Friday, 8 June 2012
Jim Shaw - Thrift Store Paintings
Small Boy in Brown Room
Jim Shaw is a contemporary American artist, born in Midland, MI. In 2000, he staged a show at the ICA, London, of Thrift Store Paintings—paintings he had collected by (mostly anonymous) amateur artists in America.
Some reactions to this show were:
Adrian Searle (The Guardian):
1) The paintings are awful, indefensible, crapulous….these people can't draw, can't paint; these people should never be left alone with a paintbrush.
2) The Thrift Store Paintings are fascinating, alarming, troubled and funny. Scary too, just like America.
Sarah Kent (Time Out): Critics professing to be gobsmacked by these efforts can never have seen an amateur art show or walked along the railings of the Bayswater road. They should get out more.
Jesus and Babies Over Mountain Pool Landscape
With a well-developed sense of eccentricity and absurdity, Shaw has long been collecting these paintings sold off cheaply by their owners. Many ‘thrift store paintings’, avidly collected by many people and swapped like bubble-gum cards, have no appeal for him. It is the weird ones that attract him. Shaw has found some truly strange things: a picture of a toilet roll and a little flower floating in a patch of suffused light, a little in the manner of mid- 1920s Léger; animated statues and rebel robots, a giant lemon on a chain, an artist being shot at by a hunter. Each item has been endowed with a literal, deadpan title (originally, says Shaw, only so curators could tell which was which): ‘Pink Poodle and Hydrant with Text’, for instance, or ‘Savage Warrior with Newsprint Face Holds Ears Clamped Shut’. Sometimes the titles carry a hint of interpretation. An admittedly grisly portrait of a woman throwing what looks like it is meant to be a winning smile over her shoulder is entitled ‘Psycho Lady’.
Though it says nothing about popular taste, this exhibition is instructive in other ways. It speaks eloquently about the dependence of art on explanations which must be added to the work itself, a task normally shouldered by artists, writers, sales people and gallery educational staff, and of how much those explanations lean upon views about the intention of the artist. Shorn of that method of elaboration, these paintings become vacuous and fugitive things. Filling that vacuum of interpretation, however, is reliable art-world snobbery, which this show tellingly exposes. Adrian Searle writing in the Guardian was disturbed to think that those painters not already (in his imagination) ‘gibbering on street corners’, incarcerated or awaiting execution, ‘have the vote in the Land of the Free’. Thus a prominent art-world voice patronises these unknown painters, and makes light, not only of the pressures of ordinary life upon ordinary people but of the two-million-strong gulag that is the US prison system. Like sexism and racism before the rise of feminism and anti-colonial movements, such snobbery is effective not because it is strident and pushed towards the front of the mind, but because it is retiring and unexceptional, a steady drizzle of assumption that saturates discourse. The first step in disposing of it, once again, is to flush it out into the open, and make it loudly declare itself.
Man with No Crotch Sits Down with Girl
Shaw’s choice of paintings, which are all undated, tends towards a camp psycho-kitsch, and the titles he gives them are their best descriptions: Yellow Surfer and Egg in Curl; Vietnam, LSD, JFK, Flag, Flowers etc; Depressive Figure in Concrete Landscape; Nude Children Peer into Psychedelic Hole in Ground; Drunken Mini-Skirted Woman with Arm around Asian Religious Statue; Nude Woman Reclining on Orange Bed with Semen on her Nipples. Viewed together in a compacted salon-style hanging, the effect was a crazy illustration of human dysfunction, tempting a critical lapse into an enjoyable hysteria of the John Waters/Pink Flamingos kind - rather than a recognition of the works as a high tribute to self-expression.
Boy with Duck Toy Peers through Rusty Gates
It would be nice to say that the pot-head casualties, psychos, weirdos, wackos, and late-night innocents who created Shaw’s show had proved a return to the original use of the word ‘amateur,’ meaning to love. But they didn’t. They were too far gone. Still, in a world where fine art is often recognized less by its craft skills than by authorial pronouncement and context, it was a pleasure to see that professionals don’t have a monopoly on crap art, and that even amateurs can succeed in doing it badly.
Off-road Helmet Merges with Landscape