Portraits of Artists 09

Conversation with Jim Shaw

Benjamin Weissman: Jim, will you tell us about your show in New York?

Jim Shaw: OK. Well, I built a fake log cabin there that was inspired by a Saturday night when I was making artwork, and I realized I had nothing in my life except the making of art. And I just stood in front of a mirror and started making faces. I tried to figure out some way to make art out of that, of course. And I decided that, since it was an exhibition, a trait of cabin fever that make these faces, the interior of a log cabin would make sense. So I constructed this cardboard, like a children's play cabin, and the inside is 294 gold-framed photographs of me making faces like this. (makes faces) I ran out of them after about 150, but they are like variations on a form. Should I keep going? (makes more faces) Anyway, that's one of the pieces. It's just another one of those workaholic kind of things.

BW: Do you want to talk about this obsession with working?

JS: Well, I think it comes from having a feeling like because you're essentially worthless, you have to prove your worth all the time. I mean, my father was a workaholic, so maybe it's just an inherited trait. But I think it's because of your basic "Drama of the Gifted Child" set-up of attempting to gain conditional love by being perfect all the time. And perfectionism being a trait of self-hatred, and narcissism being a trait of self-hatred. And the title of the log-cabin piece was "Black Narcissus". I was trying to find movie titles that went along with these pieces, and that's a movie about nuns who go stir-crazy in a Himalayan ex-house of joy. And they weren't artists, but at that point in my life, I might as well have been a nun. And it's related to a horror-vacui, in that I feel basically, covering all the bases, keeping all the white space filled. It's a way of not being attacked. If I can draw things as perfectly as possible, if I can conceptualize things as perfectly as possible, if everything ties up in a neat bundle, then it's an unattackable, unassailable condition, because the stuff is maybe too close to the core of my being. And if it's criticized, even if it's like, ridiculously, even if it's William Wilson's criticism, it still hurts very badly. And that's one reason I don't usually do performance art, because I just can't get up there and face that level of rejection. And that's one reason I didn't have a gallery for a long time, because I just wouldn't go to galleries and then get rejected. It was too depressing. Even if I didn't want to be in the gallery. So I work all the time, and I enjoy it. I mean, there are two parts to the working – there's the inspiration and then there's the making of the art. And the inspiration is the greatest part. It's like drug activity in the brain – you get an idea and you start going, "Oh, yeah", and then you get more ideas, and you sort them out, and then you come up with an idea for the piece. And then you make the piece, which has its own enjoyable aspects. Like drawing things to "perfection" is an enjoyable thing. It gives me a feeling of a little more control over the universe, since it's obviously not a controllable thing at all. A function of insecurity and anal retentiveness. But I'm trying to introduce other, scarier things into the work. More tastelessness, even more, and yet again more tastelessness than has already been exhibited.

BW: It's not like you have an attraction to mainstream things, but I think that you like a certain thing that's right down the middle in a way, even though what you're, the area you're involved in is real strange, you want it, it's something that can be graspable.

JS: But there's also something, like there was one scene where you had the realtor masturbating. And I decided to put it off-camera, so to speak. And that's just something where, I mean I claimed at the time it was because that wouldn't happen in the EC horror comic, but I think it was just, I feel like I kind of have to respect my own self-censorship. In another piece I did a Tom of Finland style "Crucifixion of Jesus", and I could have had Jesus getting fucked by centurions. But instead I had the centurions about to go have sex while Jesus is suffering on the cross, and it just wasn't what I would have done, the other way was not what I would have done. There's just, you know, caution in my personality. And I've tried, at first I felt bad about that, and now I just try to kind of respect it. Because, I mean, I'm not you, I'm not Mike (Kelley), I don't, I mean I just don't do those things.

BW: So, are you really a conservative underneath?

