For the past few years, uncategorizable L.A. artist Jim Shaw has focused most of his attention on producing carefully articulated fragments of his latest overarching conceptual vision nothing less than a previously unsuspected (i.e., fictional) American religious and cultural tradition called “O-ism.” Drawing from such diverse sources as the Mormons, Shakers, Theosophical Foundation, Christian Science, and various apocalyptic and utopian sects, filtered through Shaw's cluttered vocabulary of high-modernist and popular-culture references, and manifested in every medium from drawings, paintings and sculptures to performances, videos and large collaborative installations, O-ism is the kind of enormous creative undertaking that can take decades to complete. And for an audience to understand.
While there has been some effort in Europe where Shaw is considered one of the most important living American artists to present interim surveys of the accumulated relics of O-ism, Shaw's hometown fans have been afforded only discontinuous glimpses, such as his previous show “Kill Your Darlings” at Patrick Painter, which to the uninformed looked like idiosyncratic but accomplished abstract-expressionist fields adorned with rows of hovering, vaguely biblical heads. In Shaw's cosmology, though, they are revealed to be the original painted sources for a series of vintage O-ist movie posters dating back to the '50s and produced by the failed O-ist modern painter Adam O. Goodman (working as a commercial illustrator under the name Archie Gunn to avoid trouble from the O-ist church, which frowns on figurative art).
An unfortunate side effect of this installment-plan approach to cataloging the various self-contained veins of O-ism's visual legacy has been the misconception that Shaw has abandoned his magpie penchant for dazzling variety. Nothing could be further from the truth, and those of Shaw's fans who have developed a taste for the complex, sprawling, heterogeneous eye-candy goulash of the “Billy” cycle or the jaw-dropping “Dream Object” series will be delighted by the evidence offered in his latest exhibition, “The Dream That Was No More a Dream.” Not only does this new show provide an array of variegated stimuli ranging from the familiar, detail-packed, scratchy-pencil Dream Drawings and re-created paintings from the thrift store of the Unconscious to bizarre working musical instruments and a gigantic 22-by-38-foot altered theatrical backdrop, it also marks a return to his fecund dream states as the primary source of his visual content.
Or so it would seem. The truth is, since he latched on to it, Shaw has never strayed far from the use of dreams as an ad hoc strategy of authorial displacement as a tool for getting out of the way of his own art-making process. Nor does he need to in addition to possessing a remarkably fertile inner world, the artist seems to have the ability to make use of practically anything as grist for his nocturnal pop-surrealist mill. Much of the bizarre content that has appeared in the O-ist work came to Shaw after the themes he was exploring in his waking hours began seeping into his nighttime visions. And when arrived at by conscious decision making, Shaw's ideas have increasingly borne the mark of the kind of irrationally associative but symbolically potent material that erupts from beneath our rational waking worldviews. Which, regardless of your position on Freud or Jung, makes for some kick-ass art. Just ask Goya.
The most kick-ass work here would have to be the giant painting Dream Object (I dreamt up an image of a yellow walled city with a yellow kid sticking his finger in the outer wall). Shaw painted over an enormous theatrical backdrop depicting a nostalgic urban street scene in early-20th-century Rochester, New York, with a hazy white spray, carefully masking off scores of snakelike shapes that seem to be raining down from the heavens (or, alternately, resemble an aerial view of sand ridges). Hovering dead center in approximately the same perspectival space (but a drastically different psychic one) is the glowing vision described in the painting's title. I'm a little rusty on my Book of Revelation, but I can spot the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse easily enough, even if they have the faces of Pat Robertson, Ayn Rand, Bill Gates, and Ronald Reagan as “The Gipper.”
The seven-headed, 10-horned Beast of the Apocalypse is also present, as a giraffe sprouting the literal heads of the G7 leaders mutated into their national animals (Bush = Eagle, etc.), straddled by a hybrid Britney Spears Lynndie England Whore of Babylon, and hemorrhaging a flood of crude oil out its ass, which is prevented from breaching the outer wall of the city only by the hole-plugging finger of the Yellow Kid the early-20th-century proto-comic-strip figure whose name gave rise to the term “yellow journalism.” Other characters making appearances include Alan Greenspan, Tom DeLay and George Soros; a pair of latte-sipping Volvos; six red laughing cows; and a Trojan-horse fetus.
Goya comes to mind again not for the sheer fantasticality of the imagery, but for the rending of the veil separating the world of nightmares from the nightmare world of contemporary politics. How can such distinctions be made in a culture where the grotesque tableaux of Abu Ghraib seem to bear the moral equivalence of Janet Jackson's nipple? The laughing cows are a case in point informed sources agree that a red heifer has to be sacrificed to allow the rebuilding of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem in order to summon the Jewish Messiah and precipitate the Christian apocalypse, and some fundamentalist Texas billionaires are reportedly so eager to take part in the Rapture that they've been pouring money into Israel's Project Crimson Bovine in order to generate the appropriately hued livestock. How can you compete with that? As Shaw points out, his giant political cartoon/religious allegory is a sort of meta-dream painting, and the dreams and hallucinations of Joseph, Daniel, John and other Judeo-Christian visionary all-stars from several thousand years ago are fundamental to the worldview of evangelical Christians like G.W. Bush and John Ashcroft.
Although Shaw insists that the sudden flood of dream objects is merely the result of an influx of capital meeting a backlog of unrealized revelations, a case could be made that he's holding off on pursuing his somewhat parodistic mimicry of over-the-top, these-are-the-final-days religious sects simply because it's too difficult to establish a vantage point from which the current situation's absurdity can be exaggerated. Instead, he's become a bit of a prophet himself, albeit a more down-to-earth one. His giant backdrop, so strongly reminiscent of the once-ubiquitous WPA murals that symbolized America's commitment to both the welfare of its citizens and the continual evolution of its creative imagination, has been re-inscribed with a lurid phantasmagorical vision of suicidal excess. “It's really about my own,” Shaw says, “and, by extrapolation, other people's inability to cope with the horrendous changes that have happened since Reagan, with the dismantling of all the Roosevelt-era social programs and Bush seems intent on taking it to its logical conclusion.” Not very psychedelic, it's true, but for those of us slated to be left behind after the Rapture, nightmare visions don't come much scarier.?
JIM SHAW: THE DREAM THAT WAS NO MORE A DREAM | Patrick Painter Inc., Bergamot Station, Building B2, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica | Through February 12