“Words say little to the mind,” Antonin Artaud famously wrote in the early 1930s, “compared to space thundering with images.” Space thundering with images – even the curators would have a difficult time coming up with a better summation of Jim Shaw: Entertaining Doubts, the massive, 115-work, two-floor exhibit currently on show at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA). Jim Shaw’s work is bizarre, erotic, strange. It runs the gamut of pun-y weirdness, from “Hair House #2” (exactly what it sounds like) to a wall painting of Superman’s crotch that, upon closer inspection, reveals itself to be not a two-dimensional painting but a dark alcove hiding a trove of glowing crystals: “the family jewels.” His work is freaky, and definitely not something simple to describe or to talk about – but on Oct. 8, Jim Shaw came to North Adams, Mass., to do just that.
There’s always a strange moment of disconnect when you first put a face to a body of work. For me, this moment was seeing Jim Shaw – slim, hunched, graying – slink his way up to the stage, to the rapturous applause of a packed, hot room at Mass MoCA. There is something vigorous about Shaw’s work, something energetic, almost electric. It’s cool – the audience that night was largely 20-somethings, with the occasional middle-aged couple mixed in. His medium of choice is cultural detritus, meaning that his work is dreamily familiar to any American with a heartbeat.
But while it was initially difficult to reconcile his work with his presence, after some time the soft-spoken, trailing, monotone wore into a sort of sardonic familiarity, with each of his sentences marked with a particular wry slant: “This [work] is a piece of toilet paper I found in the studio that looked like a cross between Ronald Reagan and South America.” Or: “This one, I thought, eh, I want a hair house. So, uh, I made a hair house.” He’s like some sort of detached cultural guru, floating serenely above it all: his subject, his medium, even, it sometimes seems, his own work.
Two qualities became apparent as Shaw flipped through his slides. The first is an intrepid knowledge of art history. He’s prone to casually describe pieces as, for example, “‘The Raft of Medusa’ colliding with ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware,’” or to say that some painting “contains a touch of ‘Guernica.’” Despite his projection of himself as an art-school beatnik (playing in a band called Destroy All Monsters, scavenging for paint in dumpsters, etc.), there is the distinct mark of somebody fully aware of his place on a much larger scale.
The second revelation was a certain frustration – perhaps a personal struggle – with the idea of authenticity in the art world. “Earlier in my life, there was a kind of anti-ego aesthetic,” he said. “There is a lot of mimicry in my work.”
It’s moments like these, moments of fragility, that mark him for what he truly is: a brooding perfectionist with a driving ambition: “I struggle with deadlines, but without them I would over-work everything.” Michelangelo, Shaw continued, spent the last 40 years of his life working on the Sistine Chapel when his life’s passion was truly his sculptures. “But that’s life,” he sighed, and we in the audience were left unsure if that was a quip or a lament.