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ART : The Night Watchman : Comic books, Oprah and Freud come together in Jim Shaw's drawings of his mind's nocturnal wanderings. Fear and insecurity are at the heart of his work.

January 08, 1995|Kristine McKenna | Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar. and

"There are lots of celebrities in the dreams, which is peculiar. Why should Oprah show up in my dream when I don't watch her show? Actually, my answer to that question is that I've come to believe that my subconscious works in a sort of shape-similarity, pun manner. Things come up in dreams simply because they look or sound like something that's significant to me. The subconscious is nothing more than a network of puns that's slightly out of sync."

That Shaw should devote this kind of effort to decoding his dreams isn't surprising--he is, after all, a product of the Freudian '50s, born in Midland, Mich., in 1952.

"My mother was a medical transcriber, and my father was a package designer who then became a CPA," he says. "My grandfather was a commercial artist, and I was one of those kids who drew all the time--nonetheless, my father thought I should be a jet pilot or an insurance salesman because he thought I couldn't make a living as an artist.

"I wasn't beaten, and my parents weren't politically conservative, but every middle-class person grew up with restrictions," says Shaw, the youngest child and only boy among four children. "I was forbidden to read things like monster comics, for instance, and I suppose my attraction to low culture is to an extent a rejection of how I grew up."

After finishing high school in 1970--a stint dominated by an interest in psychedelia, Pop art and underground comics--Shaw enrolled at Cooper Union in Manhattan, then scotched that plan after a one-day trip to New York.

"In my last year of high school I listened to the Velvet Underground a lot and had this fantasy of New York, but when I visited there I realized I couldn't face it," he says. "I didn't know anybody in the city, and the prospect of living in this place I thought was filled with drug addicts was scary as hell."

After returning home, Shaw spent 18 months at two local colleges before enrolling as an art major at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1972. There he met artist Mike Kelley, who shared his interest in popular culture and came to be his closest friend.

"The thing that drew me to Jim was what he looked like," says Kelley, laughing at the memory. "I was looking for other freaks, and he was the king of the freaks. His hair was this big fuzzy ball. And he was the most outrageous dresser--he'd wear old ladies' stretch pants and dirty-old-man flasher coats, and he had these boots that had been made into feet. He also had a coat he'd altered so it had a hump in the back, and he'd sewn a little boy's coat to the hump.

"I got into art through my interest in the radical underground, and I was surprised when I got to art school and discovered that wasn't most other people's interest and that they just wanted to make pretty paintings. Jim was like me, and, believe me, our circle of people was very small. . . .

"When we met, Jim was doing real ugly gestural paintings that incorporated advertising imagery from the '40s and '50s. Technically he was very good, but most of the teachers couldn't put up with his perversities, so he was kind of an outcast at school."

Recalls Shaw: "Early on in art school I made purposefully offensive work, but I finally realized you can't offend the art world anymore. We experienced a lot of weird stuff in the '60s, and at this point we're like car mechanics who aren't surprised when a car leaks oil. There's still lots of weird stuff going on, but we've seen it all."

By the time Shaw graduated with his bachelor of fine arts in 1974, he wanted to wash his hands of art altogether:

"I said, 'I'm not gonna make art--painting's dead,' and Mike and I formed a band. We were pretty good at clearing a room," he says of Destroy All Monsters, the subject of a three-CD anthology recently compiled by Kelley that's available on the Ecstatic Peace! label. Combining elements of German experimental music of the '70s, free jazz, trance music and industrial white noise, Destroy All Monsters occupied the bulk of Shaw's time until 1976, when he moved to Los Angeles to attend CalArts.

"I was initially interested in CalArts because great experimental films were coming out of the school in the mid-'70s. I've always been interested in special effects and supported myself off and on for the past 15 years doing special effects for movies," says Shaw, who lived in Sylmar with Kelley while he was in school.

"Oddly enough, however, I didn't end up taking film classes at CalArts. What I got from being there that was valuable was being exposed to teachers like Laurie Anderson, John Baldessari and Jonathan Borofsky, who were all practicing artists--I saw for the first time that it was possible to have a career in art."

Shaw still wasn't convinced, however, and when he graduated with a master of fine arts in 1978, he had his sights set on Hollywood.

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