To walk around “Entertaining Doubts,” Jim Shaw’s sprawling new show at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, is to step into the mind of the artist and wander, sometimes without a guide. That may be the best way to uncover its mysteries, actually: taking in what you see with the idea of doing some investigation once you find yourself back outside in the real world.
There is no single kind of artwork in Shaw’s show, and it’s this diversity of output that gives a physical manifestation to the show’s intellectual complexity. The show also has the girth and feel of one involving many artists.
Shaw’s show, which opened in late March and remains on view through January 2016, is a swirl of styles and subject matter. He reuses old theatrical backdrops, adding figures and such to make surreal political statements. He creates small, line-drawing pieces that place Superman into the artistic realm of William Blake. He calls this set of pieces “Blake Boring,” a reference to the Superman artist Wayne Boring.
Shaw also fashions large, three-dimensional representations of various objects pulled from his own dreams, like a giant glass mug of a face and butt, a Lois Lane wig and a huge chair shaped like an ear.
We started our conversation talking about the depths of meaning underneath each work that gets the mind going right away on first encounter.
JS: I hope there’s stuff underneath. You never know whether people can get it or not, but then I kind of like the fact that people bring their own interpretation to things.
J7: And even if they don’t look deeper, your show works on that level as well. You can get nothing below the surface out of it and still come out loving it. But I thought it was a perfect show for repeated viewings.
JS: I also have come to figure that, well, in some ways, if I’m lucky, I’m like Salvador Dali, in that it’s like the gateway drug, or the introductory art. Maybe someone will go on to decide that Sol Lewitt wall drawings are much more interesting, but what the hell, I’m there in the beginning.
J7: In my head, I was able to divide the show into three general parts – superheroes, dream objects, and Oism. Plus a fourth unrelated one, with your father’s work. And there are all sorts of designations below them and they intersect, as well. Do you think that’s a fair division?)
JS: Well, there’s also the gigantic work. It’s based initially on confronting the scale of those backdrops and their content, which I tended to choose for an Americana aspect, and to me that had to do with I was connecting it very directly with the history of the labor movement in America. It wound down from being a form of self protection to something that was given up on by the Democrats and then the Republicans at the same time. They wheedled their way into that same voter base figuring that — it’s a little hard to encapsulate like this — but the whole history that I grew up with of civic duty and hard work paying off, all that, small scale capitalism, that was over with by the middle of the Reagan era and by the end of the Clinton era with the signing of NAFTA, etc. There was no actual political base for work in this country anymore, but there was a political base for gambling and casino style economics, which was very firmly put in place during the Reagan era. But Reagan continued this whole ‘we’re just a wonderful, god-fearing country that does everything nicely and wonderfully,’ and somehow they managed to take this working class power base away from their own self interest in the process.
That was sort of the basis for a lot of the big pieces, many of which don’t belong to me anymore, so they’re not in the show. There wasn’t really a budget to borrow a lot of them, but when you’ve got a big-scale place like Mass MoCA, you want to put some big scale things in it, specifically the one with the spider web that’s related very specifically to the whole gambling aesthetic and at the same time, the conspiracy theory that blames anyone from the Masons to the shifting reptilians for destroying us, and yet giving so much power to those shape shifting reptilians that they actually in a sense deserve to run everything if they’re that smart. I know this is a long and convoluted explanation for it. That’s where the big pieces begin.
Oism is sort of underrepresented in the show. There are pieces here and there, and there are things that fly off of it. Like when I was working on the first mural you come across with the beehive hairdos, I became a little obsessed with these beehive hairdos. I would find old hairdo magazines from the early ‘60s with the hairdos that were like works of art and I started delving into those. But that was an offshoot of another painting I had done of a series of mustaches. Those were both Oist things. They are tangentially related to that, but they also became related to the Wayne Boring – William Blake works, because they became institutionalized in a stylized form of forces of nature, that’s going on all over the place.
