There’s an aesthetic my brother calls “globby Americana”: imagine roadside attractions of inexpertly rendered fiberglass dinosaurs and knobbly concrete totem poles, yard sale papier-mâché sculptures. Globbiness of form suggests a sloppy-yet-heartfelt artistic perspective, a sincerity so profound it invokes a little disgust. A gustatory equivalent can be found in the mayonnaise- or whipped cream-drenched dishes generously called salads and found on potluck tables across the United States. It’s these aspects of Americana—the wholesome cultural products that verge on the grotesque—that most fascinate the artist Jim Shaw.
Soon after The Marciano Art Foundation opened in Mid-Wilshire—only to permanently close when its staff decided to unionize two years later—it hosted a site-specific solo exhibition by Shaw. The Wig Museum exploited the Foundation’s location in a former Scottish Rite Masonic temple: Shaw incorporated theatrical backdrops, costumes, and other detritus from the fraternal order’s ceremonies among his own original multimedia works. Masonic imagery complements Shaw’s aesthetic preoccupation with the fringes of twentieth century US culture. A 2015 exhibition at New York’s New Museum, Jim Shaw: The End is Here, featured works from Shaw’s extensive collections of naïve thrift store paintings and guileless religious ephemera. In The Wig Museum, giant painted backdrops of pastoral snow-covered woods and kitschy inferno scenes were augmented by surreal standees illustrated by Shaw in his pulpy comic book style. In concert, they formed a muddled landscape of pop cultural and religious iconography as mesmerizing as it was frightening.
I visited the Marciano to see Shaw’s work a few months after moving to Los Angeles for college, at the height of an obsession with the city’s shadowy history of quasi-spiritualism. After leaving the museum, I got lunch at The Apple Pan, a counter-serve diner in West LA. It looks much the same as it did when it opened in 1947, a white-formica-and-tartan-wallpaper memory of the city’s earlier days. The Apple Pan’s egg salad sandwich, which I ordered that afternoon, is served on fluffy white bread and brightened with a stack of shatteringly crunchy iceberg lettuce. Flat toothpicks impale each half of the sandwich and three fat black olives accompany it.
The sandwich was an apt accompaniment to Shaw’s exhibit. They share an almost vulgar, self-indulgent quality—the richness of eggs smothered in their own gloopy byproduct, the campy earnestness of evangelical art. An icon of middle American culinary tradition, the egg salad sandwich evokes paper bag lunches and church picnics. The Church of Jim Shaw may be a formidable temple handing out doomsday tracts, but I imagine there is still a tray of sandwiches at its door.
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