I would like to start this review by stating that I have never seen a show at the New Museum that I really loved, although there have been a few that I liked (this being one). This is not to say that the New Museum doesn’t show great artists (because they do) or that they employ subpar curators (which they don’t). To be honest, I believe that I do not like the shows at the New Museum because of the space. The building, a towering concrete mass in the LES, is not well designed for museum exhibitions. This is an issue that happens with a lot of museums, especially when they are designed by well-known architects who are less interested in making a building for a purpose than a monument to their fame. The Guggenheim is a good example of this and is really only well suited to site-specific shows like the 2013 James Turrell exhibition. The New Museum is not terribly designed, for example it has no windows on all exhibition floors except the ground floor. Any person who has worked in a museum will tell you that windows are a terrible pain since most works (photographs, drawings, paintings, etc) are light sensitive and so any floor with windows either needs to be specially fitted to cover the light source or be specifically curated to fit a narrow array of art mediums. The exhibition rooms, too, have lovely tall ceilings that can be used to display very tall works (like the fourth floor of the Shaw show) or to suspend works from the ceiling (like many of E.V. Day’s sculptures). However, despite these positive factors, every time I see a large exhibition that takes up several floors at the New Museum I never experience a good flow. Instead, each floor feels like a separate exhibition linked by a tenuous thread. To travel between them one must either get back in the elevator or take the stairwell, which feels hidden, functional, and not really part of the museum. Every time I leave one floor and descend to the next I feel like I have left the exhibition and must re-enter it and there are no measures taken against this. In fact, this feeling is often magnified by the exhibitions on each floor being quite different. With Jim Shaw, this is both a positive and a negative. On the one hand, it demonstrates the range of his oeuvre and skill as an artist, on the other, it makes the show appear disjointed and, to be frank, too long.
I should, however, move on to the show and away from my snobbery concerning the museum (which has a fascinating history that is well worth looking into). I hadn’t heard of Jim Shaw before this retrospective and the exhibition page reveals that this is, in fact, the first major retrospective of the artist’s work in New York. Shaw, born in Michigan, moved to Los Angeles to pursue his MFA at Cal Arts in the late 70s where he lives and works to this day. His work is similar to a lot of art produced by Californian artists during that time, referencing cartoons, popular cultural media, war imagery, and using interesting new materials and methods. Reminiscent of Paul McCarthy (who had a wonderful and stunningly vulgar exhibition at the Park Avenue Armory in 2013) but with his own unique style and focus, Shaw’s exhibition makes me painfully aware of how undereducated I am on Californian artists and the unique movements that have come out of the West Coast in the past fifty years. My focus has been limited to New York, London, Paris, and Berlin but many of the West Coast artists I have had the privilege to encounter through exhibitions and archives have impressed me. Artists are often a product of the time and place they live in and California, with the Silicon Valley tech boom and Hollywood, has led to some very interesting artists. As the New Museum writes: “Shaw mines his imagery from the cultural refuse of the twentieth century, using comic books, record covers, conspiracy magazines, and obscure religious iconography to produce a portrait of the nation’s subconscious…Shaw’s work is inspired by his childhood in suburban Michigan, his adopted home of Los Angeles where he has lived for over thirty years, and the dark and sprawling underbelly of America as a whole.” Dark indeed but filled with humor, cloyingly familiar images, and jumping between juvenile innocence and ironic pornography, Shaw has clearly had a long and fruitful career filled with many different forms of inspiration and interest.
Let us begin at the top, the fourth floor where Labyrinth: I Dreamt I was Taller than Jonathan Borofsky (2009) takes up the entire room. It is filled with references to mythology, cartoons, theater, movies, and art history. Against one wall is a large, unstretched, painted canvas referencing Picasso’s Guernica (1937), Dali, and Marvel’s Fantastic Four. Hidden throughout the display further is Daumier’s caricature Les Poires (1831), an image of Icarus falling from the sky (also used as a logo for Led Zeppelin), Casper (the friendly ghost), and a not so subtle amount of bombing and war imagery. All of the images are in line with the long and lustrous history of cartoonish caricature dating at least as far back as La Caricature, a 19th Century Parisian journal. Further, the images are monumentally painted on canvas backdrops for sets and wooden façades with only the front painted. Like entering a set on stage, the viewer can walk around, behind, and between the towering images, revealing their created nature but also their reference to movies and plays. All in all, this was my favorite room and made the entire exhibition worth the trip. The canvas bases are creamy and the colors are faded giving the pictures a dated appearance, like they came from the golden age of Hollywood and cartoons. The lines, though, remain strong and clear, showing that the relevance of the images holds true whether they from the 1940s, 1980s, or today.
The next two floors were quite similar to me, interesting, but not aligned with my personal interests nearly as much as the fourth. I will be the first to tell you that there is such a thing as good art and bad art. I will also tell you that I do not like all art and that my personal preferences do not make art good or bad. There are plenty of pieces that I would deem good and then say that I do not like. I do not really like the art on the third and second floors but I do think that most of it is good. This art continues to explore mythological themes, art history (specifically outsider art), religion and belief, science versus religion. These floors are more crowded and utilize more traditional paintings, posters, and vitrines though in non-traditional ways. For example, the paintings on floor three are busily hung on the wall, crowded in what I would term “Victorian Hanging” but what many might recognize as mimicking how family portraits are hung in homes. There is an evolution in the images from portraits to nudes, to surrealistic scenes, and finally borderline pornography. Another room has contrasting images and propaganda both religious and scientific. The religiously inspired pieces hang on the walls and from the ceiling, above the viewers’ heads much like religious art has been hung in churches for centuries: out of reach, untouchable, literally (as well as figuratively) above the viewer. The scientifically inspired works are placed in vitrines: clean, on eye level if not below, untouchable but accessible. The banners that I have deemed religious are hand-lettered and painted while the “scientific” portion is printed, another dig at the contrasting aesthetic of the two. Placed together, though, one is forced to question how different the two realms really are. How different are the practices of the extremists in either?
Regardless of how I feel about the New Museum and the vast body of work of Jim Shaw, despite the fact that I left the show feeling more tired than anything, I did find the exhibition as a whole intriguing. Looking back on my pictures and notes, I agree with a lot of what Jim Shaw made me see and feel, I think that his work still has a lot to say, and I know that his imagery is familiar enough to capture the imagination of many viewers, even as far away from LA as NY. Hopefully, that intrigue and imagination will inspire curiosity and make viewers think, not just about what they saw but what it implies and what it makes them feel. That, more than space and more than preference, is the most important aspect of any art exhibition. Jim Shaw: The End is Here will be at the New Museum through January 10th, 2016.