Artist Jim Shaw captures the tantalizing spectacle of Hollywood in a new series of paintings and sculptures in his exhibition Thinking the Unthinkable, opening at Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills. Last month I visited the artist at his studio in Highland Park, Los Angeles, to view the work for this show and to speak with him about his many muses. A prolific drawer, Shaw has mountains of sketches from which he prepares his ideas for forthcoming paintings. In this interview, we plug into his infatuation with film, stories of Hollywood personalities, and secret societies.
AMADOUR: When did you start with portraiture, and why did you concentrate on Hollywood figures?
JIM SHAW: Back when I was at CalArts in the seventies, my summer job was at a mask factory. I learned how to make masks and made some of my own. I made a hydro mask baboon, a french poodle, a Siamese cat, a Jesus, and a Jeff Chandler mask. I’ve watched a lot of Federico Fellini films too. I’d walk across campus thinking, God, this is like taking a trip because it had all those scenes with the camera guiding your eye and all the miraculous, strange things happening. Lucille Ball was the first movie star portrait. If you consider the masks I made, Jesus and all those are portraits too. It’s how the brain works, jumping from one subject to another. I had wanted to do a painting that was of a building with a guy on a ledge about to jump and found the film Fourteen Hours (1951), with Richard Basehart, who plays a neurotic young man who can’t decide whether to jump off a building. So I painted him as that neurotic man with a landscape of buildings behind him.
AMADOUR: Who did you study with at CalArts?
SHAW: It was more the influence of being with teachers who did work you respected, rather than what they said. John Baldessari let the students run the show in the grad seminar.
AMADOUR: There are various perspectives on structural composition in your recent works. What is your relationship to architecture?
SHAW: Growing up in Michigan, it was like the glitter glam era in Ann Arbor. My hometown, Midland, Michigan, is the headquarters of The Dow Chemical Company. It’s a small town, but the founder’s son was named Alden, and he was one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s first students at Taliesin. He left after a year because he had clients back in Midland. So he started building all these homes in my hometown, which sparked my interest in architecture. I’d love to live in a Usonian home. We had one Dow house for a few years but opted to sell it because we were only there like two weeks of the year. At one point a raccoon invaded. It tore apart some of the 1930s hardwood. It seemed a shame to leave it unattended, and to make it a rental was not a good option.
AMADOUR: In your large-scale painting, Going For The One (2022), Raquel Welch appears in the center between the Century Plaza Towers in Century City, constructed in 1975 by architect Minoru Yamasaki. How did you first encounter Yes’s album Going for the One (1977), which features the twin skyscrapers that inspired your work?
SHAW: It was one of the bestselling albums in 1977. I’ve been listening to Yes for a long time. One of my guilty secrets is that I like prog-rock. They were like the best mainstream band in the genre. Raquel Welch appears in Myra Breckenridge (1970), with Mae West and John Huston. In the film, Myron Breckenridge is reported to have died but leaves town, gets a sex change, and becomes “Myra.” Myra claims to be his widow and comes back to claim Myron’s will and half of his uncle’s acting school in Hollywood. It’s a compelling book by Gore Vidal.
AMADOUR: When I think of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, I think of places like the bygone Garden of Allah Hotel on the Sunset Strip, where all the actors would stay in West Hollywood. There was this notion that actors would start in Hollywood and make their way down Sunset Boulevard to the beach as their careers would gain traction. Can you tell me more about Hollywood Babylon, featured in your wooden sculpture, The Sybil Seat (2022)?
SHAW: That was Kenneth Anger’s compilation of gossip about the sordid and gruesome backside of Hollywood. I work with my subconscious to dredge up material, and I read psychology books or history books. There’s a lot of gossipy innuendo filtering into all the bad puns stretching throughout the installation. I want there to be a lot of stuff to delve into, whether or not you uncover what I intended.
AMADOUR: Can you tell me more about your drawing process, and how you transfer it onto a larger-scale painting?
