Ray Marsden meets Gavin Clark, chronicler and collector of junk shop art
"Thrift Store Paintings" is a term coined by the American artist Jim Shaw, who, in 1991, exhibited his 500-strong collection of amateur paintings found in the junk shops, or thrift stores, of America. The paintings ranged from the imaginative daubings of the entirely untrained to fairly sophisticated works with bizarre subject-matter. What linked them all was the sense that the artists had been painting into a vacuum - no one had asked them to make these paintings, they certainly weren't a part of the established art market, and they bore no relation to any trends or movements within the art world. With no background information on the artists available, Shaw gave the paintings his own titles, usually with literal reference to the things depicted; so a painting of a small boy in a brown room would be called Small Boy in Brown Room.

A catalogue for Jim Shaw's exhibition was produced, and this became something of a collector's item. When it came into the hands of writer Gavin Clark, he was so taken by the reproductions of these unusual works that he decided to see if he could find his own thrift store paintings in Britain. He found his first in a junk shop in Clapham. It featured a glass of Campari, a woman's head and a skull. In deference to Jim Shaw's literal titles, he called it Glass of Campari with Woman's Head and Skull. The painting was clearly unlike anything Clark had ever seen before, and he immediately hung it in his living room to see what visitors to his flat made of it.

"Glass of Campari had the effect of immediately stopping everyone in their tracks. It could not simply be walked past; it begged scrutiny and speculation. Why was the woman's nose decorated with jewellery? Why the dove flying towards the Campari? And, above all, why a skull, with an eyeball lurking inside it, a cigarette nestling underneath it? These objects invited endless discussion among my friends, and proved to be far more arresting an image than anything I'd put there before."

Once he started looking, Clark's collection began to grow rapidly. Within a year he had 25 paintings. He began to notice recurring themes, and made his selection criteria more and more specific. He is only interested in original paintings in oil or acrylic, and he will not buy an ordinary landscape or portrait. The only portraits he will consider for his collection are of exotic or holy figures. Gold Head and Palm in Constellation is clearly the work of someone interested in religion/palmistry/astrology, in Clark's opinion.

He tries to explain what separates a thrift store painting from an ordinary painting. "It's a question of motivation. The artist will have started with the passionate desire to paint, say, a cowboy, and will painstakingly do the head, wearing a beautiful Stetson hat. Then they'll realise that, unfortunately, they are unable to paint the arms legs, torso and a horse, but they'll quickly daub them in anyway."

This perhaps explains why many of the paintings in Clark's collection feature people with seemingly deformed hands, or badly drawn claws in place of hands. People are the most common subject of these paintings, and other recurring themes become apparent when you examine them en masse. Animals are very popular, particularly horses (usually depicted splashing through water), as well as mythical beasts such as mermaids and unicorns. Exotic foreign locations, such as Hawaii and Egypt, also feature regularly.

"It's almost a kind of pathology, wondering what led these people to take up the paintbrush," Clark says. "Some of the pictures are quite disturbing, and you wonder if the artist was completely mentally stable. Mind you, those are usually the most interesting paintings."

Although Clark's collection is on continuous display to friends and visitors, he has never staged a proper exhibition, as Jim Shaw did in the States. He says he would only be interested in exhibiting if he was able to track down some of the artists and invite them to the opening. "That would be taking the whole voyeurism thing to an extreme, getting all these weird people together and seeing how they got on with each other. It would be an art event in itself." But tracking down the artists would seem to be an almost impossible task. Apart from the odd signature and date, the painters have left very few clues as to their identities or backgrounds. Clark has yet to find an address or telephone number on the back of any of them; if he did, he says, he wouldn't hesitate to call. He does feel, however, that the history behind some of the paintings is not always entirely positive: "On one of my pictures, somebody has scrawled on the back, `To my brother Joseph D'Amico, NOT to son'"