The American cult artist on his magnificent obsession with thrift store trawling
Taken from the Spring 2015 issue of Dazed:
Cult artist and former Destroy All Monsters punk Jim Shaw has been tirelessly trawling through America’s cultural scrapheap since the 1970s. Repugnant grins, decapitated limbs, and nightmarish creatures carouse with one another in his freakish collection of thrift store paintings – all of them rescued from dusty obscurity to form a strange new trashcan aesthetic. For the Barbican’s new exhibition, Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector, Shaw brings a selection of these oddities across the Atlantic so others can celebrate his love affair with junk.
How long have you been collecting thrift store paintings? Can you explain how it developed?
Jim Shaw: I was introduced to thrifting by my high school buddy, Lelia Raley back in the late 60s. I amassed a large amount of old clothes, knick nacks and LPs. One day I came across a 4 by 6 foot Masonite panel with a crude painting of a Breck shampoo girl, which was pretty extreme. It got me interested in the potentials. Out in California, the pickings were ripe so the collection expanded.
In general, what qualities make a painting worthy of your collection?
Jim Shaw: When I’m perusing a swap meet or flipping through the pictures at a thrift store, I’m looking for something that says something about the underside of American culture (though I’ve gotten pieces in other countries as well). The weirder the better, and if it’s some adolescent version of surrealism, even more so.
How do you think collecting these images has affected your work, and in what ways have they influenced you?
Jim Shaw: An odd way that being known as the guy who collects thrift store paintings has affected my work is that in my own work, I’m especially conscious of not making the same mistakes typically found in amateur art. Getting the eyes in the right place, making sure the perspective is correct – it’s sort of warped my perfectionism into a perverse level that I struggle against.
“I seem to sniff out the apocalyptic in the world, while also being a cheery optimist” – Jim Shaw
Your old band was called Destroy All Monsters – where did your obsession with monsters begin?
Jim Shaw: As a boy, I had three older sisters, a strong mother and a workaholic dad, so being “masculine” in the normal ways (aggression, loudness, being a dick) was stifled. My older cousin Craig exposed me to the wonders of comic books, then Monster magazines, which became a quiet outlet for the aggression and sadism that are normally tossed against society by 10-year-old boys. Having a bunch of older sisters ruins your life as a boy.
Your work always has a dark edge to it – do you think the best art should scare people?
Jim Shaw: I don’t know who would be scared by my art, since it’s not well known outside the art world, which is fairly jaded and immune to shock. While the work is often humorous on the surface, I hope it has a sad or sinister aspect trailing off it. I seem to sniff out the apocalyptic in the world, while also being a cheery optimist.
You also collect religious material - what attracts you to that? Do these thrift store paintings hold religious undertones for you too?
Jim Shaw: Some of the paintings are obviously Christian, other “mystical”. The Christian publications fascinated me when one of our roommates in Ann Arbor installed free cable, and the world of conservative southern Christian propaganda flowed out into our TV den. All that stuff had been shunted off to the side by mainstream media, but with the advent of Reagan and the surreptitious takeover of the Republican party by extreme Christian activists, they’ve been handed many of the reins of power here in the states.
And finally, what is the scariest monster of all time?
Jim Shaw: All of us humans, what we are capable of doing under the wrong circumstances, or maybe it’s the totality of our society which is capable of ignoring the horrific things that occur in far off corners of the world so we can have an unimpeded flow of material goods.
Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector is running at the Barbican until May 25
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