SHAW: I start with an idea and think about a good element for the piece. Then I go into the used theatrical backdrops, and I find something for that particular image. Occasionally the backdrop inspires what’s going to go on it. My earlier versions were entire backdrops, and they’re probably all ending up in somebody’s storage unit because they’re too big to hang anywhere. After all, they’re 24 feet high by 48 feet wide. So I started using pieces of backdrops instead of the whole damn thing because I liked the cracks and the age and the nostalgia.
AMADOUR: I see a golden thread between the backdrops and the masks as facades. What is the idea of a facade for you?
SHAW: God, I hadn’t thought about that precisely. I like the idea of the face as an empty place. I did a lot of work on this fake religion called O-ism. One of its central tenants of it is to heal or fill the open hole in your heart. We have constructs we put together daily, and I’m curious about Freudian versus Amorphous psychology. In Cambridge Analytica, some smarty-pants psychologists just pressed a bunch of psychic buttons to predict my behavior or anybody’s behavior, and they can get to a point. Still, they can’t reprogram us, which goes back to MKUltra.
AMADOUR: As you take these various parts of American history, like the atomic bomb or CIA programs, what is your intention with focusing on these historical moments in the United States?
SHAW: I hope to engage or entertain them. I’m all in favor of disgust. Andy Warhol’s Death and Disaster paintings didn’t become something sought after until his prices got insanely high. These works are so slick and perfectly done. I’ve had some things I’ve done that are just chaotic messes, and I want to return to that. The problem with working as I have been on these preexisting images is if you make a wrong move, you have to repaint cracked tempura from the 1940s to cover up the thing you don’t like. It’s not like you can paint it white again or something.
AMADOUR: What kind of paints do you use?
SHAW: I used acrylic because the works can be rolled up. And also because of art fairs. There’s always a deadline around the corner, but if you’re working in oils in Southern California, they dry pretty freaking fast. I used acrylics for about 12 years, but then I realized I’m bending over backward when using acrylics to paint folds in fabric or smooth flesh tones because it’s just not built for that. I have more fun with oils, except when I had to paint Frank Sinatra’s mic stand, and it’s just hard edges. That’s terrible to paint with oils.
AMADOUR: Did you learn to paint in school, or was that something you retained?
SHAW: My grandfather was a weirdly economically successful commercial artist, but he was a modern landscape watercolorist and printmaker in his spare time. So he’s the one who told my family it was okay for me to go to art school and probably paid for my education. We were just four kids from a middle-class family in the 1950s and 60s, at which time being middle class was like being working class today.
AMADOUR: What was your grandfather’s name?
SHAW: Walter Shaw from Rochester, New York. He was a Shriner. My father was a Mason. Shriners were obsessed and involved in fun and produced circuses. I was always interested in the secret society aspect of the Masons. I was never invited to join. The Masons are an international society representing Anglo society worldwide, and they were that up to a certain point. Now they’re past their shelf life to some extent. But who knows what happens at the highest grades? Aleister Crowley based his ideas on the high levels of Masonry. And then L. Ron Hubbard established his stuff on Aleister Crowley.
AMADOUR: In your paintings, many staircases and columns motifs relate to Masonic architecture, like in Hairway to Steven (2022).
SHAW: It’s in the sculptures too. The stairs are more of that secret society initiation thing. That’s the format of the stairs, and the Steven Tyler stairs are the ones they use. Five steps follow three steps, and it’s like real specific. And each stair has a name. I don’t know how much of that you know, but my father was not a 33rd-degree Mason, so he was never inducted into the horrifying realities of it, if there are any to Masonry. Masonry gets much of its mileage in the present out of its supposed relationship to ancient Egypt and mystical this and that. When the Marcianos bought the Scottish Rite Masonic Temple, they left behind all the backdrops. So I utilized some of them in The Wig Museum [the inaugural exhibition at the Marciano Art Foundation]. I don’t know if you saw that, but there was a cathedral with a cloud with a hole in it. So I stuck uber-American Masonic icon George Washington and his Zeus-like pose, astride a vacuum cleaner hose. Then there was another hellscape with all these naked men and women threatened by giant serpents. You can subvert these theories with a lot of humor too. It’s usually dark humor. The underlying theme for The Wig Museum was that hair equates to power. Judges and the upper crust wore powdered wigs. During World War II, women had excess cash when they worked in the factories for the first time. They bought outfits with shoulder pads and had these crazy hairdos. In the 1890s, they had crazy facial hair. I did this version of The Origin of the World, by, what’s his name?
