BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead Quays, South Shore Road, Gateshead, NE8 3BA

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Jim Shaw: The Rinse Cycle
BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art
9 November 2012 - 17 February 2013
Review by Catherine Spencer

The kaleidoscopic inventiveness and engagement with popular culture that characterises Jim Shaw’s work might be viewed as quintessentially post-modern, conveying a fractured view of the world in which engaging but artificial products vie for mass consumption. Yet the Los Angeles-based artists’ oeuvre is also criss-crossed by an obsession with random coincidence, and with the capacity of dreams, comics and the movies - interrelated realms where physic desires can be played out - to weave myriad connections, in a way that suggests a Romantic (or at least symbolist) engagement with the surrounding environment and a thirst for transcendent meaning in a sea of seeming dross. His work is the visual equivalent of reading Thomas Pynchon and William Blake in parallel, with a glossary provided by the Surrealists.

Appositely for a mid-career retrospective, ‘The Rinse Cycle’ opens with a selection of images from ‘My Mirage’ (1986-1991), Shaw’s first large-scale project composed from collages, paintings, sculptures and videos. These loosely tell the story of ‘Billy’, a character who is in part an alter ego for Shaw, but who also draws on a range of American everymen from Charlie Brown to Clark Kent. Over the course of ‘My Mirage’, Billy undergoes a transformation from child to adult via teenage drop-out (represented here by the hallucinogenic video ‘Billy Goes to a Party No. 4’), and ultimately to born-again Christian. ‘My Mirage’ weaves a counter-narrative to the stereotypes of American success, yet the story of failure it tells is as ingrained in the American vernacular, and the overall tone is ultimately ambivalent about whether either route is free from self-deception.

The queasily layered effect of ‘My Mirage’, in which Shaw combines a range of references to cartoons and films with chakra charts and religious tracts, is continued in the myriad allusions made by the ‘Dream Objects’ Shaw has produced over the last decade. The ‘Dream Objects’ initially originated from Shaw’s ‘Dream Drawings’, longer narrative strips that reflect Shaw’s previous work as a story-boarder for TV commercials, as well as his proximity to the Hollywood dream-factory, still tiredly churning out its ready-made aspirations and idealised lifestyles. ‘The Dream Objects’, extrapolated from these longer stories, are by turns mysterious, serendipitous, kitsch and creepy. They range from the feverish ‘Dream Object (A Room with Waves of Meat Frozen Crashed in a Corner)’ (2006), a construction of thick, fleshy racks of meat frothing with creamy fat-like foam, to the elegiac ‘Dream Object (House Spiral)’ (2006), a mountain of miniature models including a tiny 7-11 store and Victorian gothic mansion, evoking the nostalgic twee-ness of Christmas dioramas, but undercutting the vision of middle-class stability they sell with a sense of loss and dusty abandonment.

A further, more referentially complex but less immediately engaging category of ‘Dream Objects’ consists of three-dimensional, irregular white shapes that explicitly display Shaw’s indebtedness to Richard Hamilton and Max Ernst, quoting images of consumer products (vacuum cleaners and foodstuffs) that these artists cannibalised for their works. As the interconnected nature of ‘My Mirage’, the ‘Dream Objects’ and ‘Dream Drawings’ indicate, Shaw allows ideas and references to travel between works. This is particularly so of the pieces referencing Oism, a religion Shaw devised himself in a move that highlights the seductiveness of cults, while finding something salvageable in the comfort provided by rituals and icons. While Oism constitutes a (more cuddly) art-world retort to L. Ron Hubbard, the resulting videos, sculptures and paintings tend to feel superficial and empty: it is unclear whether to take these pieces as a celebration of the human ability to weave meaning through narrative, or a one-line mockery of the desire for transcendence.

The Rinse Cycle culminates with the ‘Left Behind Banners’, made from gigantic used theatrical backdrops that Shaw found in Hollywood surplus stores. Shaw has partly painted them over, but sometimes left the original imagery showing through - hanging these relics, with their two-dimensional illusions and tenderly patched versos, does much of Shaw’s work for him (a little like his collection of ‘Thrift Store Paintings’, not featured in the Baltic show), providing a powerful embodiment of mass culture’s ability to simultaneously feed off and grow people’s fantasies. One banner, featuring a maleficent pink octopus blotting out the sun above a scene of priapic pink trees and a snaking railroad, is wonderfully apocalyptic and strange: another, depicting the Bush administration as a pack of zombies, is a little more heavy-handed.

It is from one of these banners that the show’s title is taken, featuring a group of wigs hovering in a desert landscape dominated by the interior view of a mid-cycle washing machine. This banner relates to Shaw’s larger plans for a prog-rock musical, harking back to the 1970s when, together with Mike Kelley, Shaw was one of the founding members of the band ‘Destroy All Monsters’ before the two moved to Los Angeles and embarked on the programme at CalArts. Yet even without the knowledge that Shaw’s musical is currently on ice due to lack of funding, there is a paradoxically purposeful sense of failure here, one that correlates with a distinct lack of surety about what the convergences, coincidences and conflations brought about by his works might signify. My feeling as I left ‘The Rinse Cycle’ was of having begun a huge, complex jigsaw, in which I had managed to fit some pieces together, but mislaid others under the sofa.

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