You are here

Jim Shaw: Architecture, Page, Dreamspace

Architecture is a weight upon the landscape. Dreams often defy weight, yet in some dreamers—like artist Jim Shaw—architecture often shapes the action taking place in the dream.

Mike Mosher

There are various spaces in Jim Shaw’s oeuvre. In the space between words are images.

There is museumspace, the large show spanning multiple galleries of an institution; there is the single gallery; there is the installation, whether a content-containing walk-through or walk-into, or an assemblage of both two- and three-dimensional elements that spills from, or bangs up next to, a gallery wall.

There is Shaw's cinema space of “The Hole” and “The Whole”, which fits into the philosophical spate of O-sims, a cloud, a faith. Perhaps every religion is a movie. Or is it a film festival?

There is the space of the picture plane, which in Shaw's case, might include the easel-sized canvas, or massive stage sets that are nicely soulfully antiqued, space-establishing scenery, or a collaborative billboard with Mike Kelley, patching Michigan-centric imagery together into a collage that is then turned over to Mexican billboard painters to produce wall-sized.

Architecture is a weight upon the landscape. Dreams often defy weight, yet in some dreamers--like artist Jim Shaw--architecture often shapes the action taking place in the dream. To further our understanding of this complex contemporary artist (born 1952), we can parse Jim's Dreams book for landmarks, as well as any Midland and family references.

There is dreamspace, the imagination. Shaw harnesses this with discipline, direction, resolution. He also is blessed with vivid dreams, which he assiduously documented with detailed pencil drawings. Architecture, bookspace and dreamspace intersect in this intense artist's work.

I. Alden Dow's Straight Line Town

Jim Shaw's friend Mike Kelley--a friendship extending from college in the early 1970s until Kelley's suicide four decades later--once exhibited a Wayne County Child Abuse Report, made out to report painter Hans Hoffman (1880-1966). In this wry conceptual artwork, Kelley expressed his feeling that he was "abused" in the University of Michigan College of Art & Design by Abstract Expressionist Hoffman's deleterious influence upon the professors that taught him; that they failed to teach him the pictorial craft and figurative skills because of their allegiance to non-objective art.

In a similar vein, I want to posit that surrealist Jim Shaw's aesthetic has one root in reaction to the regionally successful modernist architect Alden Dow (1904-1983). William Blake, whose illustrations to his own books Shaw has referenced in recent artworks, said in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell "Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement, are roads of Genius.” It is in a conscious or unconscious reaction to the omnipresent straight lines, tastefully appropriate brick textures and efficient horizontal bands of white in his hometown that Shaw's postmodern population of images emerged. Any fan of Jim Shaw's artwork might look for clues to it in Midland's Alden Dow architecture. One might display a poster for a prize fight, Alden Dow vs. Jim Shaw: Material Dissolves Into Immaterial.

The 1910 Wasmuth publication of midwestern American Frank Lloyd Wright's work in black and white inspired European architects to think of his open-plan houses with flat white surfaces, rather than warm brick. During Alden Dow's schooldays, architects teaching in the Bauhaus and others elsewhere put this aesthetic into practice in the 1920s. Some examples crossed the Atlantic, such as Richard Neutra's Lovell house in Los Angeles (1927-29); in the October 1930 issue of Architectural Forum, Frank Lloyd Wright and Hugh Ferris "Discuss This Modern Architecture". Dow graduated in 1931 (designing a building for the Midland Country Club while still a student), worked for architects in Saginaw then studied and apprenticed briefly with Wright at Taliesin in 1933, and opened his own studio in hometown Midland in 1934. He built 13 houses in the town in the 1930s, and won Diplome de Grand Prix at the 1973 Paris International exposition for one. Much of Dow's work is architecture at its most basic, post and lintel, and combines Wright's love of brick with bands of European architects' flat white.

Alden Dow's work emphasized horizontality in the manner of Wright. Verticals were usually brick chimneys or pillars, in counterpoint with wide brick walls or solid white masses, like a piece of white designers' tape unspooled. Two modes of rationality meet, Prairie-style and Bauhaus midwest modernism. Brick walls below, white lintel above. The white might be lintels, or cantilevered masses and covered walkways in snowy Michigan.

