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One Man’s Trash Is Another Artist’s Treasure

It's hard to distinguish between the hordes of thrift store collectibles and Jim Shaw's art—and that's the point.

by Kate Messinger
Oct 7 2015, 8:50pm

Image courtesy the New Museum

Upon entering the New Museum’s latest exhibition, a monumental survey of Jim Shaw’s 30-year, multidimensional career, it’s immediately apparent you’ll be staying awhile. From salon-style hangings of paintings and raw canvas to cases of erotic drawings, odd objects and on shelves, old religious banners hanging from the ceilings—it’s as if you entered the most well-curated thrift shop in the world.

The End is Here, the LA artist’s first New York retrospective, intersperses Shaw’s paintings, sculptures, and drawings so intimately with his massive collection of thrift store paintings and found objects, it’s hard to tell just what the artist made, and what he found.

Image courtesy the New Museum

Image courtesy the author. 
Seven Deadly Sins, 2013

Image courtesy the New Museum

Image courtesy the author. 
Thrift Store Paintings, mixed mediums

Shaw, who went to college with Mike Kelly and was part of the iconic abject art movement of the 70s coming out of CalArts, takes his inspiration from neglected cultures, pop consumerism, and fanatic religious communities. He’s collected ephemera from these sources throughout his career, whether it’s small town religious pamphlets or cult horror movie posters. There are rows and rows here to explore, and this is only a small portion of his collection. Shaw is obsessed with obscure obsessions and turning bizarre trash into artful treasures.

In a room dedicated to thrift store paintings, a collection of found works he originally displayed in a 1991 New York exhibition, Shaw has organized the amature oil works and poorly composed portraits into a comprehensive story. There are over 400 found canvases classified under “girlfriend paintings” or “pet paintings” or “religious paintings,” which, together, Shaw heightens from something you might find—and leave—in a pile at an estate sale. You can see how these found paintings have made an impact on his own more recent works, bold characters from pop culture and religious iconography painted over generic landscapes and scenes, but like all his work, his technical skills set him apart from the thrift store finds.

Image courtesy the author. 
Hudson Bubble Gum and Budson Pencil, 1993

Image courtesy the New Museum

Shaw has an eye for this outsider art just as much as it influences him. His medium and style changes frequently throughout the retrospective, taking on the form of what he is obsessed with at the moment. A comic book style with a surrealist bend, hilarious but disturbing, Shaw takes those stylistic nuances from his cultural collectables and intertwines them in his own practice. A found gory monster movie poster from the 70s becomes a portrait made of Shaw’s bubble gum, a record album of spiritual hymns portraying Jesus’ smiling face is mimicked with Shaw’s in My Mirage works (1985-1991), a collection of canvases where Jesus takes many forms, including a pepperoni pizza.

Image courtesy the author. 
My Mirage, 1985-91, mixed mediums

The expansive retrospective should feel overwhelming: a dreamscape where you’re constantly unsure if you’re looking at real art or something found at the junkyard, or if the distinction between the two even matters. Somehow, in the chaos of the collectibles and cultural commentary, Shaw has imposed a creative calmness. By taking from the outskirts of society and mixing those disregarded objects and elements with a finely tuned sense of style, technique, and curation, Shaw is a guide through the underrepresented, showing us a world where all trash is art.

Image courtesy the New Museum

Image courtesy the author. 
Labyrinth: I dreamt I was Taller than Jonathan Borofsky, 2009, acrylic on found theater backdrops

Jim Shaw: The End Is Here is on display at the New Museum through January 10, 2016. See more of Jim Shaw's work on his gallery page.

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