To walk around “Entertaining Doubts,” artist Jim Shaw’s new sprawling show at Mass MoCA, located in North Adams, MA, is to step into the mind of the artist and wander, sometimes without a guide. That may be the best way to uncover its mysteries, actually, taking in what you see with the idea of doing some investigation once you find yourself back outside in the real world.
There is no one kind of art work in Shaw’s show, and it’s this diversity of output that takes the intellectual complication and gives it physical manifestation. It has the girth and feel of a group show, which it would appear to be if you didn’t know any better.
“There are so many things you can completely worm-holed into when you start thinking about his work,” the show’s curator, Denise Markonish told me. “What I love about Jim is, I always say you could do a show like this of Jim’s work and people could look at it and think it’s a group show. He’s a stylistic chameleon. Jim can paint masterfully, hyper realistic, and then he can adopt cartoon style and folk style, but then there are all these mythologies that underline everything.”
Shaw’s show is a swirl of styles and subject matter. Shaw reuses old theatrical backdrops, adding on figures and such, to make surreal political statements. He creates small, line drawing pieces that places Superman into the artistic realm of William Blake, called “Blake Boring.” He also fashions large, three-dimensional representations of various objects pulled from his own dreams, like a giant glass mug of a face and butt, a Lois Lane wig and a huge chair shaped like an ear.
Many of the work gathers around an obsession with some icons of his childhood, particularly from comic books, in conjunction with his own conceptual creation, the religion of Oism.
“Jim invented this religion called Oism,” Marksonish said. “There was a female profit, O, and the religion is 3,000 years old and it’s a matriarchal religion until ‘I’ — or man — came along and destroyed the religion. Then the Book of Oism was discovered in the 1840s by this woman Annie O. Wooten — again, all fictional — and she brought this religion back. A lot of the works in the show make references to it.”
Oism is built around the concept of a virgin birth, but one where the virgin gave birth to herself and also history and civilization. Two films on display specifically deal with Oism, which has Shaw crafting interpretive dancing pieces married with a ‘70s televised aesthetic. His hope is to create a prog rock opera built around the religion.
Shaw says that even if every work doesn’t center on Oism, many of them are linked conceptually to it in overlapping ideas. Oism is related to several of his huge paintings, including Rinse Cycle, which utilizes paintings of wigs to reference Wagner, but also to his “Blake Boring” work, which pulls from the work of Superman artist Wayne Boring. It also gave him an excuse to focus a little more than usual.
“I used to go from one thing to another, and once I got to Oism, I thought to myself, geez, I’m going to have to do a lot of research for this,” Shaw said. “I felt like anything where I was not already privileged with all the information necessary to make sensible art out of something, then I have to do research. Within my mirage there were a few pieces that I felt unable to just churn out. I wanted to delve into research for. That elongated that process. With Oism it maybe be a never-ending process because there’s so much to figure out what the form of Oism is going to be.”
Oism first came to Shaw after an encounter with Scientology, and stemmed from an interest in the idea of a crisis of faith and wanting to incorporate the idea into his work, especially in context of a belief system that is obviously fake — at least to people watching from the outside.
“I was sitting in this East Hollywood cheap medical clinic waiting for my appointment,” he said. “I knew all the doctors and most of the employees there were Scientologists, and I was listening to the doctor who was my doctor talk to some other person there about a crisis in the church. That was my initial move toward wanting to make a fake religion, to think about those kinds of situations, to have a crisis of faith in a clearly made up religion is kind of interesting. I know people, full grown adults, who grew up in the Mormon Church and they don’t believe at all, but they’re still affected by the fact that there’s this strange history behind it.”
Shaw is working on a series of comics about Oism, which is what lead to the “Blake Boring” series, pulling part of its inspiration from Superman artist, Wayne Boring, with the idea that studying the work in comic books could potentially improve and expand his drawing prowess.
“I decided to teach myself how to render things just in graphic terms, lines, not in shading,” said Shaw, “and also get better at doing stuff without photographic reference — although if you’re going to show two hands clasping, it’s a lot better to have photographic reference — and get to the point where I’m better at making this stuff up in my head like a good comic artist does.”
Shaw has mapped out four issues of the Oist comic, the first being in a crude 1940s comics style, the second more expressionistic and reminiscent of horror and crime comics of the 1950s, the third reflecting the company styles of the 1960s, and the fourth resembling underground comics of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Shaw often takes his pop culture interests and combines them with classical art references. One of the biggest examples of this in the Mass MoCA show is his “Mississippi River Mural,” which features an array of mythological and art figures, as well a load of superheroes, all strewn in black and white across a huge theater backdrop with a riverboat scene. The piece features such figures as Wonder Woman and Wonder Girl, Bigfoot, Doctor Strange, Jimmy Olson and Lois Lane on it, but it’s a direct reference to Michelangelo, as well as to a painting in Adolf Hitler’s personal art collection and a book cover to a science fiction book called The Deluge that claims to be by Leonardo Da Vinci, but is actually by a writer named Robert Payne. It’s a piece that captures on one surface the complexity of Shaw’s thought process.
“I came across a peculiar study for a mural that Michelangelo tried to get the commission for, and so did DaVinci, and I don’t think that got made in either case,” Shaw said. “It was supposed to celebrate Florentine military readiness and patriotism, but it basically looks like a Tom of Finland drawing without the sex.”
“It’s a bunch of naked men climbing out of a river like they had been bathing. Someone’s blowing a horn and they’re about to be attacked. I was using that as my template. I had wanted to do something that would freeze the figures and I figured the heroic physiques of all these Michelangelo naked men could easily translate into the physiques of superheroes. And there were a lot of superheroes who were gods or god-like. I integrated those but was then sourcing women out of art history.”
And though Superman pops up a lot in Shaw’s work, he says that The Flash is more the superhero of his subconscious — a stand-in for Mercury and the Devil, he’s pretty sure. As to why superheroes are so much a part of his work, he just think its all imprinted in him early on and has become part of the way he expresses the larger ideas that became part of his brain later in life, a trait he sees as quintessentially American, something his art work certainly is.
“As someone who was six-years-old when he read Superman comics, it just gets elementally into your psyche,” said Shaw. “So does Daffy Duck. Anything that you’re consuming at that age takes up a bigger chunk of your brain than something you consume when you’re 40 or 60. And your brain remembers the stuff more. That’s why American mythology is more present for people than American reality, history-wise.”