The above picture recreates a scene of Vincent Price at the end of the tale, “The Case of M. Valdemar,” from Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe anthology, TALES OF TERROR (1962). It was done by artist Jim Shaw and is on display right now at the New Museum at 235 Bowery in Manhattan. I remember seeing work by Shaw at the 1991 Whitney Biennial and being really impressed and wanting to see more. I don’t remember the exact works that were featured but they were big, sprawling paintings incorporating lots of pop culture references and conspiracy lore. Right up my alley, I thought. Shaw then dropped off my radar for 24 years until a recent New York Times article and a subsequent review by Ken Johnson alerted me to a show of Shaw’s works, titled “The End Is Here,” at the New Museum, his first American retrospective, so off I went.
Here’s a paragraph from the website’s description of the exhibit:
Over the past thirty years, Shaw has become one of the United States’ most influential and visionary artists, moving between painting, sculpture, and drawing, and building connections between his own psyche and America’s larger political, social, and spiritual histories. Shaw mines his imagery from the cultural refuse of the twentieth century, using comic books, record covers, conspiracy magazines, and obscure religious iconography to produce a portrait of the nation’s subconscious. Although a recognized icon of the Los Angeles art scene since the 1970s, Shaw has never had a comprehensive museum show in New York. This exhibition, which encompasses three floors of the New Museum, reveals the breadth and inventiveness of his art. A comprehensive selection of his works is presented alongside objects from his collections of vernacular art and religious didactic materials.
J. Hoberman, writing in the New York Review of Books, described Shaw’s body of work as “an American vernacular surrealism that might be termed ‘crackpot gothic.’”
Shaw is close in age to me and seems to have watched the same movies and TV shows and read the same comics and magazines I read. He even formed a “post-punk noise band” with other artists and called it Destroy All Monsters, after a famous Godzilla movie.
The cover of Famous Monsters of Filmland represented in this picture is an actual issue that I owned as an adolescent, the only copy of the magazine I ever owned (and still have in a file box somewhere):
And the picture next to it in the display reproduces a shot of a monster from “The Outer Limits” that was included in the pages of that issue:
Later in the exhibit we see Shaw’s own version of a Famous Monsters cover:
Other recognizable entities from our shared childhood and adolescence appear in his works:
And a closer look at this painting…
…reveals two familiar faces (Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant) from Alfred Hitchcock’s NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) and one of the nostrils of Mount Rushmore, which features so prominently in the climax of the film:
And this reference is pointed up by the painting next to it:
None other than Hitchcock himself:
I have to confess I was even more fascinated by a gallery devoted not to works by Shaw but to paintings he collected by buying them up in thrift shops around the country, all by amateur painters.
I can’t find the text describing this collection on the web, so I’ll just show the pictures I took of the wall text at the museum:
Some were portraits, painted with varying degrees of affection:
And a chaotic landscape:
And some very curious still lifes:
And at least one intriguing mix of portrait and still life:
Some were much more surreal:
Some were straight out of the painter’s id:
And some, like Shaw’s work, were inspired to varying degrees by movies and pop culture:
There was a whole room full of these paintings and I could have spent hours going through a whole museum of them.
The gallery next door was filled with dozens of examples of religious paraphernalia, mostly Christian, collected over the years by Shaw but originating mostly from the 1950s through the early 1970s. There were magazines, posters, comic books, record albums, books, 8X10 stills, plus display cases filled with various other items that influenced Shaw, including encyclopedias, pulp magazines and UFO literature.
There was one wall covered in posters that were evidently sold to churches to adorn the walls of youth centers, Sunday School classrooms, and recreation rooms.
Some of these were downright surreal also:
The artwork on some of the publications indicated that many excellent artists found work in this field:
With a little Norman Rockwell influence on display:
Even Basil Wolverton, a celebrated comic book artist of the 1940s, 50s and 60s, ventured into this genre:
While some lesser talents also managed to get their work published:
Comic books with Christian themes were not uncommon:
Some film-related material is there:
The complete run of the Golden Book Encyclopedia is on display. My family had this very same edition:
There’s one whole wall of record album covers:
UFO lore and pulp sci-fi are represented as well (sometimes the two genres overlapped):
This exhibit is on display until January 10, 2016, so if you’re intrigued by these glimpses of Shaw’s art, please visit the museum.
The Last Video Store in Chinatown
After visiting the New Museum on Friday, October 30, 2015, I then walked a few blocks south to 75 Chrystie Street to pay one last visit to a Chinatown video store that was due to close the next day. The store used to be known as Lai Ying when it was located at 89 Bowery, next to the old Music Palace Theater (where I first saw Jackie Chan’s RUMBLE IN THE BRONX and Chow Yun-Fat’s GOD OF GAMBLERS, among many other Hong Kong films). When the Music Palace was torn down in 2008, Lai Ying was forced to move and they wound up reinstituted as P-Tunes on Chrystie Street. I’d been going to this store since 2001, when I first started buying Hong Kong import DVDs, encouraged in no small part by the managerial efficiency of two college kids, cousins Michelle and Paul, working for their uncles, who made the store the most western-friendly in Chinatown. Michelle’s been working full-time elsewhere lately and Paul is in Hong Kong, but the uncles, Peng and Lee, have been keeping the store going all this time. I hadn’t been to the store in a while, mainly because I still have hundreds of DVDs purchased there that I have yet to watch! But when I heard from a friend that the store was closing, I made sure to make one last visit and pick up a few DVDs.
Miraculously, I managed to find a few Shaw Bros. titles I didn’t already have, including the 1970 musical, YOUNG LOVERS (likened on the DVD cover copy to Elvis Presley’s VIVA LAS VEGAS—what’s not to love?). I also picked up a 2010 release that I’d heard good things about—BRUCE LEE, MY BROTHER. Even though I hadn’t been to the store in a while, I will, of course, miss it.
Afterwards, I headed over to Columbus Park to hear music by various neighborhood residents performing Chinese songs remembered from village life in China several decades ago.
I even made this video recording capturing a song and accompanying dance: