CONTEMPORARY PAINTERS Artist Interview : Jim Shaw

Lund Humphries' Contemporary Painters series monograph on Jim Shaw by David Pagel is 'a splendid rabbit-hole into one of the greatest dissident Wonderlands ever to erupt from 20th-century middle-American discontent. Jim Shaw's phantasmagoria is full of a conspiratorial acuity and verve that grow more prescient with each new political nightmare.' – Jonathan Lethem


Artist Jim Shaw talks to Alexander Harris about his political and cultural influences, making art in a pandemic, and founding a religion...

'All the President’s Men', 2018, Acrylic on muslin
167.6 × 177.8 cm (48 × 70 in) Courtesy Simon Lee Gallery
Reproduced in Jim Shaw by David Pagel.


Alexander Harris: First of all, are you well? How has the pandemic affected your practice at a day-to-day level? 

Jim Shaw: In the beginning, I was working alone at home finishing up some canvases, but had been doing more or less that for 3 months due to a recuperating dog who needed full time help. After a while I developed the need to go out and Xerox, by which time, most Angelenos seemed to be driving to work again, if traffic is any guide.


AH: Have you found it has changed how and what you are painting? What are you currently working on?

JS: I’m working on a show for Simon Lee in London in the fall that I won’t be able to attend, due to our having the world’s worst Covid outbreak. Go USA! There are a couple of Trump specific pieces that need to be finished before the election, since I fervently hope he will be gone after November, but not forgotten… otherwise it’s the usual obsessive conglomeration of images that kind of make sense if you believe in magical thinking. I do need to downsize my practice and working with the strictures of an invisible threat nudges me further.

 'Good N Plenty', 2018, Acrylic on muslin
91.4 × 91.4 cm (36 × 36 in) Courtesy Simon Lee Gallery
Reproduced in Jim Shaw by David Pagel.


AH: David Pagel’s Jim Shaw is the first major monograph on your career as an artist. What was it like seeing such a wide body of your work brought together in a published volume for the first time? 

JS: Every time I look through the amount of work I’ve produced, which in digitally accessible form is mostly since 2006, I realize what an insane person I’ve been. If I could afford to take a few years off, it might do me some good, but on some level, I must feel that I have to be productive and ‘perfect’ in order to be worthy. Sad.


AH: You have been based in Los Angeles for much of your career and your work seems to be saturated with distinctly Californian references. What do you think LA – and the Golden State more generally – offers the artist, that somewhere like New York does not? 

JS: Space, and when I was beginning, the movie industry gave employment to many artists, including myself. At its heart, LA is a workaholic town, and used to house a robust working class. They’ve been moved out by lack of industry and rising rents, and the streets and freeways can no longer function except during a Covid lockdown. I truly don’t know who can afford to move here now and be a bohemian.



'The Moon', 2015, Acrylic on muslin
731.5 × 1524 cm (288 × 600 in) Courtesy Blum & Poe and Metro Pictures.
Reproduced in Jim Shaw by David Pagel.


AH: From the beginning, cartoons, advertising and Hollywood have been prominent in your work. What attracts you to pop culture (from the 50s, onwards) and why has it played such a large part in your paintings? 

JS: Maybe it’s just my juvenile mind, but I am attracted to images that rhyme, whether they are cartoons or high-class fancy art historical references. When I was doing 'My Mirage', it was set in childhood and teen years, so I had a good excuse to reference them, and the dream objects came out of my subconscious. Today’s art is a bit more deliberated, but the painting sort of gives me the orders for what I need to do to complete it, from subject matter to rendering and finish, and I have to obey.


AH: Among the artists in the Contemporary Painters Series, you are the only founder of a religion: Oism. Can you briefly describe what this religion is, and why and how you came to invent it? Where does it fit in with the rest of your work?

JS: I’ve always been interested by the variety of aesthetics, and in some ways, the religion was supposed to be a simple exercise in how beliefs could affect aesthetics. It began while I was researching the history of religions and cults in America while working on 'My Mirage', and expanded when I had a number of Christian students at UNLV (if there were any in my previous schools, they didn’t admit their beliefs, which were kind of at odds with the prevailing art school ethos). I was also intrigued, while waiting for my appointment at a Scientologist-run clinic, as I overheard my Doctor and another staff member discussing some schism in the church (I later found out he was L Ron Hubbard’s personal physician while reading about Hubbard’s death in “Going Clear”), and I mused about what it would be like to have a crisis of faith in a recently made up religion. So it all grew organically from there. Since it involved a lot of research, it took many years for the pieces to emerge, and since I still hold out some hope of recording an Oist Prog rock Opera, I may be at it for a while still.



'Girls in Billy’s Class III', 1986, part of 'My Mirage' 1985-1991
Graphite on paper, 
43.2 × 35.6 cm (17 × 14 in) Private collection.
Reproduced in Jim Shaw by David Pagel.


AH: The Contemporary Painters Series is based on the conviction that painting remains a vibrant and innovative form in contemporary art. Why do you paint and what do you think painting can continue to offer in the 21st Century?

JS: I used to prefer drawing to painting as it was even cheaper to make and store, but now it’s too hard physically on my rendering arm and eyes. Painting is faster and slightly easier. Sculpture is too hard to store, and videos can take too much time and money, so I always pray that I don’t have ideas in those realms. Actually, if I was any good at music, I’d prefer it as a medium since it has emotional and physical effects that are hard to achieve in static visual art. Painting is kind of like a soothing balm of depression that balances out the manic aspects of idea generation.


AH: Perhaps more than any other artist in the series, your work cries out for political interpretation. Old and new, leaders in government, business and culture are consistently lampooned from all directions, with an almost Swiftian anger. Without wanting to be simplistic, where do you see your responsibility lying as an artist? How closely does your dedication to artistic experimentation overlap with your apparent political mission?

JS: Like most non agit-prop artists of my generation, political art seemed a bit embarrassing back in the late 70s, so it went onto the back burner for a while. I had become interested in the tropes of political cartooning, which I felt used the same kinds of visual punning I was finding inherent in my dreams as I drew them out, so I was eager to put that to work. Then a couple of things happened. My wife, Marnie Weber, needed a backdrop for one of her films, and we found it was cheaper to buy a worn out used one than to rent a newer one, and as I looked at what was for sale, the pieces that were set in an Americana mythological past attracted my mind. It was during the ramping up to the second Gulf war, and I wanted to explore the ways that Bush Jr was using the Reagan-esque nostalgia for a glorious past that existed, in reality, thanks to FDR and the new deal, and all that socialism they were trying to bury. So, I began with full scale backdrops and I thought the scale was appropriate to political cartoons. This received its most foregrounded expression in ‘Labyrinth’ which was essentially made out of enlarged variations on 50s newspaper cartoon aesthetics, and placed between two theatrical backdrops by artists on either side of the Spanish Civil War, Picasso and Dali. I feel one needs to do what one can to counter the narratives you oppose, though art seems a poor way to do it, in part because you end up preaching to the converted. I wish I was good at pushing my memes onto the internet as that is where an image can have some impact, but as an old man, it’s hard to learn new tricks.



Labyrinth: I dreamed I was taller than Jonathan Borofsky (installation view) 2009;
Background: Pablo Picasso’s stage backdrop for the play Le 14 Juillet (1936); Salvador Dalí’s stage backdrop for the play El Sombrero de Tres Picos (1949).
Acrylic on muslin stretched on plywood; acrylic on muslin, 6.10 × 11.34 m (20 × 371⁄3 ft) Courtesy Praz Delavallade
Reproduced in Jim Shaw by David Pagel.


AH: Your work seems to operate as an ongoing document of America’s long-term love affair with chaos – to the point where the two have become synonymous. Are you hopeful for the future?   

JS: We had a masseuse who said her psychic friend had predicted that the next president after Bush would be African-American, and he’d be the last president. There’s still time for Trump to name himself Emperor. The broad popularity of the movement for change in America is heartening, but one always has to assume a backlash will follow any real reforms. One can be giddy with elation over local successes, like painting Black Lives Matter on the street in front of the White House, or Trump Tower, but real structural reform will be hard and costly. All drugs will have to be decriminalized, all non violent drug convictions removed, effective drug treatments will have to be given out, meaningful jobs will have to be available to everyone, the cost of living will need to be lower in most cities, the rural economies will need to be improved somehow, all without so alienating the huge swath of Fox News-watching, fearful folks that they start a counter revolution. All bets are off as far as America’s future goes. Covid proved that the policies of social cheapness that made the Reagan Revolution seem to outperform Europe were completely overwhelmed by a simple germ, like the Martians in Welles’ War of the Worlds. My daughter worries that global warming will leave her without a future. I hope she’s wrong.


 Find the Contemporary Painters series monograph on Jim Shaw HERE


Hardback • 144 Pages • Size: 280 × 240 mm
100 colour illustrations
ISBN: 9781848223288 • Publication: September 09, 2019
Series: Contemporary Painters Series