Dow's Midland Center for the Arts' pattern of overlapping circles, tesselation producing eyes at diagonals, Gods'-eye diamonds, metal relief 2' from the wall. Built in 1968, it resembles the patterned housewares or mu-mu dresses of the time. The patterned front makes me wonder if Shaw took LSD before Ann Arbor and University of Michigan in the Fall of 1971. The lower glassed-in entrance and patterned wall is topped by a metal Mansard roof. In the subsequent decade the Mansard roof became a cliché of suburban respectability, as they adorned McDonalds and fast-food rivals. the kind of visual context probably not lost on teenaged Shaw.

When Jim Shaw went to Ann Arbor to Ann Arbor to attend the University of Michigan, where Dow (where Dow had studied engineering before transferring to Columbia for architecture) designed the Public Library (1955), City Hall (1960), familiar designs. Here he could fight that rationality! Entering Ann Arbor from US-23, he would have passed the Ann Arbor Community Center (1958), built in the north end of town for the African American community.

Midland's City Hall and City Services buildings appear to be from the nineteen-seventies or -eighties, more brutalist, yet still brick-brown. I assumed these were from another architect, until learning that what was then Alden B. Dow Associates designed the Fleming Administration Building at University of Michigan (1964, completed in 1968), characterized by small windows (for energy efficiency, not to dispel rock-throwing protesting students, insisted Dow), arranged like a Mondrian painting..

Bricks and whiteness. Might one even draw a political subtext of a white elite atop darker, indifferent-but-disciplined, ordered brickwork?

Alden Dow's modernist architecture fits in with Kennedy-era Ivy League suits, white shirt, skinny ties, "Mad Men" style. The 1950s were a time of high-circulation magazines clogging the mailboxes and coffee tables of American middle-class homes, featuring skilled, stylized and virtuoso illustrators as those who endorsed the Famous Artists' School in which Shaw senior enrolled.

Shaw's show "Entertaining Doubts" at MassMOCA had one small gallery of his father's correspondence school artwork, embarked upon at roughly the time Jim Shaw was a kindergartener. Shaw's grandfather, he told artnet News, was a commercial artist, his father a package designer. Both men also painted watercolors, the elder with better results, he said. Shaw bought a mid-century modern house, either by Dow's firm or a spinoff or contemporary, several years ago. He may have been intending to spend more time with his parents, but his father died. Jim's father provided an example of study of the craft of drawing, with the goal of skillful, serious depiction. An admirer of Jim Shaw's work on the Board of the Midland Center for the Arts proposed to Shaw in 2013 a father-son show that would include the senior artist's traditional landscape paintings. As the Center had reacted to Shaw's 1980s proposal to exhibit his collection of thrift store paintings with befuddlement, Shaw didn't respond to this invitation.

The styles and manners of one's childhood is often a setting for dreams. The role of Midland's built environment, in which Alden Dow has made such a mark (perhaps even defined in Jim Shaw's lifetime) has a crucial role as a setting for anyone's dreams. Shaw, as much as any American surrealist to date, relies abundantly and richly upon his own dreams for inspiration. Clearly (as his friend Mike Kelley did muddily) Jim Shaw seeks to be a virtuoso of his dreams.

II. In Magazines and Books Begin Responsibilities

According to the teaching of the Idealists, the words "live" and "dream" are rigorously synonymous.

—Jorge Luis Borges, "The Zahir", translated by Dudley Fitts, Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, ed. by Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby, Introduction by Wiliam Gibson. 22007, New York, New Directions.

Jim Shaw's Dreams is like Borges' Labyrinths, except citations from Borges' library of books, its classics, obscurities and arcana, are now replaced by child/teenager/student popular culture of the 1960s and 1970s He has said that he hadn't really seen pornography until going to college, hadn't seen the red-blooded girly cheesecake, the bondage and specialty magazines the Blue Front afforded a male customer available in Ann Arbor's Blue Front newsdealer, a dusty corner store around the corner from where he lived as an undergraduate with Mike Kelley. Other images from the bins of Discount Records, a few blocks up state street from that corner, populate Shaw's dreamscape too.

