The Silliness of Nonidentity: Jim Shaw’s The End Is Here at the New Museum

America is weird. Its suburbs alienate intelligent, eccentric, or alternative minded people simply because they can’t launch a football, or tackle, or fight. Years of this belittling, isolating, pushing people to the fringes of the social order, does something to a person. That’s why in this country there are such strong underground counter cultural movements, from the hippies and punks to something far more interesting — cults. Jim Shaw, in his first major survey exhibition in New York City at the New Museum, The End Is Here, examines all this and more.

He’s the kind of artist that looks at America through a microscope, and what he sees through the lens looks like a fun house — a beautiful, nauseating, disturbing mess. He then takes this mess and organizes it into a fascinating collage, a study of what we’ve been, are, and never were, of what we could only be in our dreams. The End Is Here shows us what we’re capable of — and most of the times, this is shocking.

Shaw is the artist for the bored and intelligent who rot away in the American suburbs, who turn to comic books and fantasy to escape the reality that is the desired conformity of the small American town. This exhibit, aptly located downtown on the Bowery at probably New York’s most progressive and ultra-hip museum, will speak to anyone who counted the seconds until they could get out of that piece-of-shit town, all the while reading Allen Ginsberg or watching John Waters and David Lynch films and thinking, “Someone finally gets me.”

Someone does get you. And their message to you is this: get out of there. Run away from that oppressive town and never go back. Do like Shaw did — leave, and let your passion and work be your ticket and your guide. Shaw abandoned his native Michigan for California Institute of the Arts in the early 1970’s and has made Los Angeles his home ever since. He was an influential member of the LA art scene, and his work has travelled all around the world, to Paris, Denmark, Bordeaux, Luxembourg, and England, amongst many other places, and now back to New York City.

Jim Shaw’s imagination in The End Is Here occupies floors 2–4 of the New Museum. Through his theatrical backdrops, paintings, drawings, thrift store collectibles, sculptures, and even a film depicting the religion he invented called “O-Ism,” Shaw clearly shows a mastery of style, which is lovable and charming, yet grotesque and smutty. Perhaps most impressive is Shaw’s ability to not only work within many mediums, but also within vastly different scales — he has remarkable skill in producing an evocative 6×6 pornographic drawing, and also in a 30×20 foot magical and fantastic tapestry. He can produce an object that will fill a room, or have a tiny, shocking image that will shake you to your center. His body of work is so large, so complex and detailed, that it is virtually impossible to digest The End Is Here in a single viewing.

Certainly the treasure of this exhibit is his theatrical cutouts on the fourth floor entitled, Labryinth, I Dreamt I Was Taller than Jonathan Borofsky, which is where Shaw’s imagination, comedic flare, artistic skill, political seriousness, craftsmanship and showmanship are all on full force. This installation is a vast expanse of images which depict carnival performers, futuristic superheroes and landscapes amidst iconic historical and cultural figures including: Richard Nixon and the Watergate Scandal, Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, Detroit rioters and Parisian protestors, and Casper the Friendly Ghost — his work employs collage, comic book fantasy, political satire, all in evocative yet gorgeous images that never sacrifice the composition and design of the art for its ideas. The work is suggestive, and the opinions are there, yet they remain subtle and subtextual. Walking through The End Is Here, I never felt the sense that Shaw sought for me to feel this way or that way — there was no intended message. Instead, he does something far better, and more skillful: he succeeds in creating a surreal world that you are free to inhabit, rather than feeling restricted to his vision.

And the work is intensely fun. It plays with the grotesque, creating villainous sea creatures, a skyscraper-tall vacuum cleaner that sucks up 1860’s Gold Rush land prospectors, mythical creatures and giant bugs, aliens having sex, and creepy small-town America sentimentality. In every room there exists an element of discomfort, and even of violence and danger, yet through the exhibit’s organization, there also remains the assertion that our horrible treatment of one another, in capitalism and our collective greed, in our laughing at and exploiting the little guy, in our perverse and exploitative sexuality — is hilarious. Jim Shaw shows that no subject matter is beyond ridicule. Everything and everyone can be mocked — especially cults, politicians, and the rich.

I know I said that there’s no one idea Shaw intends for you to get out of this, but get this: America is longing for an identity. America is longing for a place. We are begging for community, and we go to the strangest lengths to reach it.