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Artist Jim Shaw’s studio is a dream factory. It’s where images and ideas combine in unnatural and often surreal ways, conjuring visual puns like the smiling visage of Esther Williams superimposed with an image of her lover, actor Jeff Chandler, wearing a gown. A matching piece shows Chandler with a hermaphroditic image of Williams in the pose of Botticelli’s Venus de Milo. Both pieces were inspired by rumors that Williams ended their affair upon learning Chandler was a transvestite.
“I just kind of ended up working with elements of Hollywood,” Shaw says of his new show, Jim Shaw: Thinking the Unthinkable, at Gagosian Beverly Hills from Jan. 12 through Feb. 25. “I’ve been interested in sort of the history, along with politics, of LSD and psychedelics. I came across that Esther Williams had taken LSD, and that led me to reading her autobiography. When she finally took LSD, she had this vision of herself looking naked in the mirror and she saw herself reflected as a male and female figure. She talked about that in the book.”
Cary Grant also plays into Shaw’s new exhibition. Explained Shaw during a tour of his Highland Park studio in November, “Esther Williams had gone to ask Cary Grant for advice [because] Grant was, before Timothy Leary, like the top promoter of LSD.” In one hallucinatory work, Grant is honored with his likeness superimposed over the North by Northwest image of him fleeing not a crop duster but a sea of menstrual blood and baby legs. Some of the works are created on vintage movie backdrops.
Celebrity and surrealism have been aspects of Shaw’s work since he graduated from CalArts in 1978. In those days, he had a job at the Don Post mask factory in the Valley, where he designed likenesses of things like Siamese cats and screaming baboons, as well as such deceased luminaries as Chandler, John F. Kennedy Jr., Marilyn Monroe, Martha Mitchell and others, whom he incorporated into a long-term art project that featured a fictional religion called Oism (inspired by Mormonism and Christian Science).
For many years, Shaw worked on the periphery of Hollywood. One of his early jobs was painting the hippie bus of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters for a 1980 movie called Heart Beat, starring Nick Nolte as Neal Cassady and John Heard as Jack Kerouac. Shaw’s duties on Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life involved fashioning prehistoric creatures for a sequence labeled the Dream of God. Other titles for which he did work (such as animation, airbrushing and prop creation) include Earth Girls Are Easy and A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, as well as scenes for Tron and The Abyss, in addition to TV and ad work.
Shaw, who quit the entertainment industry in the early 1990s, went on to become an artist of international renown, with eight works in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and another 28 at MoMA. He christened L.A’.s now-defunct Marciano Art Foundation with his 2017 installation, “The Wig Museum.”
“I evolved an interest in puns from studying dreams and realizing that a lot of what was in dreams were visual puns,” he says of his process, “and I was off and on reading [philosopher Marshall] McLuhan, and he’s a scholar of [James] Joyce, and a lot of Joyce is just really intense puns. One thing might inspire another. The inspirations come from weird places, bad puns that have sat in my mind for a long time.”
This story first appeared in the Jan. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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