — but the pose was taken off a paperback purporting to be an extrapolation of texts by Da Vinci about deluges. And that’s Superman with an ant head. Then there’s Thor. And Dr. Strange. Then there’s Hercules as drawn by Jack Kirby. These two figures are Adam and Eve, except Eve is taken from a movie in which Hedy Lamarr appeared naked in the ’30s, called ‘Ecstasy.’ And she’s with Bigfoot.”
“Mississippi River Mural” is one of the reference-rich works in “Entertaining Doubts,” which opens at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art on Saturday. The largest US exhibit of Shaw’s work to date, it includes paintings, drawings, sculptural installations, and short films created by Shaw over the last decade.
“He’s such a fascinating artist,” says Denise Markonish, the show’s curator. “I never felt like I was seeing enough of his work out in the art world. When I saw images of the newer work — the huge, theatrical-backdrop paintings — I thought they’d be perfect for the space here.”
Part of Los Angeles’s pop-conceptual art scene, the Michigan-born Shaw, 63, was a founding member of the 1970s post-punk band Destroy All Monsters, and garnered international attention in 2000 for staging an exhibit of found, thrift-store paintings at London’s ICA. He established his own Scientology-style religion, O-ism, complete with backstory and historical artifacts, and regularly mines cultural detritus — pulp novel covers, old magazine ads, comic books, and album art — as well as his own dreams to fabricate quirky, densely layered works populated by politicians, superheroes, and celebrities.
While happy to describe his work literally, pointing out each mind-boggling reference and visual pun (“This was a dream where I was on a date, and we went to a museum of tolerance and there were these flat paintings of Dan Quayle glad-handing people in this art-gallery setting . . .), Shaw shies away from delving into the more personal meaning behind his artistic choices.
“Everyone brings their own explanations,” he says carefully. “One thing about being a manic artist is that you have a certain belief in magical thinking. And something about magic is that if you lose your belief in something, it no longer works. It’s easy for things that seem incredibly important to seem unimportant over time. But if you don’t have that magical thinking — that odd something to go on — you won’t even begin a project; it won’t exist. Even with that,” he adds, “it’s all filled with self-doubt.“
Fallibility is a central theme in Shaw’s work, and the focus of “Entertaining Doubts.” Several of the featured pieces address man’s mistakes from a global perspective, taking their subjects from current events: countries breaking international laws and scientists breaking the codes of nature, collapsing economies and rising sea levels. But Shaw also explores fallibility from a superhuman perspective, using his favorite comic-book hero to tackle the topic of mortality.
“There’s a fake wall with a big hole in it,” says Shaw, standing in front of one of three new, site-specific installations about Superman — a recurring character in his work — for the show. “The wall is painted black, and will just look like another wall until you get close to it, when you’ll see that a section of the black isn’t paint, but a hole. The hole is Superman’s groin, and in the hole will be kryptonite.” Another new work for the exhibit, “Not Since Superman Died,” features an injured and endangered Superman in front of a 24-by-49-foot shredded theatrical backdrop, with video imagery of floods.
“I’m interested in the way that they dealt with death in Superman comics,” he explains. “They had to come up with something, because they had this immortal guy, so they created stories where Superman comes close to death, or artificial stories-within-stories where he actually dies. It was a way of keeping this franchise going for all these years, and also an interestingly weird way of trying to deal with the emotions of the readers, who are mostly 8- to 10-year-old boys.
“I’m someone who’s not very in touch with his emotions,” he continues with surprising candor, “so I thought this was an interesting way for me to explore them. In the last few years I’ve had to deal with the death of my father, my best friend [the artist Mike Kelley], and my mother. It’s hard to know what you’re feeling when you’re not in touch with those feelings. I felt that for myself, and for the culture at large.”
He pauses briefly, and looks away. “There’s often a personal significance.”
Stacey Kors can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.