I want there to be things in my work that people can access, but also hidden secrets.
—Jim Shaw

Themes

Over the past five decades, Jim Shaw has developed a complex and exhilarating artistic practice that includes photographs, drawings, paintings, sculptures, installations, films, and musical performances. The sheer number of works produced by the artist is not only daunting but also highly inspiring, as it affirms the power of culture as a regenerative and ever-evolving creative force in its own right.

Having earned cult status all the while working from the perspective of a male, middle-class WASP (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant), Jim Shaw is unquestionably a leading figure on the Californian art scene and is one of the most influential North American artists of our time. Like no other, he has given shape to a resolutely cathartic body of work that thrives at the intersection of the fictional and the real, the individual and the collective. Continuously driven by doubt and faith, Jim Shaw has developed a critical and speculative relationship with the United States society of which he is the product, while simultaneously unfolding his art practice within it. The very mythologies that have forged American society, such as religion, music, popular beliefs, the entertainment industry, advertising, and even conspiracy theories, serve as inspiration, subject matter, and raw material for the artist. As such, Shaw blurs not only the boundaries of artistic creation but also those of the personal and collective responsibilities at the source of the narrative flow we call ‘culture’: the complex human activity that gives meaning to and normalises our lives.

Since the early seventies, Jim Shaw has never stopped dreaming, organizing, distorting, and distilling his thoughts. Bolstered by an encyclopaedic knowledge, the artist is both a creator and a fervent consumer of the cultures and countercultures that shape the context he evolves in: comic books, monster magazines, Hollywood cinema, art history, punk music, psychedelic posters, caricatures, and amateur art. He gained recognition with works deployed in the form of dreamt and imaginary narrative cycles.

 


Jim Shaw - Painting

Both a technical and conceptual aid, these pencil drawings serve as preparatory studies for meticulously constructed paintings. Although painting has always been omnipresent in Jim Shaw’s practice, it seems to have found a particular relevance in his work over the last fifteen years, coinciding with a turning point in image culture, following the rise of social networking. One can therefore wonder whether “good old” painting, chosen by Shaw, is really the most reliable and effective medium to satisfy his desire to communicate and express his vision of the world today? Perhaps we should take into account Jim Shaw’s ability to turn painting into something far more complex than it seems, something that goes beyond our relationship to the image and representation, something resolutely alive and seductive, at once of its time and outdated, inspiring confidence while defying truth.
 


Jim Shaw - Study Drawings

Since his studies at the CalArts/California Institute of the Arts in the 1970s, drawing has occupied an important place in Jim Shaw's artistic practice. Yet during that period, the emphasis was mainly on non-figurative and conceptual art. As a true professional, Shaw masters observational drawing and drawing based on photographic material. With the series 'Dream Drawings', he focuses on putting a drawing on paper directly from his imagination. Central to the exhibition is a selection of more than 100 studio drawings that Jim Shaw made over the past decade. With a combination of detailed preliminary studies of paintings and ideas quickly put on paper, this overview provides an intimate insight into Shaw's creative and conceptual process. It sketches, as it were, the artist's mental landscape over the past ten years. Shaw mixes recognisable and absurd images, digging into American culture and politics, and revealing more than ever the growing friction between conservative and progressive thinking.

 


Jim Shaw - The Electronic Monster and Thirteen Ghosts

The Electronic Monster and Thirteen Ghosts (2024) is a new work created for the exhibition, inspired by the memories of a double-bill horror movie Shaw saw at the cinema when he was nine years old. The installation brings together singing wigs, an aggressive vacuum cleaner, catalogue models, cavemen, a half-cake, half-intestine figure, and the ghosts of industrial power and consumerism in a last, grotesque, and outdated dance. The work resurfaces American society’s debris and components, like an adrift yet very much present floating ideology. It is apparent — in this piece and many others — that Jim Shaw’s oeuvre is marked by a vintage aesthetic that reveals how important the 1960s were in forging his vision as a young artist, while he now uses this aesthetic as a poignant means of both depicting and undermining “the mythologised golden age of patriarchy in post-war America, where white men ran everything”. The present spectacle confronts viewers with a typically European standpoint: hungry for and critical of a stereotypical America, existing beyond a reality one can’t quite grasp.


Jim Shaw - The Wig Museum

Further on in the exhibition is The Wig Museum, which emerged from a dream Shaw had in 1999: strolling through the streets of Tijuana in search of a hotdog, he came upon the entrance to a wig museum, where a man accosted him and introduced himself as the institution’s curator. It was not until much later, in 2017, that he turned his dream into reality and created The Wig Museum, a theatrical landscape that viewers can walk through, described by the artist as a gateway to a “shopping mall in hell”. The installation sees Shaw bring his fascination with hair — whether artificial (wigs) or natural — to a climax. Hair as a sculptural mass, inclined to express the wildest ambitions of the powerful of this world — take, for example, the hairdo of an 18th century French aristocrat or the somewhat extravagant hairstyles characterisitc of most contemporary populist leaders.


Jim Shaw - Thrift Store Paintings

Diverse paintings

Dimensions variable (about 400-500 works)

Private Collection Brussels / Praz-Delavallade Gallery 

With the care and dedication of a true collector, Jim Shaw has been collecting paintings by amateur artists for more than half a century now, purchasing them at thrift stores, flea markets, and online auctions – paying between $5 and $35 per canvas. This way, his diverse yet surprisingly coherent collection grows with a mixture of banal and absurd scenes. The Thrift Store Paintings fit within Shaw's interest in American popular culture, and his equal approach to both professional and non-professional cultural production. As extremely personal and idiosyncratic responses to life within the prevailing systems, and to the political climate, this collection depicts a hidden worldview, deviating from mainstream media and culture. It suggests the existence of a collective social, political and cultural unconscious in the United States of America.

“Everybody is always projecting their own psyche on to any art. Going through thrift stores or flea markets, you can psychoanalyse the culture in some way. I am looking for things that are about the subconscious drives of Americans or people in general.” – Jim Shaw