JS: I'm middle-class, I mean I was brought up middle-class. And, much as I'll rebel against that, it's part of my core, I think. I'm not, I mean, I keep thinking well, like after my parents die, maybe I'll do this pornographic art, because I have some ideas for. actually, art, leave the "art" out. Just do pornography. Because, I think, I really respect the ability to give someone an erection or arouse someone. That's like something that art isn't supposed to do, even if it engages in pornography, it's supposed to be distanced from it. And that's why I respect Tom of Finland, because he does so well this arousal thing. You know. And that's a very invasive thing. It gets inside your mind, in a way goes behind your censor. And engages it in sort of a different way. But, you know, it's something about the presence of my parents on earth, unless I was working under a pseudonym, I just would have a hard time doing that. I wanted to do a DC-comics story where Superman has been rendered incontinent, incapable of motion by Kryptonite, and that Batman and Wonderwoman are being forced to masturbate him as part of – they have these convoluted plots. And then it turns out, in reality, they were pretending to be masturbating him, or they weren't pretending, they weren't actually sexually aroused. They were using it to kill the alien, who was using the Kryptonite to keep Superman prone, because they knew his ejaculation would be like something harder than steel and would be like a bullet. Cause that's the way their stories always were. And that would be pornography. Or I wanted to do a think about the Pillsbury Dough Boy and the Hamburger Helper Helping Hand having sex with people, and then Speedy Alka-Seltzer kind of fizzes into an orgasm at the end. Do a little film. But, I haven't done those things.

BW: So you have a great respect for your parents being alive, and in some way .

JS: I don't know if it's respect . fear.

BW: But they are in some way controlling the art you make. Not really controlling .

JS: I mean they're in my head.

BW: Yeah. I think that it's sweet that you respect them like that. My parents always assume that everything I do will embarrass them.

JS: Especially when they're reading it.

BW: Yeah. So it's just a given.

JS: I mean in public, like that performance that your Mom did? Was she like mortified, or did she just .

BW: She said, "I will not read the part about having anal sex." And my father stood in the background kind of wondering when the conversation would end. And I told my Mom, "Well, I'm paying you, you know. This is a professional job." And then she said, "OK", because she's an actress. And then she did it. And when she hit those lines about anal sex, she really started getting into them more and more, and my father in the background was, you know, getting more and more uncomfortable. That was kind of nice. And it was really very spooky. Because they were stories that were directly related to her and me. But I wasn't out to get them, it just works out that way. OK. So the next question is the irritating phrase "Bad Boy". No other way to put it, but to throw the stupid phrase at you and ask you what that's about? In the world, or related to you, and just in general?

JS: Well, I myself was a Cub Scout, and I never once skipped a day of school. I mean, I really was not a delinquent. I was very much a good boy. I rebelled in the most tiny ways, which was enough. I mean, in reality, I was regarded as the second biggest threat in my high school. And the first biggest threat was a rich kid who drove a Harley and sold drugs and one day went berserk and ran screaming, flayling against the lockers in the high school. And all I ever did was write things. I was just totally in the realm of theory, as high school kids go. So, in reality I see myself as, unfortunately, a very, very good boy. And I'm very interested in pleasing those parents that live in my head, I guess. But I know some people who might genuinely be classified as "bad boys" and maybe you're one of them. I don't know.

BW: Well, what would the difference be then? What would a bad boy do?

JS: Well, I mean, like Mike (Kelley) broke stuff up. He was, relatively speaking, a delinquent. A very intelligent delinquent, but, I mean, he really did the "bad boy" things as a boy, which I did not. I repressed all that stuff.

BW: More like an artist.

JS: Right. Well, OK, I'm just starting from the roots. But, like I said, I didn't have Jesus getting butt-fucked, I didn't even have the centurions not even doing that yet. I had Superman getting butt-fucked by Lex Luthor. But even that was covered up by a piece of paper, so. However, by art-world standards, I guess I could be considered a "bad boy", which is kind of pathetic. It's like, if that's bad, then .

(Vienna, November 1992)