Dreams come up a lot in conversations with artist Jim Shaw. He frequently recounts his own wildly outlandish dreams with total recall that boggles the mind and can remember dreams he had more than 30 years ago.
“When I was 5 I dreamed I was on a scaffold with Michelangelo,” he begins, launching into a chaotic tale that can be read as a metaphor for artistic frustration. When one expresses surprise at his ability to recall dreams from his childhood, Shaw responds with equal surprise. “Can’t you?” he asks, as if the possibility of such an inability never crossed his mind.
So rich is Shaw’s dream life that it has come to be central to his practice as an artist.
“I dreamed I was performing in an alternative space in my Maidenform bra,” which opened Saturday at the Rosamund Felsen Gallery, is an exhibition of 125 pencil drawings Shaw has made of his dreams.
Another set of 125 dream drawings goes on view Jan. 20 at the Donna Beeam Gallery at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in a show titled “And what exactly is a dream, and what exactly is a joke.”
Shaw is also included in “Facts and Figures,” a survey of the permanent collection of the Lannan Foundation on view through Feb. 26; his contribution is a suite of 13 pencil drawings from 1992 that illustrate disasters. Today, however, the dream drawings are on his mind.
Meeting with the 42-year-old artist at the beautiful old house in Highland Park he shares with his wife, performance artist Marnie Weber, one encounters an eccentrically dressed man with a decidedly forlorn manner. He speaks in a soft, flat monotone and rarely gives vent to any flash of emotion; however, all it takes is a glance around his house to deduce that beneath his placid exterior lurks a wickedly perverse sensibility.
A zealous collector and student of popular culture and kitsch, Shaw has amassed sizable collections of lurid pulp novels of the ‘40s and ‘50s, plastic soldiers and toys, records, comic books and thrift store paintings.
‘Fear and insecurity are the motivating factors of my art--in fact, everything I do is an attempt to stave off insecurity, and my collecting mania is my insecurity at work. Anything that’s weird I’ll collect,” says Shaw, who is known to aficionados of the subject as the man behind the exhibition and subsequent book “Thrift Store Paintings,” which centered on his collection of 200 such works.
The book was published in 1990 with the help of Edward and Danna Ruscha.
“Ed and I saw the exhibition of thrift store paintings at the Brand Library and thought it would make a great coffee table book,” says Danna Ruscha, who says she and her husband hope to publish a book of Shaw’s dream drawings sometime next year.
The exhibition, which originated at the Brand Library, has been on tour for three years and goes on view at the Maryland Institute College of Art on Jan. 23.
“The collection was taking up lots of space, so I’m glad it’s on tour,” says Shaw, who continues to acquire new works. “I’m discriminating, but there’s always new stuff pouring into thrift stores so they never get strip-mined. God only knows what I get out of owning this stuff, although I have found it to be an effective way of structuring lectures about popular culture.”
(Shaw recently completed his first semester teaching at UCLA and is preparing a class on narrative that he will teach this spring at Art Center in Pasadena.)
In a sense, Shaw’s dreams are but another of his collections. Like exotic butterflies caught and pinned to poster board for examination, the dream drawings are an exercise in cataloguing and compilation that began in 1985.
“If I had an interesting one, I’d write it down and draw it, then I started getting more systematic,” says Shaw, who doesn’t differentiate between dreams and nightmares. He says each of the drawings take about four hours to complete.
“When I began the project,” he recalls, “I realized if I illustrated the dreams in any patented method they’d be in competition with Surrealist paintings of the ‘30s and ‘40s, and I couldn’t possibly compete with that.
“I decided that by rendering them in this drab fashion I could avoid that whole question. I’d also wanted to avoid drawing the dreams in a comic book style because actual comics figure in the dreams a lot, but I discovered I had to employ comic book devices like speed lines. If you’re trying to depict someone falling and you don’t draw speed lines, it looks like someone floating.
“If I’m really tired I don’t dream well,” says Shaw, who was so upset by the November elections that he was unable to dream for a week. “During a good week I’m able to fill five or six pages with dreams. It takes a while for real-life changes like a haircut to start showing up in the dreams, and although I can’t really manipulate the dreams, if I have a certain level of energy I’ll notice more complexity in them.
“There are lots of celebrities in the dreams, which is peculiar. Why should Oprah show up in my dream when I don’t watch her show? Actually, my answer to that question is that I’ve come to believe that my subconscious works in a sort of shape-similarity, pun manner. Things come up in dreams simply because they look or sound like something that’s significant to me. The subconscious is nothing more than a network of puns that’s slightly out of sync.”
That Shaw should devote this kind of effort to decoding his dreams isn’t surprising--he is, after all, a product of the Freudian ‘50s, born in Midland, Mich., in 1952.
“My mother was a medical transcriber, and my father was a package designer who then became a CPA,” he says. “My grandfather was a commercial artist, and I was one of those kids who drew all the time--nonetheless, my father thought I should be a jet pilot or an insurance salesman because he thought I couldn’t make a living as an artist.
“I wasn’t beaten, and my parents weren’t politically conservative, but every middle-class person grew up with restrictions,” says Shaw, the youngest child and only boy among four children. “I was forbidden to read things like monster comics, for instance, and I suppose my attraction to low culture is to an extent a rejection of how I grew up.”
After finishing high school in 1970--a stint dominated by an interest in psychedelia, Pop art and underground comics--Shaw enrolled at Cooper Union in Manhattan, then scotched that plan after a one-day trip to New York.
“In my last year of high school I listened to the Velvet Underground a lot and had this fantasy of New York, but when I visited there I realized I couldn’t face it,” he says. “I didn’t know anybody in the city, and the prospect of living in this place I thought was filled with drug addicts was scary as hell.”
