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In Conversation: Jim Shaw

In an extract from the Magnificent Obsessions catalogue, artist Jim Shaw talks to curator Lydia Yee about this collecting habits from the first paintings he bought to the strange thrift store findings…

Lydia Yee: What sorts of things do you collect, and how long have you been collecting?

Jim Shaw: When I was a kid I collected comic books and monster magazines, and maybe some baseball cards. As a teenager I had friends who would go to the thrift stores in neighbouring towns and I started collecting weird stuff: old clothes, strange objects I’d find. It was the late 1960s or early 1970s, and you could still buy stuff from the 1930s and 1940s back then. And for me it was always a sort of archaeological or paleontological dig growing up. You know, when you’re going to somebody’s yard sale you’re imagining their life history as you look at the things they are selling. You’re spelunking through people’s subconscious.

The first painting I got was this four-by-six-foot painting on Masonite based on an ad for Breck shampoo, which was always a sort of an out-of-date looking blonde, really creamily painted, surprisingly out of touch with the present of the 1960s. And it was weird that this person did a clunky version of that already clunky thing, and did it so big. I don’t think they were intending it to be Pop art, or they would have painted it more precisely.

LY: When you’re at a flea market or thrift store and you’re faced with a selection of paintings, how do you choose – what draws you to the particular works?

JS: Well, the weirder the better. And that’s why there’s so many surrealist paintings in there. At a certain point you’ve got enough messed-up portraits – they have to be fucked up in a new way if you want any more portraits. There aren’t that many abstractions, because it’s quite hard to find an abstraction that’s interesting but, you know, amateur. I’ve found some, but they’re not loaded with the same psychosexual subtext that a painting of a little kid is, or a broken heart over a Dalíesque landscape.

LY: Do you set any criteria?

JS: I’m not interested in Grandma Moses kinds of things. I’m interested in things that point up the underbelly of America. Interestingly, there are some places in America where the thrift stores don’t seem to have any paintings, like in the real western areas, where everybody has hardscrabble lives. You need enough people with time on their hands… I found a lot of strange stuff in Utah. They have these wonderful Deseret Industries thrift stores that are just chock full of stuff because it’s part of their sort of non-governmental socialism to help families that have ten kids find a way to survive out in the boondocks.

‘All the unknown painters that painted the thrift store paintings are the actual painters of the paintings’

LY: How have some of the thrift store paintings come to influence your work?

JS: Well, the first one I bought, I did my own painting that was the same scale, of this weird ceramic rabbit that I had that kind of looked phallic and evil. And I did a series of ‘Oist’ thrift store paintings that were by me and other people who worked for me, and had to be done by a lot of different people in order to not look like the work of one person. Although I’m quite capable of doing crude drawings, I tend to just rework them until they look right. And I think that’s a subconscious influence on my own work, that because I’m known for having put together this collection of thrift store paintings, one of the hallmarks is that things aren’t right – you know, like the nose might be out of place or something like that – so then I have to be sure that things are right in my work.

LY: Do you have a role as an author in relation to the material you collect and exhibit?

JS: I just see myself as the curator or collector of the work. I’m not the author. All the unknown painters that painted the thrift store paintings are the actual painters of the paintings. It’s interesting to think about how they got there. One painting was of a beautiful blonde and there was this surrealist landscape underneath her, but in ballpoint pen there was a moustache drawn on her and it had been sort of graffitied and it had been curled up like it was thrown in a trashcan. So you wonder what the circumstances were: was this given to the beautiful girl and then she drew on it, or did she reject the guy and he did all this stuff in retaliation against her? I don’t know. There are a few canvases that looked like someone’s attacked them with a knife. That brings to mind all kinds of scenarios.

The full interview is featured in the illustrated exhibition catalogue, available to buy online for the special exhibition price of £33.95 (inc P&P).


The Magnificent Obsessions catalogue was designed by Fraser Muggeridge studio and includes an introductory essay by curator Lydia Yee, texts and interviews with the collectors and more than 200 photographs.