Jim Shaw has been prolific as an artist in the last several years. He has had two major exhibitions in 2015, at Mass MOCA, North Adams MA, and at the New School, New York NY. Yet for those work that ably occupy museumspace—as paintings, drawings, paintings on theatrical backdrops, installations that spill off the wall or demand the viewer walk through or into, sculptures and videos of dancers or marchers—he is also a master of the book. His DREAMS, a carefully illustrated recounting of his rich dreams over several years, is the greatest surrealist work by a living American artist.

An important document in the history of American Surrealism in my own (and Jim Shaw's) lifetime is the special 1981 issue of Cultural Correspondence, guest edited by Franklin Rosemont. In a panoply of short written vignettes, Rosemont appreciated American pop culture—the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, Milt Gross's Yiddish-inflected comic strip Is Dis a System?—as surrealist moments with the depth of any produced by Salvador Dali or Max Ernst. I don't know if Shaw has this, but it has much the same feeling, of finding something uncanny and numinous in the culture flowing and surging through the American aether.

Perhaps my favorite single compact Jim Shaw work is his meticulous gouache painting of a fictitious cover of a volume of the Golden encyclopedia. This was the kind of respectable book that would be found in the home of upright professional people and their family in the early 1960s. This was a staple in a middle-class literate home, what the parent buys books for the college-bound children. Sold in grocery stores, Volume 1 sold for only 99 cents, additional volumes for $2.99 or so. (a sixteen-volume set for about $45).

Circling back from the dream, there is the dream captured (the butterflies pressed and shelved) in the book.

Shaw's previous work has alluded to magazines. His installation "My Mirage" showed at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum was the best installation art I'd ever seen, and my terminal degree is from the Conceptual Design (now Conceptual/Informaion Arts) program at San Francisco State. In one memorable canvas, the installation narrative's protagonist "Billy" appears on the cover of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. Famous Monsters was edited by grinning, mustachioed Forrest J. Ackerman, collector of monster movie memorabilia, and was its leading, most widely circulated and readily available fanzine. Kids' photos appeared on the letters page, captioned “Wanted: More Readers Like” then the kid's hame appearing in large type. Kids photos also appeared in advertisements in comic books, wtih testimonials of those who sold cards or seeds. Elsewhere, text and graphics are in the style of poster and underground comix artist Rick Griffin.

Shaw attentive to the record covers as much as the music, lyrics or liner notes

The Blue Front was the palace of dreams. Shaw discovered pornography there.

One would expect, like so many male art students (or, according to some School of Paris artists' biographies) feeling their art-making powers, at one time or another he tossed his own jism into his paint. Every 20 year old male artist wonders, can I make an artwork that gives a viewer like myself an erection? I myself did some drawings and paintings in college based on found porn, collaged some into artworks, combined it with pencil renderings in Rauschenberg-like transfer drawings, the glossy Playboy page diluted with soapy solvent and rubbed onto white paper.

Jim shaw produced drawings of bondage scenes, and some were published in his art gang's Destroy All Monsters magazine.

III. His Dreambook

Didn't medieval saints keep journals of dreams?

I will share my own initiative for interest in my contemporary Jim Shaw's dreams. When I was in Dartmouth College, Spring of my junior year, I had a very vivid dream. It featured Amy and Michelle, two women I knew by name as art students, but weren't friends in my social circle. In my dream, I was with them in a car about ten miles south of my college, and we were listening to a Buddy Holly song. I wrote it down in my sketchbook, something I'd never done before, yet it seemed so portentous.

In a new class at the beginning of Fall semester, the Professor announced we'd go to see art galleries in Boston, two hours south, and should find rides. Amy offered a ride to me and to Michelle. As we passed the intersection in my dream, we were all cheerfully singing along to...Linda Ronstadt's cover of Buddy Holly's "That'll Be the Day". From that time, I have faithfully written down my dreams each morning, and have at least fifty volumes of them covering the past forty years.