After returning home, Shaw spent 18 months at two local colleges before enrolling as an art major at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1972. There he met artist Mike Kelley, who shared his interest in popular culture and came to be his closest friend.
“The thing that drew me to Jim was what he looked like,” says Kelley, laughing at the memory. “I was looking for other freaks, and he was the king of the freaks. His hair was this big fuzzy ball. And he was the most outrageous dresser--he’d wear old ladies’ stretch pants and dirty-old-man flasher coats, and he had these boots that had been made into feet. He also had a coat he’d altered so it had a hump in the back, and he’d sewn a little boy’s coat to the hump.
“I got into art through my interest in the radical underground, and I was surprised when I got to art school and discovered that wasn’t most other people’s interest and that they just wanted to make pretty paintings. Jim was like me, and, believe me, our circle of people was very small. . . .
“When we met, Jim was doing real ugly gestural paintings that incorporated advertising imagery from the ‘40s and ‘50s. Technically he was very good, but most of the teachers couldn’t put up with his perversities, so he was kind of an outcast at school.”
Recalls Shaw: “Early on in art school I made purposefully offensive work, but I finally realized you can’t offend the art world anymore. We experienced a lot of weird stuff in the ‘60s, and at this point we’re like car mechanics who aren’t surprised when a car leaks oil. There’s still lots of weird stuff going on, but we’ve seen it all.”
By the time Shaw graduated with his bachelor of fine arts in 1974, he wanted to wash his hands of art altogether:
“I said, ‘I’m not gonna make art--painting’s dead,’ and Mike and I formed a band. We were pretty good at clearing a room,” he says of Destroy All Monsters, the subject of a three-CD anthology recently compiled by Kelley that’s available on the Ecstatic Peace! label. Combining elements of German experimental music of the ‘70s, free jazz, trance music and industrial white noise, Destroy All Monsters occupied the bulk of Shaw’s time until 1976, when he moved to Los Angeles to attend CalArts.
“I was initially interested in CalArts because great experimental films were coming out of the school in the mid-'70s. I’ve always been interested in special effects and supported myself off and on for the past 15 years doing special effects for movies,” says Shaw, who lived in Sylmar with Kelley while he was in school.
“Oddly enough, however, I didn’t end up taking film classes at CalArts. What I got from being there that was valuable was being exposed to teachers like Laurie Anderson, John Baldessari and Jonathan Borofsky, who were all practicing artists--I saw for the first time that it was possible to have a career in art.”
Shaw still wasn’t convinced, however, and when he graduated with a master of fine arts in 1978, he had his sights set on Hollywood.
Recalls Kelley: “I threw myself into the art world in a way Jim didn’t for several years, because I think CalArts really pissed him off about fine art. He left school wanting to make films, but after he spent several years working in the bottom end of Hollywood and never getting an opportunity to have much input, he began to get more serious about fine art, and by 1985 he’d completely recommitted himself to it.”
The “bottom end of Hollywood” was indeed a sobering experience for Shaw.
“The first job I got after leaving CalArts was working for Terrence Malick on a film that never got made,” he says. “My job was to see if it was possible to make prehistoric animals out of living animals--we’d look at live ostriches, for instance, and try to figure out how to put them in dinosaur costumes. It was Malick’s idea,” he says with a resigned shrug.
From there, Shaw went to Mid Ocean, a special effects house, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Though he had his first one-man show in 1981 at the Zero Zero Gallery, Shaw was devoting most of his energy during this period to his day job.
“My goal was to make a living separate from my art so that I didn’t have to worry about selling art,” says Shaw, who spent 1981-84 working at Robert Abel, another special effects house. “But I realized when I was working at Robert Abel that I was spending so much time trying to earn a living that I didn’t have any time left to think about art.”
At that point Shaw hurled himself into “My Mirage,” a sprawling multimedia project that took seven years to complete and is widely regarded as his magnum opus.
“My Mirage,” first exhibited in 1989 at L.A.'s now-defunct Dennis Anderson Gallery, is the coming-of-age story of a Midwestern boy named Billy. It takes its title from the name of an Iron Butterfly song and is composed of 170 works, including a record single, four videos, drawings, paintings, prints and sculpture.
Borrowing liberally from product packaging graphics, religious imagery, magazines, rock posters and album cover art, television, high school textbooks, greeting cards, Surrealism and anything else that might have flickered through Shaw’s range of vision during the years he was growing up, the piece amounted to a complete upchucking of the first 20 years of the life of a middle-class American boy born in the ‘50s.
Needless to say, Shaw finished this daunting undertaking with a sigh of relief and was eager to move on. His next major work--"Black Narcissus,” a log cabin structure in a gallery papered with uniform color photographic portraits--was shown at New York’s Metro Pictures in 1992 and was generally ignored. Shaw attributes the piece’s reception to its lack of the popular culture references that had come to be identified with his work. There’s no going back to the land of “My Mirage,” for Shaw, however; he’s on to other things.
In addition to turning out dream drawings at a regular clip, Shaw is doing special effects for a CD-ROM performance video by Graham Nash, is creating a video game for an entertainment conglomerate and is in the midst of researching two long-term projects: inventing a new religion and creating a work revolving around the idea of conspiracy.
“I intended to be done with the dream project six months ago, but I kept having more dreams,” Shaw says. “I might get sick of recording them someday and I’ve tried to cut down on the ones I actually illustrate, but I’ve still got hours of dreams on tape that need drawing.
“Although I can’t recall an instance when I’ve been able to work out a real-life problem through a dream, this has been very therapeutic. I learn much more from the dreams by drawing them than I ever could from recounting them to a shrink.”
* Jim Shaw, “I dreamed I was performing in an alternative space in my Maidenform bra,” Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 828-8488. Ends Feb. 4. Shaw will lecture at the gallery on Saturday at 3 p.m.