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'Jim Shaw: The End Is Here' taps public's id in a weird, humorous way

'Jim Shaw: The End Is Here' taps public's id in a weird, humorous way
Jim Shaw’s visual roller-coaster ride “Labyrinth” is among part of a retrospective of the artist’s work over almost 40 years. (New Museum, New York)

The retrospective exhibition "Jim Shaw: The End Is Here" fills three floors at the New Museum on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

And you read that title right. According to the show's twist on a cartoon doomsday warning, the end is not near. It is here.

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That turns out to be a good thing. If apocalypse was only near, then a space, a gap, a final chance for grasping at salvation might open up between our ordinary if crushing daily predicaments and impending but certain doom. Inside that gap, trouble always brews.

Shaw's beguiling art gives a wide berth to promises of transcendent uplift. The here and now is what we've got and, given how wondrously strange and poignant it is, the here and now is really all we need.

In the Los Angeles-based artist's work, the end has been here for nearly 40 years. At his 1978 master's graduation from California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, the artist published a booklet with that very title, inexpensively mimeographed on newsprint. For Shaw the dictum seems to be a way of life.

A copy of the throw-away booklet is displayed with great solemnity in one of the exhibition's many vitrines. The cover announces contents that include "How to identify a UFO," "New personality quiz" and "New evidence on JFK's slaying."

When President John F. Kennedy was slain in Dallas, Shaw was an 11-year-old kid in Midland, Mich., up by the crook between the state's mitten thumb and palm. UFOs, the grassy knoll, hidden consciousness — the pamphlet's promised articles represent fringe-oriented adult obsessions, conspiracy-minded theories and the divisions between public and private that sometimes seem to be an all-American specialty.

Shaw is obsessed with them. For decades he's collected related materials, together called "The Hidden World," in thrift stores and neighborhood garage sales. Like his friend and fellow artist, the late Mike Kelley, with whom he played in the infamous "noise band" Destroy All Monsters, Shaw seems to regard thrift stores as treasure houses holding relics of society's soft underbelly — revelatory museums of the mundane and cast-aside, if one knows how to look.

Found objects, a staple of L.A. art since the 1950s, are integral to his work. Shaw approaches found objects with the seemingly pathological compulsion of a hoarder.

One large gallery houses a vast archive of books, charts, magazines, pedagogical materials, pictures, summer camp T-shirts, games, leaflets and more, all related to various fundamentalist religious outfits — both familiar and obscure. Whether Pentecostals speaking in tongues or followers of Unarius channeling supernatural beings that exist on planes of higher frequency, the material is carefully categorized and labeled. The display is a black-site twin of the Library of Congress.

The national id is Shaw's subject. Like tabloids in the rack at a supermarket check-out — tabloids of the sort that Andy Warhol earlier seized on for his own destabilizing 1960s work — his Cal Arts booklet is emblematic. Its weirdness animates a big, loopy but philosophically astute installation from 2009.

"Labyrinth: I Dreamt I Was Taller than Jonathan Borofsky" is a roller-coaster ride through a peculiar but not exactly terrifying nightmare. It will make you smile — quizzically.

A theatrical environment of painted stage-flats, the installation smashes together an array of seeming pictorial incongruities that turn out to be not so inconsistent.

•Jowly Richard Nixon morphs into Salvador Dali's famous painting of the map of civil-war Spain, shown as a fulminating ogre who tears himself limb from limb.

•A canister vacuum cleaner stands upright on hind legs and sucks in scores of identical harried businessmen, who desperately flee from its looming domestic power.

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•A gigantic locust climbs the Empire State Building like a rampaging King Kong, the biblical plague-symbol playing the role of beauty's modern beast, who exacted bloody urban revenge for far-off colonial cruelties.

•Another harried businessman gets the boot from the kicking leg of "Ballerina Clown," the infamous Santa Monica public sculpture by Borofsky, one of Shaw's Cal Arts teachers, that hides a graceful figure embodying classical beauty beneath a sad clown's mask.

References to other Borofsky sculptures across L.A. also turn up here, including the monumental 1991 "Molecule Man" at a Civic Center federal building and the 1993 "flying men" suspended above the platform in a downtown subway station. Shaw is dreaming he's taller than Borofsky — standing on his artistic shoulders.

Borofsky's subway self-portraits are titled "I Dreamed I Could Fly." Shaw's paintings, drawings and videos pump up the Surrealism associated with dreams — and for good reason.

Surrealism, born in modern Europe, got critically swept away with the rise of an American avant-garde after World War II. Its mass-culture associations were dismissed as low-class foreign kitsch.

But the success of American Pop art changed the calculus of kitsch respectability. Because Surrealism is so popular, the simple fact that most every adolescent's first artistic love seems to be Dali or Rene Magritte certainly makes it a useful tool for mining contemporary experience.

One of Shaw's masterstrokes is his large collection of bizarre paintings by amateur hobbyists, which he bought for petty cash in his thrift store outings over decades.

When a first sizable show of them opened in 1990 at the Brand Library in Glendale, it set the art world abuzz. I wrote at the time that, with a twist, the show of anonymous thrift store paintings amounted to a Salon des Refuses, not unlike the famous 1863 show of rejected avant-garde art in Paris that launched Edouard Manet.

Shaw's thrift store art collection is an anthology of all that is rejected and cast off from the "academy" of conventional, acceptable ideas about art in our time. Intentionally "bad" painting, complete with scare quotes, was a popular device for 1980s artists (launched, ironically, by a New Museum show). But here is the real McCoy, the tastes and values of the general public valorized.

Shaw's initial foray in that direction was "My Mirage," a large series of panel paintings and reliefs, each the size of a book page, first unveiled in his bracing 1989 gallery debut. A loose narrative unfolds. The protagonist is Billy, a middle-class white kid navigating the social maelstrom of the 1960s and 1970s.

Shaw once described Billy as "basically a cypher for the American puritan pilgrim traveling through adolescence." Stylistically, Ed Ruscha meets Giorgio de Chirico, Alexis Smith does cartwheels with Chester Gould, Hieronymous Bosch intersects with Robert Williams. The series, which now numbers about 170 works, is a prismatic view of American culture in the 20th century's second half.

Its logo is an apple neatly cut in half. The core's internal shape mimics a vagina. That it is also the seed pod of an apple — emblem of soaring knowledge, the Christian fall from grace and Cezanne's paternal role in birthing Modern art — resonates in unexpected ways.

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Sometimes I think of Shaw as being a marvelous political cartoonist — the art world's Paul Conrad or Pat Oliphant channeling Marvel comics and ricocheting off R. Crumb, amazed (and amused) at the bizarre bazaar of daily life. His humor entices viewers to consider things from which they otherwise might flee.

Shaw's best work balances hope and despair on a suitably sharp edge. In fact, there's only one major drawback to the show, otherwise ably organized by New Museum curator Massimiliano Gioni: It won't be traveling, including to any L.A. museum.

That's a crying shame. Certainly the end should be here.

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