Dreams are important.

But in Dreams by Jim Shaw, published by Smart Art Press, vol. 1 no. 8 @1995, 2008, each night's dream is not just a few lines of text like mine, but richly delineated pictorial of all its imagery. Shaw draws with the responsibility of a police artist faithful to a witness's description. Shaw's father took a correspondence course in drawing in the 1950s; drawing skills are valued by scientists and engineers.

The book is unpaginated. At the end, is the following biography and information: "Jim Shaw lives in Los Angeles with his wife Marnie Weber and their dogs Tom and Daisy and a cat Sparkle. The dreams are from 1987 thru 1995, drawn in 1993, 1994 and 1995."

In the original, the dream descriptions are all in upper case, which add a monotony to the narrative. Here are a selection of architectural, spatial and environmental motifs from the first half of the book, the first fifty pages or so.

Some houses are notable, though the scene changes to activity within or without.

The gay proprietor said he lived in a Japanese-styled house with pointy banisters that you could poke your eyes out on and that it was important to smash through the paper walls sometimes...Then I was making an L.A. subway map out of modeling clay...Then I was on the subway...

Sometimes they are set in Midland.

I also looked at a photo album shot in the '40s of a guy breaking into an English-style mansion in Midland where some of my 'My Mirage' pieces were hanging.

A woman architect in Midland designed a friend's house with built-in stave chairs in high windows surrounding a circular center pillar with a spiral staircase. The upstairs bedroom was outdoors and the architect forgot how cold it could get, so the bed needed a dome of blankets that looked like an antique baby carriage.

I dreamed of Beth wearing a Marie Antoinette wig leaning on a tree outside her apartment in Midland but she said the landlord would never allow us to put the fake tree into the parking lot because the building was too old.

I went to downtown Midland where my mother worked in a non-existent three-story building where Sue Spaid was showing silver reflective pieces that mirrored the gallery's doors and windows."..."Now it was part of a large department store..." "I took an escalator out of the basement...

I was crawling by the garage at my folks' old house & noticed the lawn was now all sand, but as I crawled across it I noticed more and more grass until, in some wet spots, it was badly in need of mowing. Eventually, behind the garage, it was a deep pond & my father and I were rowing on it..." As this dream progresses, behind a Cologne art dealer's home "it was like a warehouse/airport...they were making a soft trailer version of a famous house.

Sometimes they are set in the house he shares with his wife Marnie Weber, another artist, and Shaw may be at work on the property.

I was dismantling a half-scaled brick, thick-walled craftsman house into the form of the letter 'E' when an obnoxious collector came by to look at the piece.

We were at our new house which was now like a walled estate with cement logs in the swimming pool.

I was visiting my old junior college where a 20-story hotel had been tacked on, A terraced hillside had been turned into a mall of boutiques & cafes.

In fhe foyer of my cheesy apartment/hotel...In my apartment, I see the manager has opened up the doors and windows against my wishes, leaving the place open to robbery. I wander through open doors to neighboring apartment owned by a collector, who has slides of art projected on the walls instead of artwork hanging on them.

I was searching thru a civil war-era office building for some expected public figure...I'm decoding a Roman pillar which has ads for antique junk foods and a picture of an aqueduct which I visualize building in our new front yard.

Architecture can transform, first as a residence of his parents, then his friend, then anonymous.

I was cleaning my parents' floor...In the same hallway, which was now Mike's modern house...The museum had set up shelves of salt shakers and candles which he hadn't made...We were in a compound of houses which included one cave-like, underground house...After going to a run-down movie theatre...

First I was going to work at a special effects building. I started my car with the door key. I was in this institutional building with black plastic walls that seemed to breathe...There was a carpeted ramp you could slide down...I went to see Morrissey but the curtain slowly opened to reveal a set of suburban living room with children lying face down in a circle with blankets over their heads.

