By John Paul Stapleton
North Adams, Mass. – In one of the biggest exhibitions Mass MoCA has ever installed, Jim Shaw’s multi-faceted talents and wide range of mediums come together in “Entertaining Doubts,” his biggest exhibition to date.
The Los Angeles-based artist has taken over multiple galleries within the museum with his 115 pieces including backdrop paintings, video art, sculpture and even furniture.
The whole exhibit teeters on the line of irony while still having a serious message within each piece such as with the ‘70s mom-styled wig on a tank crashing through a brick shopping mall wall in “Delilah.”
The main attraction of the exhibit was his work with Superman as the subject, such as his huge installation “Not Since Superman Died,” which takes up a high ceiling room in the museum where strips of his backdrop are arranged throughout showing different stages of the Icarus-like fall of Superman.
Throughout the exhibit, works depicting Superman as mythological or a deity in this way are common and point to the importance of the figure to Shaw and to anyone consuming popular media in the 1970s and ‘80s. These works highlight Superman’s real world power as a cultural icon despite being fictional but also the fallibility of figures that are built up in this way.
Shaw made use of Superman’s crotch in “The Issue of my Loins” that from far away, seems like a humorous full wall painting of the hero’s underwear. On the adjacent walls, lining the walk to this piece, are works Shaw had found from his father’s days of mail-in art school classes with grades and comments from teachers in red ink. As one approaches the wall, they notice that the black and white painting is actually a cut out of the crotch set against a black room behind it. Once up close, the various colors of the glowing kryptonite crystals are visible revealing the weakness contained within that piece, fitting well with the comments on his father’s setbacks in his craft that fill the walls.
Superman isn’t Shaw’s only reoccurring subject though, as wigs pop up all over the exhibition not just in the aforementioned “Delilah.” The first room of the exhibit houses many of his huge backdrops that are all very normal school play scenes with his odd ideas plastered within it.
“The Rinse Cycle” is a regular desert scene, flooded with floating ‘70s wigs and a cube of water that simulates the inside of a washing machine while it is running. Contemporary with these hairstyles was media portrayal of women in housewife roles, doing the laundry and cleaning. Shaw’s desert background puts this cycle in perspective as dry and even trapping while still having the ironic humor that comes with throwing a bunch of wigs into flight.
The hair doesn’t stop there, as the exhibit includes many wigs that Shaw has created himself. His elemental wig series takes up a room in the gallery where they are displayed on their respective wig forms across from four vintage televisions looping videos of models wearing the wigs and dancing. The dances are all supposed to represent the motions of fire, water, earth and air just as the wigs take on the element’s aesthetic qualities.
This huge exhibit does not get boring by any means no matter how far you venture. His work ranges across so many mediums and is just as humorous and well executed across the board. Shaw’s fascination with ‘70s culture gives a nostalgic sense to his work, but also holds up to through the years providing insight on how media of that time effected their generation and every generation since.
Having started its over eight month run at the end of March, “Entertaining Doubts” will close at Mass MoCa in January, giving everyone a chance to make the trek through before it closes.
(“Jim Shaw: Entertaining Doubts” continues through January 2016 at Mass MoCA, 1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams, Mass. For more information, call (413) 662-2111.)