Absence makes the art grow fonder

Jim Shaw's flea-market paintings are anonymous, throw-away, gaudy and naive. But is that what makes them so revealing?
Click to follow

They came, not from outer space but from American attics. They oozed from swap-meets, from flea markets and woebegone second-hand emporia. They are the cast-offs from the secret realities spawned by hundreds of uncharted inner spaces - lurid, psychotic, angular, voluptuous, childish, charming, repellent.

They came, not from outer space but from American attics. They oozed from swap-meets, from flea markets and woebegone second-hand emporia. They are the cast-offs from the secret realities spawned by hundreds of uncharted inner spaces - lurid, psychotic, angular, voluptuous, childish, charming, repellent.

Jim Shaw's uncanny collection of paintings at London's ICA was once sought by Charles Saatchi. The latter's interest has since cooled, but Shaw's odyssey into the mustiest margins of American amateur art remains a doggedly long-term act of subversion. For this is the art of fantasy and random occurrence - four hundred salons perdus brought randomly before the public; critics, like batteries, are implicitly not included in Shaw's project.

Two galleries at the ICA are packed with canvases full of colours that surely want to be even brighter than they are, tones that usually seem anaemic, no matter how thickly or vigorously applied. For the most part, the paint delivers shadowy images from shadowy places; to consider the hundreds on show is to feel an acute sense of desolation in a log-jam of effluvium.

The question that surfaces again and again has nothing to do with the art. Where, one wonders, are the painters now? Where is JMT, who painted a penis and testicles, rampant in a vague landscape? Is he sitting on a porch in Omaha, trying to remember something important? And what about L Garbe, who, in 1977, produced a rather well-achieved pair of hollow, gangrenous lace-up feet and ankles? And what of the livid-vulva-and-nipple merchants? Are they planning murders, starting new religions in Los Alamos or just playing Black Sabbath albums?

To partake of Shaw's Thrift Store Paintings is to experience the peculiar and automatically stillborn process of trying to understand what cannot be understood in any thoroughgoing way; seeing things that are simultaneously explicitly individual and yet utterly anonymous. Some of the paintings may owe something to a recognisable stylistic precedent - a Miro-ish one here, a take on Magritte there, a Yes album cover by Son of Roger Dean there. But most of the work is trapped in times and places that are hermetic and exclusive: the supporting evidence is gone, the strangers have left town - and they ain't comin' back.

The paintings defy normal modes of criticism. Confronted with such a huge scatter-shot of work - they are practically floor to ceiling - the voyeur (we are skulking, uninvited, in forgotten attics) cannot apply the usual rigamaroles of assessment. It seems fatuous to speculate for more than a moment about how well, or appallingly badly, an image has been carried off; and some are quite skilfully done.

It even feels odd to admit to liking some of the work: Danny Hall's comically psychotic futures featuring a robot in a Scargillian miner's hat and eyes that are pronged-out lamps; or the wonderful florescence of bits of bark, seeds and minute pine cones glued into a prickly, flowing topography that could be a shard from the surface of a charred planet or the silty outflow of a tropical river; or the starkly amusing shoes by de Rolf; or the engaging Turner-meets-Blake Perfect Storm image; or even the literally shitty Nymphs by Major H Ray White, in scored and flowing shades of fundamental, anally expressive brown.

But the details, however momentarily interesting, are overwhelmed by the palpable sense of absence that pervades the galleries like an electric charge, an absence that Shaw began to collect like a reaper in the late Sixties in small-town Michigan, with Jack Webb's "You Are My Girl" playing on his parents' hi-fi. The house was full of what he describes as "all this amazing detritus from the past: pulp paperbacks with lurid covers, weird records, paintings by amateur artists".

The first thrift-store painting he bought was of a Breck girl - a glamour-puss publicising Breck cosmetics. And this self-driven grounding may begin to explain why most of the paintings in the collection are psychedelic, psychotic or teen-surreal.

Shaw also soaked up images from ads in Life and Woman's Day magazines and began to produce drawings based on cheesecake magazines from the Fifties and, specifically, from the dominatrix-lashed pages of Aggressive Gals. It was enough to lead him into the study of art at Cal-Arts, in Los Angeles, in the late Seventies - and to show his collection of thrift-store art for the first time, as "a sly conceptual joke".

Except that he wasn't joking. The proffering of anonymous artistic detritus had another, deeper point: to produce a narrative about occluded American aspirations, based on the accidental recovery of these works. Collecting art in any normal sense, he insists, is a perverse activity - "it's all about ownership and anal retention". Nor will he allow any artwork to be referred to as authentic or inauthentic: "This belief in the idea of the authentic is a very American thing. It's probably why techno music has never really taken off here - because it's almost entirely inauthentic."

Shaw says thrift-store paintings are big in Mexico among younger artists, prompted by his book on the collection: "It's like America has gone back in some way to its image of the past, which was a kind of lively place full of lumberjacks and gangsters - a simplistic and idiotic place, but not decadent like Europe."

The Thrift Store Paintings' lack of provenance makes the ICA event less an art show than freeze-frames in a narrative whose beginning and ending can never be known. To be surrounded by this welter of material is to be reminded how much our responses to "known" art - we like to know why we like what we like - are to do with programmed rather than innocent reactions. It is easier to enjoy spendthrift art with programme notes and dulcet voice-overs at the National Gallery than it is to take on cheap-jack daubs from Billy Bob's trailer, sans explanation.

Handwritten on one painting in what might be described as the naive style is this homily: "The flower is perhaps the most physically beautiful of God's gifts. However, physical beauty is only a small part of life. One must never underestimate the value of the worm." It might serve as a subscript for Jim Shaw's travelling medicine show; the paintings have been rescued from time-space wormholes leaking febrile echoes of Jack Webb's "You Are My Girl".

There's a final, terminal wrinkle in Jim Shaw's accidental narrative: the Thrift Store Paintings are for sale. Suitably decadent European buyers may find it's like taking amnesiac strangers into their homes; shadowy forms from the Twilight Zone, whom they would be unable to introduce or excuse to friends and relations; gaudy lacunae hanging above their suddenly unfamiliar fireplaces. Ah, but how long will it be before these strangers find themselves, yet again, in car boots or hanging crookedly in stalls at the Islington arts fair.

Jim Shaw's Thrift Store Paintings, ICA, London SW1, to 5 November (020-7930 3647)