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Jim Shaw / MATRIX 141

November 7, 1990 - December 20, 1990

Billy's Self-Portrait #1, 1986

Download the exhibition brochure (PDF).

Jim Shaw's My Mirage series, which was begun in 1985 and is nearing completion, comprises over one hundred identically scaled (17 x 14") works in a wide variety of media. This exhibition marks the first time that the series has been shown virtually in its entirety.

My Mirage is structured as a loosely knit but highly complex narrative divided into five sections or "chapters." Shaw's story revolves around the life of a character named Billy, who first appears as a rather innocent small-town American kid growing up in the 1960s. Through an extraordinary sequence of images and texts, Saw charts Billy's youth and adolescence, marking the ever more bizarre disruptions of Billy's moral foundation. Sexuality and spirituality are the primary arenas in which Billy's struggle between the forces of "good" and "evil" unfolds. Having become involved with psychedelic drugs, Billy eventually comes under the influence of a quasi-satanic cult, which Shaw describes as "a carnival-mirror version of the Manson family." Finally, in a state of repentance, Billy turns in the cult leader to the police and becomes a born-again Christian. The story nears its conclusion as Billy takes to the pulpit himself as a newly ordained televangelist.

Shaw's representations of Billy are as unstable and transmogrifying as the character's own psychic condition. We are never given a clear chain of events by which to piece together Billy's story, only scattered clues, which if followed carefully from image to image yield ever-deeper insights into Billy's mind. One will notice, for example, that while Billy is usually recognizable as a rather mundane looking blond figure, he occasionally appears as another character entirely. "He's got a martyr complex," reveals Shaw, "so he can appear as Charlie Brown or Jesus."

Throughout the series, Shaw maintains a meticulous consistency in drawing only upon imagery which Billy himself might have seen or personally created at that specific historical moment, America in the 1960s. Among the vast number of visual sources are 1960s political and psychedelic posters, Peanuts and Dr. Seuss cartoons, the apocryphal Bible, a high school yearbook, rock 'n' roll album covers, Time magazine, the board game Life, and works of art by Magritte, Rauschenberg, and Kline. In the case of one Magritte-like painting, the imagery has been transposed into symbols taken entirely from Jimi Hendrix songs. By combining references to both high and low culture Shaw's series undermines the privileged position of "fine" art. Rather than completely denying the validity of fine art, however, Shaw simply weaves such manifestations into a much broader web in order to indicate the common sources of the symbols which represent our society's collective unconscious.

Although undeniably parodic and humorous in its intent, My Mirage can equally be taken as a serious allegory on the search for the meaning of life, albeit in the artist's words, "with a particular adolescent quality, whereby you search for meaning in rock 'n' roll lyrics." The title of the series itself, "My Mirage," is borrowed from a song by Iron Butterfly, a lesser-known band from the 1960s, which, in the story, is chosen by Billy's cult as a source for "wisdom" and psychic instructions. The song, says Shaw, "is about a guy who had a vision and paints it on the wall for all the beautiful people to come and see. That summed up my feelings about creativity. I'm interested in those fleeting moments of creative realization that can seem so ridiculous that can seem so ridiculous in retrospect. Like, 'Oh my God, the universe is like a molecule, the solar system is like an atom!'"

Shaw's My Mirage resembles the work of a number of other young L.A. artists such as Jeffrey Vallance and Mike Kelley, in which one finds an attempt to articulate a kind of vestigial spirituality through symbols drawn largely from the spiritually bereft arena of American vernacular culture. Billy's alter ego can be found, for example, in Vallance's frozen supermarket chicken, Blinky, for whom Vallance performed and documented an entire funeral ritual, complete with a coffin and a coroner's report citing cause of death. Kelley, who was Shaw's classmate in college and graduate school, has also been concerned with the psychic potency of frequently dismissed imagery such as that found in underground comics or children's toys.

Jim Shaw was born in 1952 in Midland, Michigan. He studied at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and California Institute of the Arts, and now lives and works in Los Angeles.

Lawrence Rinder

MATRIX is supported in part by grants from the Paul L. and Phyllis Wattis Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, The LEF Foundation, and Art Matters Inc.