Confessions of a garbage collector

Artist Jim Shaw paid no more than $25 a piece for his collection of thrift-store paintings. Charles Saatchi offered to buy them for £100,000. He shows Mary Braid how to spot a bargain
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The Independent Online

In Retro Home, a second-hand store in London's trendy Notting Hill, Jim Shaw, the art world's very own "garbage collector", is casting his eye over some paintings. "This one definitely says something to me," says the dishevelled, slight 48-year-old American, in thick-lensed glasses, his voice so heavy with irony that he might as well abandon his permanently dead-pan expression and roll back his eyes.

In Retro Home, a second-hand store in London's trendy Notting Hill, Jim Shaw, the art world's very own "garbage collector", is casting his eye over some paintings. "This one definitely says something to me," says the dishevelled, slight 48-year-old American, in thick-lensed glasses, his voice so heavy with irony that he might as well abandon his permanently dead-pan expression and roll back his eyes.

The large painting he is referring to covers most of the wall above the shop's stairs, and hangs opposite a kitsch little number in which three rather familiar white horses are galloping over a vast expanse of sand. It shows a tangle of anonymous naked legs, adorned with jagged, stiletto-heeled, black leather boots.

A few minutes away, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts on the Mall, they are hanging 400 paintings Shaw has collected from thrift shops across the United States during the past 30 years. Sex is a common theme in many of the works by amateur American artists, whose identities seem destined to remain forever unknown. But Shaw, the selector, is not taken with Notting Hill's study in bondage, perhaps because he is positively turned off by the £150 tag. Shaw, an Elvis Costello look-alike who likes his clothes to come from the same place as his paintings, says he prefers his sex cheaper than this. He didn't pay more than $25 for any of the thrift-shop paintings set to adorn the ICA.

Retro Home is clearly far too fashionable. So we move down-market, to two charity shops on the main road, on the hunt for the kind of painting - cheap but priceless - worthy of a Shaw collection. In the early 1990s, Charles Saatchi offered $100,000 for it when it was only 100 strong. Back then Shaw, from Los Angeles, refused to sell. But he has made it clear that now he has a wife, a mortgage and a one-year-old daughter, he is open to offers.

The first charity store has no paintings on offer. But in the hospice shop next door, buried among jars of odd knitting needles and a lone chrome shower attachment, there is a palette-knife painting of a country scene. "It's too tasteful," says Shaw. It's not amateur watercolours by your Aunt Doris that Shaw is after but the "weird, disturbed, unusual and inspired".

The walls of the ICA will offer no end of thrift-shop weird when the collection opens tomorrow. Some critics will no doubt dismiss the collection as the latest art con - complaining that they are literally being asked to pay money for garbage - but many will be fascinated by the eclectic, ragtag show. There are portraits, covered in slash marks - "it's poignant," says Shaw, "because you don't know how the slashes came about"; a Magritte-style painting of Jesus, sharing canvas with a lamb; and one rather eye-catching little number in which a giant erect penis stands against a setting sun. "You wonder what impulse created that," says Shaw, almost smiling.

You could ask the same of the "absurd" painting of a turtle, smoking a cigar beneath the inscription "YBYSAIA". (After much consideration, he has concluded, it stands for You Bet Your Sweet Ass I Am).

Then there is a cute collection of American First Ladies that ends with Pat Nixon, offering a rare clue to the age of a work when the paintings generally fail to fit in with any artistic movement or school. The First Ladies were picked up in a thrift shop in Reno. A contrasting set of First Ladies by another anonymous painter was, fittingly, given to Shaw by his shrink's girlfriend. In that series of four, the First Ladies sit, legs spread, no gynaecological detail spared, in what Shaw describes as a "vaginal fantasia". On the reverse side of the canvases are painted sweet nature scenes, allowing for a flip of your art work should an elderly relative pop round.

It is not a search for overlooked genius that has spurred Shaw's long project. He makes no claims of that for any of the paintings, though a few, he believes, show promise. What he does believe is that, together, the paintings - funny, inept, disturbing and, at times, completely off the wall - say something about the American psyche. He sees recurring themes, such as guilt and sin, but the joy is that the absence of any knowledge about the artist allows huge freedom of interpretation.

Shaw says the collection crept up on him and that he did not start out with any goal. He has been a hoarder since he began collecting comics at school. But when he did first exhibit the collection, in the early Nineties, it caught the art world off balance. The establishment suspected purpose, believing the collection was a challenge to its values at a time when the prices of paintings were tumbling.

Shaw says the collection isn't a protest, but simply the fruits of one of his own peculiar fascinations. Still, he does not strip the collection entirely of political meaning. He does, for example, have tremendous affinity with amateurs, not molded by art schools and art theory, who retain his own enduring affection for figurative art though it has become passé in the art world. "You don't find a lot of conceptual or installation art in thrift shops," he says wryly.

He accepts that there are plenty of good reasons for the art world to operate as it does, such as the artist's duty to be continually innovative, "but that means it's been left to amateurs to continue traditions". And while he doesn't rally against art schools, he says they mould students. He is interested in what those who have not been through the process produce. "It cannot be done, but on a romantic level I would love to go back to being an amateur," he says.

He clearly loves his collection. Apart from his late-acquired family responsibilities, there are other reasons for his willingness to part with it now. America is changing and thrift shops are changing too. Some of the magic has clearly gone out of the project. Gentrification and urban development, he complains, have pushed many thrift shops from main streets to the edges of cities. "They have lost their romantic ambience," says Shaw sadly.

He still gets excited when he makes a "find", but he's not scouring the country like he used to. The truth is, gems are harder to find. The artifacts are not as old as they once were, partly because collectors have muscled in. Then there is the increase in prices, ironically, partly because his own work has made thrift-shop art hip. He tries to stick to his $25 rule, but it's tough. It's all become more of a grind.

Angst about cashing in on unknown artists by selling their works previously dampened any inclination to sell, but his worries have eased. These days, he argues, he has put in enough time and energy to "curating" the collection to accept the rewards. A respected artist in his own right, Shaw feels increasingly that the collection is interfering with his own work.

If he does get a buyer, however, it's unlikely that his hoarding will stop. He has already moved into a new area. "I'm collecting Christian stuff," he smiles. "You know, 1970s LP with four men and four women on the cover in a field, all dressed in white, attempting to reach the young." Part of the attraction is that he's sure that even he can't make Christianity hip.

Jim Shaw: Thrift Store Paintings opens tomorrow at the ICA, London SW1 (020-7930 3647)

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