Jim Shaw Pokes Fun at ‘Great America’

The Maze, 2020, acrylic on muslin, 89 × 114 cm. Courtesy Simon Lee Gallery, London & Hong Kong

Donald Trump makes an appearance twice in this exhibition, timed to coincide with the US presidential election and its contentious aftermath. In The Master Mason (all works 2020), we see him among members of his Cabinet in a pastiche of eighteenth-century caricature: the president in tight blue britches, being served a head on a platter (probably Barack Obama’s, but it’s hard to tell); and Donald and Melania Trump descending the escalator into the 9th circle of hell reserved for traitors frozen in a sea of ice is a satirical rendition – this time parodying Gustave Doré’s illustrations of Dante’s Inferno – of the much-publicised scene preceding his announcement that he would run in the 2016 election.

It is clear, however, that the whole show is about Trump, or Trumpism, a term we may be hearing more often now that the man himself has been voted out of office and, despite the ensuing malarkey, Joe Biden has been sworn in. The rest of the exhibition, in a manner typical of the artist whose work has often incorporated midcentury American memorabilia, makes fun of the ‘Great America’ myth (notoriously propagated by the Trump campaign’s slogan), taking images from 1950s advertisements and tying them to contemporary or recent political circumstances.

Because nothing is more absurd than the real thing, it is hard to exaggerate Trump’s outlandishness to humorous effect. When we try, we are in danger of overlooking the dark reality lurking beneath the hairdo – a reality that took a turn for the darker when he unfoundedly accused the Democrats of election fraud when things weren’t going his way, not to mention when he incited his more fanatical supporters to storm the United States Capitol. This is why Alec Baldwin’s (worryingly) realistic imitation of Trump is acclaimed and Spitting Image’s grotesque caricature is not. It is also why Shaw’s esotericism is more confusing than funny, let alone subversive. The throwback to Eduardo Paolozzi-esque counter-consumerist visual tropes is meant to be seen in relation to Trump’s resurrection of outmoded ideologies. But there is also something regressive, even defeatist, about it, as if Shaw –unintentionally – were giving credence to Trump’s word. Put simply, by employing devices of the past, the artist too steps back in time, backhandedly condoning Trump’s reactionary rhetoric, when Trumpism, whatever has happened, whatever will happen, is very much a problem of today.

Jim Shaw: Hope Against Hope was on view at Simon Lee Gallery, London, 20 October – 16 January

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