J7: Interconnected through your process and your thought, one leads to another.
JS: Yeah, it’s an ADD way of working. And it works pretty well for art. I wish it could work for everything else. There are a lot of people with ADD out there, and it seems like poetry and art are the only places where it’s an advantage.
J7: Things like Oism and the stuff involving Superman and the other superheroes you have popping up, these are entwined chronologically? I mean, it’s not that you went through a Superman phase and then an Oist phase.
JS: I used to go from one thing to another, and once I got to Oism, I thought to myself, geez, I’m going to have to do a lot of research for this. I felt, typically, like anything where I was not already privileged with all the information necessary to make sensible art out of something, then I have to do research. Within my mirage there were a few pieces that I felt unable to just churn out. I wanted to delve into research for. That elongated that process. With Oism it maybe be a never-ending process because there’s so much to figure out what the form of Oism is going to be.
J7: What was the research you were doing?
I was researching everything — the history of religion, the history of feminism, upstate New York, the Burnt Over District. I’m still doing it. I love to find out weird parts of the Bible or strange mythologies I never knew before so that I can make up my own, basically.
J7: I was told you are working on some comics about Oism.
JS: Yeah. I had done a couple and I was dissatisfied with the fact that I was using photographs as my reference for these comics. That’s how I got into the Wayne Boring series, the Blake Boring series. I’m going to teach myself how to render things just in graphic terms, lines, not in shading, and also get better at doing stuff without photographic reference — although if you’re going to show two hands clasping, it’s a lot better to have photographic reference — and get to the point where I’m better at making this stuff up in my head like a good comic artist does.
So I got two of them done and I got to the third one. The first one was set in the 1940s, so everything was pretty crude back then in comics. And then the second one was in the style of ‘50s horror and crime comics, where things get very expressionistic. That was pretty slick. The third one held me up because I hadn’t sold either of the first two, so if you’re devoting a couple of months of your life to something, and I have employees that I need to keep paying, it’s kind of hard to maintain that level of expenditure. One of the things I was working on was that comics are done like a production line, like they did. I pencilled them and then I had my assistant Scott ink them, and I would go over the inks and correct wherever anything wasn’t the way I wanted it. When I got to the third one it was supposed to be in the slick corporate style of the ‘60s, and also I had used time travel in the ‘50s and I couldn’t simply use that again, it was too much, so I was kind of stuck for content.
Then I had the bright idea of hiring this woman who was a 1960s artist to ink them, but I haven’t had the nerve to actually contact her. She’s in her 80s.
J7: Are you able to say who it is?
JS: I don’t want to say in an article. Since I haven’t contacted her, she might say, ‘What the hell? Who is this asshole?’ It aroused the idea that it would be interesting to work that way and she would give it the patina of ‘60s corporate perfection, and give her some income, because comic artists did not really get well paid.
And the final one would be no problem because it was underground comics, so I could just do it as scratchy and messed up as an underground comic would be.
J7: How familiar were you with all these eras and forms of comics when you undertook the project?
JS: I grew up reading them, so I was very familiar, and as I worked on the Blake Boring things, I learned more about Wayne Boring’s life and the whole history of Superman, and how he was evolved for corporate legal purposes, things like that?
J7: So Wayne Boring was specifically your muse in learning the technique and style a little better?
JS: This guy was really a weird artist. Very stylized. He was supplanted by another artist who dominated the Superman aesthetic through the ‘60s. Boring was the guy who worked it from the late ‘40s to the early ‘60s, and then he was just cast aside, and they brought in another artist, who had probably been doing the covers all along, but he didn’t do that many of the interiors until the ‘60s. And he was superior in many ways, but he was also the avatar of that ‘60s slickness. Wayne Boring was coming more from a ‘40s strangeness. There was caricature in his work and it was more highly stylized. The personality kind of petered out of comics once they hit the ‘60s.
