Magazine article The Spectator

Magnificent Foolishness

Magazine article The Spectator

Magnificent Foolishness

Article excerpt

Exhibitions 3

Jim Shaw: Thrift Store Paintings

(ICA, till 5 November)

As editor of Artists & Illustrators magazine, I once got an aggrieved letter from an amateur reader complaining that she couldn't find a home for her paintings. She had been in the habit of giving them away as presents, but her friends were becoming reluctant to accept them. So from now on, she announced defiantly, she would give them to Oxfam where at least they would be appreciated. I binned her letter as too sad to publish, but Jim Shaw's Thrift Store Paintings have made me see it in a new light.

Jim Shaw is a West Coast contemporary of Apocalypse artist Mike Kelley who began salvaging unwanted paintings from swapmeets and flea markets across the States in the 1970s. He was motivated partly by sympathy for the artists (some of his own work, he confesses, has ended in thrift stores), partly by a shared predilection for the `psychedelic, psychotic and surreal'. His selection criteria were purely personal: he bought pictures that appealed to him for their `weird gusto' and carried price tags of under $25. He never intended them for exhibition, but an initial showing of a series of porno pictures of First Ladies in a downtown LA bookstore led to a local exhibition, a book by Ed Ruscha, a New York show, and now a British debut at the ICA.

While amazed at its popularity with the public, Shaw insists that his collection is not a freak show: it is not presented as `the art you love to hate'. He sees it as offering an alternative history of American art that is, in his opinion, closer to the truth. It represents `the return of the repressed. These paintings are like the amputated body of figurative art, which has been cut off from the main body of art.'

If history, as Voltaire claimed, is the lie that historians have agreed upon, you can see why they chose to overlook this area. Agreement on the subject would be impossible: the Thrift Store Paintings defy classification. Not since the RA's millennial exhibition 1900: Art at the Crossroads have we been dunked in such an aesthetic witches' brew. All of human, and much of extraterrestrial, life is here, filtered through the febrile amateur artistic imagination: romantic fantasies involving sunsets, rocky shorelines and half-naked women; necromantic fantasies involving tombstones, skulls, Ku Klux Klansmen and half-naked women; intergalactic fantasies involving flying saucers, robots and almost no women, all of them fully clothed; and rampant sexual fantasies involving swamps, snakes, dead trees and more naked women than you can shake a stick at, in various stages of Daliesque mutation. …

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