Jim Shaw, “The Hidden World”

December 7th, 2013 – , .
Published in artforum.com.

The current exhibition at the Chalet Society—a project by former Palais de Tokyo director Marc-Olivier Wahler—familiarizes visitors with the Californian artist Jim Shaw, or more precisely, with his main source of inspiration: a compulsive collection of strange didactic material sourced from secret societies, fraternities, cults, religious sects, New Age movements, conspiracies, medical encyclopedias, and the like.

With “The Hidden World,” for which he was given carte blanche, the artist—known for working with everything from painting to performance—has created a breathtaking and expansive journey through the myths and beliefs of America. His collection of books, T-shirts, posters, banners, and postcards, even videos of people burning in hell, are displayed in a casual fashion—on small, old-fashioned monitors, or as photocopies pinned to the unpainted walls—befitting the material: most often found objects with visible signs of wear and tear. This presentation highlights Shaw’s hands-on attitude toward his collection. Here is material to be used, not simply revered, whether it’s a painting of a cross that also registers as a bridge over troubled water, an instructional image depicting a Mormon baptism, or a Scientology pamphlet showing the three stages of the game of life according to the movement’s ideology: beingness, doingness, havingness. The one-thousand-square-meter abandoned school that currently houses the Chalet Society couldn’t have been a better match for this didactic collection-as-installation.

If the Chalet Society was founded in part to search for “poetic consciousness,” in the words of Saul Wahl Katzenellenbogen, who apocryphally reigned as king of Poland, and who serves as an inspiration of sorts for Wahler’s project, this exhibition imparts an acute sense of that quest. It evokes the never-ending struggle of humanity with profound and existential questions related to living, dying, and morality, whose answers both confuse and elude us—and it plumbs our often-bizarre strategies for coping with these conundrums.