J7: You use the word “corporate” a lot when you refer to comics and it makes me think about what you were talking about earlier, the relationship between workers and your larger works and what you just said about Boring being a corporate casualty. Is your comics-related work in some ways part of that as well, a comment on working?
JS: It wasn’t designed to be, but there is the production line aspect. The first Oist comic I did was based on reading a description of how Wally Wood and Joe Orlando would have arguments. There was this other guy who was Wood’s partner, Harry Harrison, and Harrison would constantly needle Joe Orlando because Joe Orlando was a Catholic. Harry Harrison ended up as a science fiction writer, so he probably didn’t believe in God. I thought that would be an interesting situation to work into a crisis of faith. The crisis of faith actually goes back to the very instant of me wanting to do a fake religion, which was I was sitting in this East Hollywood cheap medical clinic waiting for my appointment. I knew all the doctors and most of the employees there were Scientologists, and I was listening to the doctor who was my doctor talk to some other person there about a crisis in the church. That was my initial move toward wanting to make a fake religion, to think about those kinds of situation, to have a crisis of faith in a clearly made up religion is kind of interesting. I know people, full grown adults, who grew up in the Mormon Church and they don’t believe at all, but they’re still affected by the fact that there’s this strange history behind it. Later on when I was reading the book that the HBO movie was based on I realized that my doctor was L. Ron Hubbard’s doctor, which was interesting.
J7: Oism really addresses misogyny. Was that an original intention or something that grew after you initially conceived it?
JS: Well, I wanted it to be different from Christianity, but you can’t avoid what you grew up with, and I was aware that there was a feminist Bible that was written by Elizabeth Cady Staton, which I haven’t read. When I started thinking about all the religious revivals I put two and two together and realized that all this other stuff that was happening in Upstate New York and Western Pennsylvania, it wasn’t just religious thought, it was also spiritualism and abolitionism and feminism. I thought, it’s like California in the ‘60s. It was the wild west of the 1820s to the 1840s. The Erie Canal was the first form of mass movement of goods, so it opened up a frontier. Until the railroads came through, that was it.
I was interested in the deformation of religion, the way that Christianity was deformed by Paul, who made it from this basically Jewish anti-Roman sect into a pro-Roman, or at least working within Rome, sect and made the Jews the bad guys at that point, even though they had formed it. As time went by, various things like the creation of the basilica of Gregory, or whoever got Michelangelo to stop what he was doing and paint the Sistine Chapel, and then become an architect for the Vatican. The creation of the Vatican was what in some ways lead to the Reformation, because it corrupted the church by selling indulgences, etcetera. Not that the church would already have been corrupted just by having all the power.
J7: All this makes me think of your Mississippi River Mural.
JS: That all started from an interest in William Blake and realizing then that Blake was deeply interested in copying Michelangelo,. He regarded Michelangelo to be the pinnacle of art and regarded more like his contemporaries — well, he would consider someone like Rembrandt to be a godawful artist because he was trying to imitate reality through his lighting, making a painting where you could believe everything was in the space, whereas Michelangelo was concerned with the figures and what they were doing, separated from reality probably because he was a sculptor and not a painter.
I came across a peculiar study for a mural that Michelangelo tried to get the commission for, and so did DaVinci, and I don’t think that got made in either case, neither got made, that was supposed to celebrate Florentine military readiness and patriotism, but it basically looks like a Tom of Finland drawing without the sex. It’s a bunch of naked men climbing out of a river like they had been bathing. Someone’s blowing a horn and they’re about to be attacked. I was using that as my template. I had wanted to do something that would freeze the figures and I figured the heroic physiques of all these Michelangelo naked men could easily translate into the physiques of superheroes. And there were a lot of superheroes who were gods or god-like. I integrated those but was then sourcing women out of art history.
