Since his graduation from Cal Arts in the mid-70s the near-legendary multi-disciplinary artist Jim Shaw has founded his own fictional religion, gathered a huge collection of outsider art from the flotsam and jetsam of American society, shocked conservative morals with decapitated sculptures of spiritual icons and dreamed comic books into life that explore practically every perversion imaginable. His major retrospective at BALTIC this month promises to be a comprehensive leap into his profoundly surreal psyche, opening a window wide on the psychology of a self-confessed all-American suburban weirdo. He has been prolific in his output of conservative-baiting work for nigh-on 30 years, creating characters such as Billy in his psychedelic and sexually perverse My Mirage series, lampooning the likes of DC and Marvel, and hosting exhibitions of bizarre thrift store art that have been revered and reviled in equal measure. In this exclusive interview, the artist and founding member of seminal proto-punk anarchists Destroy All Monsters (with his friend and peer the late-Mike Kelley) talks to AnOther about DMT, the beauty he finds in complexity and the reasons why getting it wrong can sometimes make you right.
How have your concerns as an artist changed since the early part of your career and what has remained the same?
What drives me now? Some of the same things, I guess. The weird thing is that if you don't have a career then you are not driven in the same way as when you do have a career. It's not just you in your room making art – it's you plus other people that are dependent on you, and there is a weird sort of effect that that has. I mean, I have two more comic books that I want to do that relate to the prog rock opera I want to do, but at the moment I can't take time out from making more commercially accessible work to do the comics, because they take a couple of months of energy and there is a certain amount of expense involved in them, and the opera has a lot of expense involved in it. My methodology involves me sitting there making marks for long periods of time, so if I stop doing that for couple of months to record and write an opera then nothing has happened, in as far as there being art to show or make a living from.
Did you envision yourself as a successful artist as a young man?
I guess if I had ever positioned myself in the past it was never to be a a Salvador Dali or Picasso, it was more to be a Robert Crumb – in that he had created an entire new genre of art and was the master of it – or maybe Clovis Trouille, because he refused to sell his art and continued to work as a janitor all his life. That kind of fitted with my self-image as an undergraduate but, of course, you can't really afford to live your whole life as a janitor in Los Angeles. As someone who discovered art through the public library it was always a goal of mine to produce books, so in that sense I guess someone like Ed Ruscha could have been a model to look at. I have always been interested in the notion that what exists in reality and has a certain scale has to carry its weight in its reproduction in print. I feel if they can't stand up in both mediums then it's like you've failed.
"I have always been interested in the notion that what exists in reality and has a certain scale has to carry its weight in its reproduction in print"
You have always cited your dreams as your key inspiration - why is dreamtime so fundamental for you in the creation of art?
The vast majority of dreams are anxiety related, but every now and again you will get some sort of a visionary dream. I truly believe that dreams and DMT are basically the same substance, and that you are accessing the same thing through different things – meditation, drugs… I have got to the point where I can access that same state just through listening to this mechanical device called a HoloSync but I think you can get apps for the iPhone that are supposed to do the same thing. It works best for me if I have a problem to solve – if I have a partial idea for a piece. It doesn't work so well if I have no idea yet.
Do you believe you are tuning into some kind of deeper reality in those states, beyond the world of samsara?
The Gnostics say you have to transcend all of the sensuality of the world and get to that place of pure light, and maybe that is true, but I find myself revelling in the world of iridescent tessellation that comes upon you in a really intense dream. There's a joy to just the pure amount of detail, which is one of the reasons I am using the Banyan Tree repeatedly at the moment, or making heavily detailed drawings of the surface of the skin. there is something fascinating about that riot of existence The world is fabulous place, so to transcend it one hundred per cent doesn't sound that interesting. It tends to be the gnarled aspects of the human psyche that are interesting, and in many ways the gnarled roots of a tree are more interesting than the parts that are reaching up to the heavens. There's a beauty in complexity.
"If you have a really strong desire to be president then there has to be something wrong with you"
What fulfils you about exploring quite violent perversions in your art?
That's a very good question. I don't know if I can answer it. I've got my own perversions I suppose, and there's a certain delight in screwing things up in the world, but I'm not like James O'Keefe, I don't want to go around losing people their jobs by throwing light on some sort of perversity. I just find the perversions interesting. I mean, I know some very intelligent people, and I'm not a genius psychologist but I can see where their insanities lie. I can see where my own insanities lie. I mean everybody has got insanities. Take the president. If you have a really strong desire to be president then there has to be something wrong with you.
What do you hope a viewer will take from this retrospective?
It's always subjective and random to some degree. I don't think the artists can have complete control of what is communicated no matter how hard they try. I remember reading an interview between Eno and Bowie and they were talking about Chris Burden. These are two very intelligent people who know something about art and they were getting the wrong image of what Burden had done when he had had himself nailed to a Volkswagen. I mean, they were seeing it as this sort of lurid act rather than a private, ritualistic thing. So even though it was a completely controlled event he couldn't control the way people interpreted it, and sometimes those misinterpretations are very interesting. I guess that is part of the miracle of life.
Jim Shaw: The Rinse Cycle is on display at BALTIC from November 9 - February 17, 2013.
Text by John-Paul Pryor