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Review: Jim Shaw's juxtapositions keep viewers guessing

The nooks and crannies of consciousness take center stage in Jim Shaw’s multi-gallery exhibition at Blum and Poe. Metaphors mix promiscuously, as do materials, references and emotions.

Visitors enter a world at once familiar and foreign. To set foot in the meandering labyrinth Shaw has set up — and left provocatively untitled — is to feel as if you have stepped into the prop room for someone else’s dream life. But instead of finding busy assistants working to put on a show for a slumbering soul, you see only costumes, sets and backdrops. The stillness is disquieting, laced with anxiousness and begging for analysis.

It nudges you toward Freud, but with one big difference: Shaw’s sculptures, paintings and drawings do not take us deeper into the recesses of his inner being so much as they lay bare the craziness of the whole wide world.

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All of Shaw’s pieces juxtapose recognizable items and images that neither belong together nor shock us with the jolt of sex-and-death energy that Surrealism has made famous, advertising has made profitable and social media have made ubiquitous. Instead of over-amped theatrics, Shaw’s lumpy juxtapositions embody the kick of real weirdness. Never giving way to a single explanation, they keep you guessing.

Shaw specializes in irresolution. So much is left open to interpretation that it’s hard to know where reality ends and fantasy begins. Meaninglessness is always a possibility. That gives his art, which he has been faithfully making for 30 years, a kind of homegrown urgency that is intimate and harrowing and unlike anything else out there.

Shaw is at his best when he weaves together disparate images.  His 8-by-16 foot painting, “Seven Deadly Sins,” includes a miniaturized fusion of Gericault’s “Raft of the Medusa” and Emmanuel Gottlieb’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” Iconic emblems of success and failure, both driven by desperation, get tied in an impossible knot.

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And that’s the tip of the iceberg. Floating in front of the suburban home that fills the triptych is a similarly miniaturized fusion of Jacques Louis-David’s “Death of Marat” and Francisco Goya’s “The Sleep of Reason.” Ad Reinhardt’s cartoons, William Blake’s illustrations and the logo for “Hooters” make unexpected cameos.

In other works, cartoon superheroes, mythological figures and ordinary folks share space with riverboats, tiny homes and huge coffins. Throughout the show, four possibilities unfold. Sometimes, things work out. At others, they make sense. On rare occasions, they do both. Most often, however, they do neither.

The confusion keeps you on your toes as Shaw brings the earnestness of an innocent to a world otherwise overrun by futility. The absurdity of it all comes off as oddly optimistic.

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Blum and Poe, 2727 S. La Cienega Blvd., (310) 836-2062, through Dec. 21. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.blumandpoe.com

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