You don’t have to be an art history whiz or need to know the New Testament inside-out to get Jim Shaw’s culturally rich and brilliantly absurd paintings. However, it might help to do so, in order to really get the cutting wit of this Los Angeles-based artist. Shaw, who founded the band Destroy All Monsters with the late, great Mike Kelley, is best known for his extensive collection of junk shop paraphernalia. Here, he mines pop culture, historical injustices, our relationship to nature and religious fanaticism in his own intensely detailed and allegorical work.
In 2004, Shaw started to collect theatrical scenery backdrops from the 1940s and ’50s. These are perfect ready-made canvases for his muralesque paintings. A myriad of deftly painted figures from the fables of our time –advertisements, comics and films – are cast in mythological and religious narratives. In ‘The Third Angel’, the happy, ho-ho-hoing giant of the American frozen veg brand, Green Giant has been fitted out with wings; with a cheeky smile, he pours gooey red liquid into a valley of corn. In case you’re not up on your bible references, this scenario is taken from the Book of Revelation, which Shaw uses to comment on the genetic modification of crops in America. In ‘Whore of Babylon & Robber Barons’, a belly dancing-whore holding a flame aloft like the Statue of Liberty rides a seven-headed beast of nineteenth-century top-hatted merchants.
Shaw’s style is big, bold and compelling. He audaciously confronts home truths many of us would like to ignore: exploitation, corruption and treachery. Here, political and societal conduct come under the spotlight. But for all the doom and gloom, Shaw’s reflections on the failures of mankind hold a message for our future. Let’s just hope it doesn’t get lost in translation.