It’s a bit of art historical referencing that is going on, but there is also a bit from comic figures. There’s a figure by DaVinci by way of a paperback book cover that purports to be a science fiction fantasy novel written by Da Vinci, which is really something where an academic writer put together a weird fantasy novel based on occasional writings of Da Vinci about deluges, it’s called The Deluge. That’s what this one woman on the far upper corner is. There are also women from an academic painting, I don’t know if it’s supposed to be the Graces, but it’s from Adolf Hitler’s personal collection, and there’s a symbolist painter, he’s got five figures. There are a few women that are taken from images of the Amazons, etc. They’re strewn throughout. Wonder Woman’s pose is taken from David, but I was interested the symbol of the river as a barrier between this world and the next, or between worlds, and that also refracts back to the goal of Oism, which is to bridge the gaps between the worlds. Also, when it was originally done, it was hanging on a wall where if the wall hadn’t been there, and there was a river, then the Port of Rotterdam was on the other side of that wall, so it was sort of specific originally.
I realized the use of that one New England Village in the snow that is close by, it’s kind of like if you cut out a wall in Mass MoCa what you might see in the neighborhood in the winter time. That was an accident. I haven’t actually done anything to it but put things in front of it, same with the modern house.
J7: A lot of your work really revolves around the concept that people will make their own mythology as they need it, or as they need explanations.
JS: It certainly does in terms of what the viewer gets out of the work. For me, I have to have a reason. I could have just made up a field of figures. That would be within my skill set, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do that. That’s another reason for me to do comics. Unless I have a storyline to follow, I have a hard time just making stuff up. The figurative artists of the past had commissions to do something from the Bible or mythology, so there’s plenty of room to work there, I guess, so I’m kind of seeking that out because a lot of that, like Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, is, I think, an astoundingly great work of art that was commissioned. A lot of Blake’s things were commissioned. The things he didn’t write, the illustrations of other writer’s work. Of course, he produced his own work. I have a hard time with just pure writing, I’m not a written word person, and that’s one of the reasons Oism takes me so long to deal with.
The other thing that takes so long is that when you’re reading research materials – I’m reading two different books on slavery written by historians, and there’s a lot of interesting information, but there’s also a lot of repetition because a lot of these things are written as theses and they have to bolt through their thesis by putting in various things that prove the same point over and over again. It takes a long time, for me. I basically fall asleep while I’m reading this stuff. It’s not like reading a page turner.
J7: Superman pops up a lot in your work.
JS: I did make work specifically for this show that utilized Superman, so you’re seeing an over abundance. In my dreams, I think The Flash shows up more often. And I think I realize that he really is a substitute for both Mercury and The Devil, who were kind of the same person, same figure. He’s kind of like the id, something I can do quicker than thought can stop him.
J7: Wasn’t Mercury also a trickster god?
JS: He’s a trickster and he’s a psychopomp, which is, I think, a great term. What it means is someone who can ferry individuals between this world and the next.
But as someone who was six-years-old when he read Superman comics, it just gets elementally into your psyche. So does Daffy Duck. Anything that you’re consuming at that age takes up a bigger chunk of your brain than something you consume when you’re 40 or 60. And your brain remembers the stuff more. That’s why American mythology is more present for people than American reality, history-wise.
Comics are one last place where figurative art exists for a reason, because you can use photographs to capture figures today. You don’t need it for illustration, you don’t need it for artwork in museums, but you do need it for comic books. But they’re now subservient to the movies that get made from them, weirdly enough.
J7: Do you ever pay attention to newer Indie comics?