AMADOUR: L’Origine du monde, or The Origin of the World, was painted by Gustave Courbet [in 1866].
SHAW: Right, right. Anyway, it was owned by Jacques Lacan. He was married to Georges Bataille’s ex-wife, Sylvia Bataille, who insisted that a cover be put on it. So they had André Masson paint a wooden lid to cover it from guests seeing it. So I had a version where it was like the entire body with the supposed head from another painting, but covering it was a painting of Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the richest Americans of the 19th century. His facial hair looked like a woman’s mound of Venus. I saw that as Venus Envy — his men’s facial hair.
AMADOUR: How do you choose to make a work of sculpture versus a painting?
SHAW: It just depends on the images that come to my head. Right now we’re suffering through an idea I had while working on the show: to have this column with a nest and a giant egg that lights up. So, my guy who builds all my stretchers and does all the sculptural stuff, we decided it should light up. If it’s going to light up, it should be a slip cast, and we had this column that was like a standard wedding column. So we found a way of matching the materials, but we didn’t know that we would encounter slip casting or roto casting of the egg’s irregularities if you’re trying to light it up. It’s vexing. And also, making the nest, which is easy to mold, to OC cast, took a long time to get it looking right. And it’s like so much more work than one of these paintings. I shouldn’t have had that idea.
AMADOUR: I see all these albums you have in the studio. Do you listen to music while you work?
SHAW: Oh yeah, absolutely. Otherwise, I’d go crazy. I’d get nervous.
AMADOUR: What do you listen to?
SHAW: I listen to everything. Let’s see. There are productions by Brian Wilson and Alt-J. I was in this band called The Perfect Me. My wife [artist Marnie Weber] was working with a guy named Jamie Bear who had a company that was doing the faux finishing on Mel Gibson’s house so it would look old. And they had been working on it for a year and a half, and we would drink afterward. This just came out of us drinking.
AMADOUR: How many bands have you been in?
SHAW: Three, maybe four if you count the Poetics, but I was never an official member. This movie soundtrack from Roman Polanski’s The Knife in the Water (1962) is excellent. And also this one by composer Alexander Tansman. He was a modernist who, I mean, I love Sergei Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky, and Béla Bartók, but there’s only so much of that. But he’s in that vein.
AMADOUR: I keep pondering about the mushroom cloud in your work, I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise (2022). I’m from Reno, Nevada, and in schoolbooks, we grew up learning about the state’s history with the atomic bomb. They did all the experiments at the Nevada Test Site, and also Yucca Mountain serves as a nuclear waste repository. The United States detonated the first nuclear weapon in history, called Trinity, and thousands of bombs resulting in a massive shift for the world.
SHAW: I did a painting about that. Let me see. It does involve movie stars.
AMADOUR: A piece of movie history is that The Misfits (1961), Marilyn Monroe’s last movie, was also filmed in Reno and the desert.
SHAW: Here it is. This drawing was a diptych based on stories about this John Wayne and Susan Hayward movie production for the film The Conqueror (1956), where Wayne played Genghis Khan. It was shot near St. George, Utah, downwind from the test sites in Nevada. Dick Powell was the director; they all got radioactive exposure and died. They brought some of the soil from the location back to the Hollywood movie studio, and the absurdity of John Wayne playing Genghis Khan is hilarious.
Featured Image: Jim Shaw, No Bikini Atoll, 2022. © Jim Shaw. Photo: Jeff McLane. Courtesy Gagosian
Amadour is an interdisciplinary artist based in Los Angeles and New York City. Amadour investigates landscape, architectural forms, and our relationship as humans to built and natural environments. They received dual BA degrees in studio art and art history from the UCLA School of Arts and Architecture in 2018. For more information visit: www.amadour.com