In a tall hallway in an effects house, a former boss had constructed towers of chrome half-circles on poles with lights reflecting off them. they had plaques with theory explaining them & some had cafeteria trays on them.

Linda & I were in Germany at a big survey show I was in & had just found out about. Someone had made a string of kitschy animal pillows that curved around fromone area to another & I thought 'What hath Mike wrought?' We found the area where my stuff was through a giant square door that looked like an Artschwager but also a fingerprint. Inside was a club...then I almost fell down the hotel stairs cuz they were slanted & oily.

I'm at Art Center where they have installed parts of their collection on the walls and in the floor where you might trip on its indented areas...They run file footage of [Sean] Connery waving goodbye to his violin teachr on his back patio...Then I'm driving to a modern San Diego insane the parking garage...

Sometimes a building is both peculiar, and an art exhibition space.

In San Francisco, to get out of the rain, we ducked through a basement, which housed a peculiar apartment that looked like a tube inding in a mouth, with a woman dentist holding a mirror up to it. We went to a second door to continue our walk...In the wood-paneled side room of a photography gallery,...The walls had a leftover ornamental pattern painted in red, with missing rectangles where paintings had hung. In an art diner, Mike Kelley's 1st and only high school art prize was installed in a clear plexi stool back...

I'm watching cartoon titles set in a ruined city...I was lying on a locker room floor...I was illustrating the first dream which included a shiny purple shag rug section and green hooked rug of Charlie Brown. The burned-out city had 'Spirit' [comic strip] like building letters [pictured: GER in bricks, MAN thinner, and GIRL italicized]. We wanted to go in the back way to an east coast museum...

The recurrence of Dow-like spaces, plus others institutionally-defined (art galleries), is notable.

Rather than Midland, the setting might be a nondescript Midland-like city.

Mike & Marnie & I were in a small midwestern city and I wanted a shot of a red light on a WPA railroad underpass. Inside it was a Christian Science reading room with a Deco metal entrance sign that said "Foetal" or "Privilege.

IV. Summary and Postscripts:

Shaw is a builder, not a destroyer. He assembles images in paint, in cinema, in drawings. Many of the drawings are containers, machines for dreaming, shelters for the soul and psyche at its rawest and most naked. Like a cotton candy machine, his rotations spin into confections, and those sweetly sour-umami confections are surprisingly nourishing.

a) Midland has produced another notable surrealist, collagist Erin Case, whose work is exhibited regionally (Counter Culture in Saginaw recently appointed her Curator of Artwork), internationally (Saatchi collection), and is also available on homewares like pillow cases and shower curtains.

b) The firm that the notable architect founded, Dow Howell Gilmore Associates, passed to his associate Jim Howell upon Dow's retirement in the 1970s, closed in the past decade's Recession. Wikipedia's Alden B. Dow entry includes an external link to takes one to a Chinese site whose only English is an offer to sell the domain name.

The Museum of Contemporary Art in Yinchuan looks like an Alden Dow building twisted by a willful giant child.

c) My own only other instance of clairvoyance beside the one noted at the beginning of this section, I had several dreams (about the same mid-1990s time as Shaw's in Dreams) set in a place I called "faux Ann Arbor", a midwestern city with early 20th century houses comparable to Ann Arbor's old west side.

Shortly after moving to Bay Ctiy, MI in 2000, about 22 miles from Mildand, I crossed a railroad track on Wenona Street and realized yes, this is the old town in my dreams.

Mike Mosher is Professor, Art/Communication Media Administration at Saginaw Valley State University, Michigan 48710. Photo of the author viewing Shaw's "Entertaining Doubts", Mass MOCA © Chrysanthe Mosher 2015. Midland Center for the Arts Photo from

In 1997, Mosher exhibited "Flight Paths: Imagistic Hypertexts of Space/Flight/Silicon" in Mountain View, CA.
In 2016 he exhibited "Meter-Reader: Voltage, Amperage, Knowledge" in University Center, MI.

This work has been supported by a 2015 Special Collections Research Travel Grant, Saginaw Valley State University.

Copyright © Mike Mosher. All rights reserved.