Art From the Bargain Basement


Name: Jim Shaw, Los Angeles

Collectible: "Thrift store paintings. I'd been going to a lot of thrift stores and swap meets since moving to California in 1976 from Ann Arbor, Mich. I had a lot of tchotchkes. I'd been collecting paperbacks with lurid colors, but someone had put out a bogus price guide on that sort of stuff and inflated the prices. With the paintings, they're not quantifiable. Because they are originals, it's about your own particular taste, whether you're willing to pay that price."

What was attractive about them as a collectible: "They were strange. Many of them depicted the lurid underbelly of America. I gravitate toward homemade psychedelia and surrealism. Of course I like any type of depressing, homey type thing. There's one with a kid too small for a chair with all this unspoken melodrama going on. But you can project that unspoken thing--you can wonder why they were painted. Like the cigar-smoking turtle with a word balloon coming out of the mouth."

How many pieces are in the collection: "350. I generally don't have a lot of time now to go to thrift stores to look for them, but unlike gabardine shirts or vintage paperbacks, there are always new paintings. Acrylics have added to the number of paintings available. I haven't really driven cross-country. If I'm really lazy, I buy them from dealers at swap meets."

The first: "A 'Breck Girl' painting. It was 4-by-6 feet and difficult to move."

Price range: "I try not to spend more than $25. At one time it was $5. I bought a collection by Roehl at a thrift store in Eagle Rock. He wouldn't come down in price. So that time I spent more than $25--but I was able to come up with seven paintings. That doesn't happen a lot."

How the market has changed: "When Ed Ruscha wanted to do the book [on thrift store art], I knew that would screw things up. And yes, paintings at the swap meets went up, but not at the thrift store. But thrift stores are becoming more like Pic 'N' Save, and it's more difficult to find old stuff. Good for the core market, but not good for the nutso collector types. The paintings' popularity changed the market. It also makes you wonder why you're doing it."

What it would take to stop collecting them: "When I can't store them anymore. But last year I came into ownership of these psychotic, nude first-lady paintings. They are reversible--on one side the nudes, on the other mild-mannered nature scenes. Even if I was totally sick of thrift store paintings--they were so damn perverse I would have had to buy them, no matter what."

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