I have a few favorites that I’ve followed over the years, though in that time they don’t do that much in comics anymore, or I just haven’t paid that much attention. Alan Moore basically became a magician. He did a comic called Promethea that was very interesting. It was like a magic education. Dan Clowes is basically doing novels with pictures and they don’t come out with great regularity. And Chester Brown, who did Yummy Fur, slowed down his production of comics. Those were the three main people. There was also Joe Sacco, who did reportage. Those are the people I pay attention to. I couldn’t handle too much. I don’t read a lot of fiction. I needed to stick with what I was interested in. But with the recent republication of horror comics that went out of copyright, like the Harvey ones, there’s all kinds of weird stuff in there that is interesting. Another thing that is interesting about the comics of my youth and the comics that came before that was because they were just churning this stuff out – in the old days they started with 64 pages and they went down to 52 and then down to 32, so they put a similar amount of energy into fewer pages, but earlier ones you’ll find just random stuff, page filler that’s really weird, or genres – well, we’ll do another vampire story or this one will be zombies – and they come up with rules that have to be followed by these monsters or things that make them very strange. In the Harvey comics they had this series of one page things about what tortures occurred on other planets. ‘On this one they were covered with crab monsters, that’s how they were punished for their crimes.’ Weird shit. I’m fascinated by the way that stuff comes out.
J7: It’s a part of the world that really informs your work.
JS: Yeah. I’m very inspired by these Harvey comics artists. Some of them were very crude, some of them were very not crude, but it was like an unknown world to me, because only the EC Comics were really well reproduced.
J7: Now your father’s work is displayed just the other side of all this Superman work. How do you see your father’s work fitting in with the rest of the show?
JS: I’m not sure exactly how it all came to be because that whole sequence I thought of originally as existing in my French gallery because they had this long gallery that fit with having a false wall, something that you would approach and then understand that it was not the end of the gallery. It was a hole. I’m not sure when I thought of that. I don’t think I was aware of my father’s work. I think that was an additional thing that came about. It was like the reasons for finally making that installation was to make the hallway the artwork. I wish it was a long hallway. I wish that you could see more of what my father actually did, but in a way, I was also actually very concerned because his faces and, to a lesser extent, his figures were pretty clunky and that’s not something that really shows up because the overlay which corrects that is on top of it. The weird thing was to me was the piece was about the fact that my father was trying to somehow compete with his father, who was an accomplished artist, and my father was not so accomplished as an artist. He was a good designer. I hadn’t actually read the letters. I didn’t find those until more recently. I thought that all the overlays were filled with corrections, many of which weren’t — well, they weren’t necessarily bad, but if my father did a bad job on something, it was more deserved than when he did a good job, but he got the corrections regardless. As someone who was intermittently taught, I realize that teaching has its own perversities, and one of the prime ones, especially in graduate school, is if they can’t get the artist to change, they figure they’re not doing their job right, no matter how good the artist is. People do change from being in school, which is kind of a sad thing. I guess sometimes they need to change, but a lot of times the change is they give up more, and they give up what they are good at.
J7: Do you see you putting this work of your father’s in an art museum as part of a huge show of your own work as part of maybe closing a circle?
JS: The weird thing is that when people came and saw the actual installation they said, it’s interesting people put a lot of work into their commentaries, people who were grading and otherwise had to write two pages. How many art students get that in art school today? And my father’s work looks pretty good to them, so the actual takeaway that people are getting is different from what I thought or was worried would happen.
Also, when I was a teenager, that correspondence school had devolved from having a picture of Norman Rockwell saying, ‘We’re looking for people who know how to draw’ to a picture of like a cartoon Bambi that said, ‘Can you draw Binky?’ Friends of mine sent in the worst possible drawing of Binky that they could and they got a letter back saying, ‘We see a great deal of possibility with you and we strongly encourage you to take our course,’ which was a de-evolution.
I was completely unaware of it. It was a family secret. But my older sister, who was probably 10 or 11 at the time said, ‘Oh, yeah, we knew all about this.’ He was worried that his father would think it was a waste of his time. But that’s the way my family is. Nobody talks about anything, which is pretty much your typical WASP family. There are much bigger secrets on my mother’s side of the family that I won’t go into. But I liked that. To me, the family secret aspect was also an element.
But he kept at it. My grandfather was a great watercolor painting and my father kept doing watercolors, but they never were as good. They were clunkier, they didn’t have the verve that my grandfather’s had. So he didn’t stop, but he didn’t get much better at the things he wasn’t good at.