If you weren’t familiar with the work of the American artist Jim Shaw, it wouldn’t take you long to figure out who he won’t be voting for in next week’s Presidential election. His monochrome silkscreen print, above, is entitled Donald and Melania Trump descending the escalator into the 9th circle of hell reserved for traitors frozen in a sea of ice. It’s what it says on the tin, typical of the biting wit that Shaw unleashes in this marvellous exhibition of new works at London’s Simon Lee Gallery, his first here for four years.
If there’s a slight problem with this show, it’s that it is choc full of American political and historical references that will be less familiar to those of us on this side of the pond. Among those ‘traitors’ with whom Mr and Mrs Trump are poised to become fellow bathers are former aides John Bolton, Michael Cohen and Mitch McConnell. Satan, on the right, is represented not with three heads but as three vanity mirrors. You hardly need know the names though to get the message.
In fact, Trump looms large in this show, literally. His supercilious, self-satisfied smile greets you as you enter the gallery in a big painting in which he is depicted as the Master Mason with the all-seeing Masonic eye positioned above him. The painting is based on a mural from The George Washington Masonic National Memorial Hall.
Washington and his courtiers have been substituted by Trump and his ‘enabling sycophants’, people like Mike Pence, Kelly Anne Conway and Steve Bannon. Stephen Miller presents him with the head of an illegal alien, while on a pole in the middle right background sits the head of Albert Pike, the ‘grand wizard’ of the Masonic movements in America and who was rumoured to be the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. Trump’s three wives look on from the sidelines.
In addition to the political, the surreal and the fantastical, Jim Shaw’s oeuvre has been populated with the grotesque, often in the form of comic book figures like Jimmie Olsen from the DC Comic series who could transform his body into any shape or size. Growing up with three older sisters in relative isolation in Michigan, Shaw found what he called “masculine release” in comic books.
In the painting above, Jimmie confronts the Goddess of Reason that failing French Revolutionaries created as their figurehead for a new atheistic religion to replace Catholicism. His gigantic tooth has been extracted and his brain has escaped his body, somehow morphing into the cartoon hero Popeye. Jimmie Olsen is a recurrent figure in the show, appearing as a giant turtle monster attacking San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and in another work in which he is possessed by the helmet of hate.
There are more subtle satirical references too. The ‘50s housewife, another habitual Shaw motif, gazes adoringly at her automatic washing machine, a totem of the American Dream and, in this instance, a Pandora’s Box. Opening it releases all manner of demons as well as emblems of hope. There’s Hope Hicks, for example, one of Trump’s PR team, appropriate perhaps as part of his ‘spin cycle’. Bob Hope is there along with Barack Obama’s ‘Hope’ poster for his 2008 Presidential campaign. Hope against Hope. The Ancient Greeks saw hope as an evil that encouraged deluded humans to suffer in the hope that things would improve.
There’s the eerie and the threatening in the show too. Downstairs, there’s a wonderful but disturbing portrait of Dr Teller, the father of the H-Bomb whose hair dissolves into a mushroom cloud. There’s a self-portrait with Shaw as Uncle Sam in top-hat, beckoning the viewer into his world of sin and precariousness.
There are 3-dimensional works in the exhibition too. The red contraption you see above is actually mounted on the painting behind and supports three genuine wigs. Shaw has often commented on the way hair is used as a power symbol, not least by the present incumbent of the White House. This work’s title, though, refers to the amount a building project must legally devote to works of art in California and New York. Shaw objects to the fact that so often the funds go to single major works by such as Anthony Caro or Mark di Suvero (whose works are often red) and which act as ostentatious symbols of wealth and power. Shaw would rather see the money directed to smaller art groups who need it. You can see the picture also as a jibe at the inequalities of American capitalism.
Hope Against Hope incorporates so much that this prolific artist is inspired by – advertisements, comic books, newspaper cuttings, alternate realities, fantasy, horror – all alongside a keen knowledge of history, literature and current political events. The exhibition reflects a time when the social and political turbulence in America appears to be at an all-time high. It’s what makes it so focused and poignant.
Hope Against Hope is showing at Simon Lee Gallery, 12 Berkeley St, Mayfair, London W1J 8DT until 16 January 2021.
All images are courtesy of the artist and gallery.