All these paintings are a load of junk

Andrew Gumbel meets the man who's brought his thrift-store collection to the ICA
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Jim Shaw is obsessed with junk. He can't help being attracted to it, can't help accumulating it, can't help looking at it and seeing perverse, emotionally resonant undercurrents that pass most people by. His is a mind forever distracted by the next shiny object, no matter how cheap or tacky. For years, he has been rummaging through discount bins at record stores, picking up used books by the boxload, attending sales in people's back yards, buying up the possessions of the recently deceased, and flitting from swap meetings to junk shops to flea markets.

Jim Shaw is obsessed with junk. He can't help being attracted to it, can't help accumulating it, can't help looking at it and seeing perverse, emotionally resonant undercurrents that pass most people by. His is a mind forever distracted by the next shiny object, no matter how cheap or tacky. For years, he has been rummaging through discount bins at record stores, picking up used books by the boxload, attending sales in people's back yards, buying up the possessions of the recently deceased, and flitting from swap meetings to junk shops to flea markets.

If he worked in a beauty salon, he would volunteer to sweep the floor, getting down on his hands and knees to admire the peculiar agglomerations of toenail clippings. If he were a civil servant, he would gather up the yellowing paperwork of long-abandoned policy proposals and fantasise about a world formed by the half-baked, mediocre, impulsively thrown together ideas he had rescued from oblivion.

As it is, Jim Shaw is an artist, and his gimmick a collection of cheap amateur paintings, accumulated over more than 20 years, that offer a commentary on our world every bit as insightful and bizarre, in his view, as the outpourings of the great and the good of the modern art scene. These "Thrift Store Paintings" have been touring the US for the past 10 years, garnering ever-more admiring critical reactions, and are now at the ICA.

The pieces delight in names (supplied by Shaw in the absence of knowledge about either the artists or their intentions) like Buxom Angel with Sword in Hell, or The Man With No Crotch Sits Down With Girl, or Ducks with Hats on Mostly White Field. They have no obvious thematic link and do not break down easily into obvious categories. The quality of the artwork ranges from the technically acceptable to the downright lousy.

And yet, the collection comes over as an extraordinary assault on the senses. A vast, peculiarly fascinating insight into the underbelly of American culture - and, for that matter, the visual imagination of our whole world - is suddenly and unexpectedly laid out on display. Shaw himself likes to point out the puritan strain of repressed sexuality, religious adoration and sheer kitschiness that runs through many of the pieces. But there is more, much more besides: peculiar outbursts of misogyny and sadism, derailed scenes of domesticity, and everywhere haunting wide eyes - of temptresses, of children, of the guy next door.

If there is a word to describe the cumulative effect of the 400-odd pieces it is perhaps awkwardness: the uncomfortable rendition of a society ever so slightly off-kilter, emphasised and reinforced by the technical imperfections on canvas. But that's only one interpretation: one of the show's most refreshing attributes is that you can really make of it what you want. Shaw has earned much credit for his own role as curator-as-artist, but he is far from rigid in the way he chooses to present the work. The layout of each individual exhibition space is as much of a organising principle as any train of thought in his own head. In the past, he has divided the paintings into portraits, domestic scenes, Boy's Own-type adventure imagery and what he calls "disturbed" art. For the ICA show, new category labels have been devised - "Teenage Fantasies", "First Ladies", "Beefcakes and Cheesecakes", and so on.

The collection plays itself absolutely straight, seeking to make fun neither of the artists nor of the subjects of their work. And that is the key to its success. "I'm not into presenting things to laugh at them," Shaw says. "The attraction to me of doing this is that I don't really know more about this artwork than anybody else does."

The artwork nevertheless speaks volumes about Shaw and his cluttered, restless, quixotic mind. He may be thought of as a seminal figure in the so-called Bad Art movement, but he is far too wrapped up in the preoccupations of his own surroundings to categorise himself as anything half as grand. At home in Los Angeles, his attention is forever being torn between his latest acquisitions, the original artwork he is working to produce and ideas that might pop into his head at any moment. Like a manic Prospero battling to keep control of the wonders in his kingdom of junk, Shaw flits from place to place and from subject to subject, remaining frustratingly elusive but for the brief moments in which he allows himself to focus and deliver flashes of incisiveness.

"Interruption is my way of thinking," he remarks as he marches out of his living room and sweeps into his garden studio, where he is experimenting with a series of musical instruments fashioned from mannequin body parts - a leg melodica, an anal violin, a set of brain-and-testicle bagpipes. Most recently he has sought to make artistic representations of his dreams, and these are some of them. So, too, is a Renaissance-style rendition of Charlie's Angels, which he has just completed.

The tour of his studio is dizzyingly fast, and soon we are moving again, wheeling round to the front of the house and the outside staircase leading up to his holy of holies: his backroom junkyard supreme, where pictures from the "Thrift Store" exhibition compete with yards of vinyl records, hundreds of dime-store paperbacks, dilapidated furniture, posters, folders stuffed with magazine cuttings and other documents, religious icons, incidental mantelpiece ornaments, framed cartoons, stuffed animals and discarded children's toys.

"There's lots of crap in here," he says cheerily. "Lots and lots of crap."

He puts on a record: a series of far-right Christian fundamentalist ditties including "The Monkey Song", a jaunty dig at Darwinism ("I don't know much about his ancestors/ But mine didn't sleep in a tree!"). Other items in his vinyl collection include a solemn paean to Richard Nixon, and something called The Goldwaters Sing Folk Songs To Bug The Liberals. At the other end of the political spectrum, a record cover for a Communist band called The Human Condition depicts a bolt of lightning making a sphincter-shaped dent in a blood red heart.

His books cover the golden age of American pulp fiction, from Chandler to Cornell Woolrich by way of Robert Bloch, author of Psycho. Many of the titles, as he likes to point out, brood obsessively over words like "virgin" and "chastity". One of them is called The Second Ribald Reader.

It's not clear if Shaw likes the books for their content, their titles, or their covers. He is, however, into the notion of textual significance, especially when it comes to religion. He's devising his own world belief system, a sort of spoof of the Mormon church in which God takes a back seat to the mythology and surrounding mystique.

Rumour has it that in Shaw's religion time travels backwards and the Virgin Mary gives birth to herself. But he isn't in the mood to talk about it much.

The sheer breadth of Shaw's interests and enthusiasms is exhausting. He's not sure where his accumulation mania came from, but it was instilled into him at an early age growing up in the Dow Chemical company town of Midland, Michigan. He took it with him to Los Angeles when he moved there in 1976 and it has stayed with him ever since. "My wife would like me to have less stuff, but it's not quite possible for me to disaccumulate."

Not, of course, that he would want to. His collection has recently expanded to include abstract art for the first time. He is also rather taken by a handful of pictures that have been slashed or attacked with a ballpoint pen. The district where he bought his house a year ago, Highland Park, is an old-fashioned working-class suburb of Los Angeles and perfectly suited to his acquisitional tendencies. So his visits to thrift stores continue, and the junk continues to pile up.

"Everything becomes so much work. I don't have time for my own art," he reflects ruefully. Right now he is having trouble locating a place to sit down, settling eventually for a cardboard packing case wedged against a baby's plastic walker. "I just can't get rid of it all," he says, throwing his arms up. "It's just not in me."

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

Comments