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Jim Shaw

Drawings 1979 – 2003
Metro Pictures

Jim Shaw,
Jim Shaw, "Untitled" (1981), Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures Gallery.

Generically titled Drawings 1979–2003, Jim Shaw’s mini drawing retrospective might have been called "There and Back Again." His recent body of work eschews the narrative driven pencil drawings of the 1990s for black-and-white experimentation. At this stage in his career it appears that Shaw wants to explore the aesthetic boundaries of drawing through ironic and playful abstraction. It’s disappointing to see Shaw drop so many of his cultural obsessions from youth to religion and replace them with silly, mannered figurative abstractions.

Shaw’s reputation is staked firmly on his Dream Drawings of the nineties and his landmark Thrift Store painting show. Several of these nine-by-twelve inch dream drawings are presented in the gallery and continue to represent Shaw’s best work. Their non-linear narrative structure achieves perfect form in the comic book panels. This aesthetically simple conceit allows Shaw to mine his dreams, which are at once fantastic and mundane. The psychologically loaded panels present the artist’s life as subject matter, while their content engages the guilt and repression associated with religion.

Religious psychology is explored in more detail in his exhaustive series of Billy Drawings, several of which are in the exhibit, including his recreation of the Last Supper. "Study for Sinorama," executed in 1990, features a grown up Billy playing multiple apostles. The color Xerox of the pencil drawing is done in a style that Shaw uses almost exclusively in the dream series and which he developed during the 1980s. Perhaps the best Billy drawing, "Study for Mr. Alpha and Mr. Omega," features Billy’s friend having a theological debate with a priest while fighting him. The hilarious physical and intellectual conflict captures many of Shaw’s artistic concerns.

Things begin to unravel when Shaw moves into more formal explorations, but the seeds of his problem can be seen in his earliest airbrush drawings. The rare cubist cartoon portraits from 1979 are formally hideous, although they already exhibit the subject matter and stylistic tendencies that characterize his oeuvre, from fractured space to character driven narrative. This early attraction to a kind of cubist space, cartoon characters, and abstraction is reiterated again and again.

Shaw’s most recent drawings, like "Dream Object (I was making a picture using the design aesthetic of my student work on ’70s ads)" (2002), are not strong enough conceptually to excuse the built-in ugliness. These works attempt to merge Shaw’s abstract doodling with appropriated pop-imagery from the seventies and early eighties. Shaw’s appropriation of pulp-fiction and B-movie imagery works perfectly to isolate memories and invoke the past, notably in "Study for Creepy" and "Study for Arrows." These images almost serve as a context for the character studies that make up the bulk of the show.

Shaw’s recent efforts are characterized by a reduction of narrative elements and an influx of abstraction. In the middle of the gallery is a muddle of abstract mark making, washed-out black-and-white lines with some sort of representational line drawing camouflaged in the mess. The work is sloppy and ill conceived, especially in comparison with his Spirograph-like Dark Corner Drawings from 1992, which are tighter and more sophisticated attempts at abstract representations of his obsession with the darker aspects of religion. None of Shaw’s new work has the same impact as his work from the nineties, but he is still at his best when he stays away from abstraction and mannered mark making. His disembodied heads of film stars in two large untitled pencil drawings and his two shaped drawings of a finger and nose are far better than any of his abstract drawings such as the From the Book of O-ism series. In this 2002 series, Shaw substitutes abstract icons in place of language, but resorts to injecting the religious aspect through the titles, which makes for far less compelling work than his rich and conceptually layered pencil drawings and color Xeroxes.


William Powhida


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2003

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