The new big exhibition at Baltic features work by a man drawn to artistic tat. David Whetstone reports on the wild and wonderful world of Jim Shaw.
HE makes sculptures of the things he sees in his dreams, has invented a religion and is working on a prog rock opera featuring dancing wigs.
I do hope I’ve got this right. There are one-trick ponies and there is Jim Shaw, an artist open to so many influences that – as one American art professor has suggested – you could write a book about every one of his paintings. And that’s just the paintings!
I’d done a little research on Shaw, who was born in the chemical- producing town of Midland, Michigan, in 1952, and went to this week’s preview of the Baltic exhibition – his first big one for years – with a very open mind.
I’d read an article about his so-called Thrift Store Paintings, a vast collection of tacky paintings by amateur artists which he’d bought from flea markets and junk stores across America.
Having accrued hundreds of these things, they were gradually pushing him out of his own home. I formed the impression of an obsessive slowly drowning in mountains of cheaply acquired tat, although there are plenty of people prepared to call him a genius.
In fact, Jim Shaw: The Rinse Cycle may turn out to be one of the most popular exhibitions Baltic has mounted in its 10-year existence.
Baltic’s chief curator, Laurence Sillars, gave the media a tour which probably could have lasted days. Explaining all the references to various aspects of popular culture in just one painting, featuring Pinocchio, a crucifix, a sewing machine, an umbrella and heaps more besides, even Laurence seemed momentarily defeated.
“Dense layering,” is the phrase which sticks in my mind. This one painting, in essence, encapsulated the whole of America at that moment in history. Phew!
According to the literature accompanying the exhibition, Shaw suffers from self-diagnosed attention deficit disorder. With no particular style, he jumps from one thing to another, avoiding what he sees as creative traps.
There is plenty in this major exhibition spread over Baltic’s two biggest floors to suggest that Shaw actually wears himself out. We learnt that throughout his life he has regularly dreamed about imagined art objects. During the 1990s, reluctant to waste the fruits of his action-packed repose, he would wake up and commit his dreams to paper – the Dream Drawings.
Taking this a step further, he started to turn some of these dream artworks into reality – the Dream Objects. Here they are in Gateshead, the waves made of meat, the upside- down turtle, the giant bulging eyeball and many more.
Once he dreamed that all his Dream Objects were amassed together in a box with the Whore of Babylon, fresh from the Book of Revelations, riding roughshod on top of the pile. So he made them all again, in miniature, and here they are in a Plexiglas box, complete with whore, resembling a Star Wars figurine. Probably it was only one small step from there to creating a religion and Shaw followed in a noble tradition.
“America has more new religions than any other country,” said Laurence. Now it has Oism, Shaw’s “faith for the faithless”. Its icon is a banyan tree which, on paper or canvas, can resemble a mushroom cloud or – as in one monumental Baltic painting – an exploding marshmallow spewing out domestic appliances.
Two things made me warm to Shaw. Firstly, he is a man of ideas who has the technique to back them up. Even if you miss the myriad references, you can enjoy a painting well painted, a sculpture made with loving attention to detail.
Secondly, there are the enormous paintings he made on old cinema backdrops bought at the Hollywood equivalent of a boot sale.
Painting over faded mountain landscapes and houses with wicket fences, Shaw created spectacular, in-your-face panoramas of American life that will make you smile.
One shows the Stars and Stripes with bright red corn snakes as the stripes and the heads of former US presidents as the stars. Another shows a band of zombie business folk staggering along a platform next to the train that was on the original backdrop, oddly being driven by a man in a fez.
I managed to grab a word with the artist and asked him about his Thrift Store Paintings. A haunted look flashed across his face and he told a story about moving into new premises and having “to get rid of a load of crap”.
“I didn’t want to leave my wife and daughter with a hoarder situation,” he added, explaining that a neighbour had obsessively hoarded old Cadillacs until the authorities cleared them away. He said he sold a large number of the Thrift Store Paintings to a Belgian collector.
Acknowledging the irony of near worthless pictures attaining value purely through having been owned by him, he added: “I actually sent him more because I thought I’d been overpaid.”
The Jim Shaw exhibition runs at Baltic until February 17. Running in tandem with it – and three cheers for that – is an exhibition of the remaining Thrift Store Paintings at Baltic 39 on High Bridge, Newcastle. It’s called You Think You Own Your Stuff But Your Stuff Owns You.
Baltic also have a new book and a print by Shaw, on sale in the shop.