By Anthony D'Alessandro
By Catherine Wagley
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
What distinguishes this studio, it seems, from others of its ilk is an unusual degree of mutual respect. “Family” is a term that came up repeatedly in conversation with various assistants — not without ambivalence, to be sure (“a dysfunctional family,” one qualified, “kind of like if everybody got together for Thanksgiving, everybody would fight with each other”), but with a largely unwavering sense of allegiance. Shaw and Weber are, by all accounts, remarkably generous people — every assistant, it seemed, had some story to confirm it. They hire artists in need, they give raises, they offer sick leave, they encourage their artists to take time off for their own work (which Shaw and Weber often buy), they arrange introductions, they loan money, they help with vet bills for ailing stray cats. While they don’t provide benefits — all of their assistants are independent contractors — they offer on-site yoga and massage. In the words of Sarah Cromarty, the ebullient young painter who handles their “human resources” (all titles are somewhat loose) and the day-to-day organization of the studio, and who may be their biggest cheerleader, “They’re the most generous people you’ll ever meet on the face of the planet, the most supportive of artists, like, ever — ever, ever, ever.”
When I find Shaw, toward the back of the studio, he’s standing at one of the many large canvases stacked along the wall, painting a pair of disembodied, saucer-shaped eyes onto a field of expressionistic brush strokes. If the picture that comes to mind when you imagine the atelier of a successful artist is that of a raging ego, sauntering about with eagle eyes, sending imperfect creations crashing to the floor with a sweep of his arm and driving young acolytes to tears, now imagine the opposite: a quiet, modest, slightly awkward man with loose, wavy hair and piercing blue eyes who regards his surroundings with somewhat bewildered detachment, only as present, it seems, as he needs to be to divert collapse or confrontation, otherwise disappearing, like camouflage, into the work that surrounds him. He’s wearing two pairs of glasses when he turns to greet me, one balanced in front of the other, and removes the outermost pair but continues to paint through my clumsy introduction.
Before I have a chance to get my bearings, he is explaining that most of the work under way in the studio at the moment is intended for the second phase of a two-part exhibition at Metro Pictures Gallery in New York. (The first phase, “Dr. Goldfoot and His Bikini Bombs,” ran through December 22; the second opened January 4.) As is often the case in Shaw’s work, much of the imagery comes from his dreams: the buttheads, for instance, which will be filled with pink foam; the noses, some of which which will be mounted on the wall and illuminated from within like lamps; or a painting in progress at the back of the studio depicting a gopher eating noses that are growing in the ground, rendered in the style of Robert Williams.
“I’m trying to clean out my dream closet, so to speak,” he tells me.
On a conceptual level, the two shows represent a sort of exploration of his newfound clout, consisting primarily of works he could not have made, he says, without the large quantities of money he’s been generating in the past few years and a studio large enough to bring ideas to fruition quickly. The buttheads, for instance, would have been too costly. As for the “ab ex” eye painting: “It’s something I would think about before I did it, let’s put it that way,” he says. “This is more a question of whether it’s a good idea, or a good enough idea. Simply because I’ve got ideas doesn’t make them good enough.”
Over the course of the next hour, Shaw drifts around the studio, adding daubs of paint to the eyes (“Does that look like a teardrop or a goober?” he asks me), pulling masking tape from the noses, conferring with the two men who more or less run the painting department, Scott Cassidy and Ethan Ayer, about the canvas Ayer is stretching or the progression of the Robert Williams piece, which Cassidy is in the process of transferring to canvas. The growth of the operation, Shaw explains, is a relatively recent phenomenon: The first piece for which he employed a sizable group of assistants was an installation called The Donner Party, a large, circular table held up by 12 miniature covered wagons, set with 29 eclectic place settings and surrounded by a massive theatrical backdrop, that he began three or four years ago and showed at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York last year. (“That was a lot about my misgivings about collaborating,” he says. “One of the themes was if [Judy Chicago’s] Dinner Party had gone awry and everybody had sort of worked on their own and ignored the artist in charge.”) Shortly thereafter, he launched into a series of murals too large for him to complete alone — he points to Cassidy and Ayer as pivotal to those works — and then began relying on others to help develop the sculpture projects, because “I realized my sculptural abilities were nowhere near my abilities to render stuff.” (Salvatore Salamone now manages the sculpture shop.)