Seemingly drawn from a reflection in a carnival fun house mirror, Jim Shaw’s Untitled belongs to the artist’s series of Distorted Faces that features painted and drawn portraits that wrench and twist the features of celebrities, politicians, art world friends and anonymous people into their monstrous doubles. With his punk-influenced, post-Pop sensibilities, Shaw has mined the outskirts and underbelly of American popular culture found in comic books, conspiracy theory, album covers, thrift store paintings and religious propaganda in search of the core of the nation’s psyche for the past forty years.
When he began the Distorted Faces series in the late 1970s, Shaw looked to the Beatnik author William Burroughs, who himself was inspired by the poet Tristan Tzara and other Dadaists of 1920s France to create what he called a “cut-up technique,” a process that involved taking a narrative text and reassembling its component parts so that they read out of linear order. Such literary initiatives in collaging text inspired Shaw to mix and morph individual components of the faces in his portraits. With a surprisingly delicate touch and an incredible attention to detail, such as the taste buds on the tongue set within her open mouth, Shaw has rendered the misshapen contours of the woman’s face through a feat of imagination. Her elongated right eye slithers from socket to cheek to sit alongside the wrinkles in the tautly stretched skin around her chin.
Beyond Burroughs and Dada, Shaw also drew inspiration from the material relics of a childhood spent in the working class Midwest and professional experience working on the special effects of horror films. In an interview, he recalled this memory: “My cousin introduced me to monster magazines [such as Famous Monsters of Filmland] and comic books....None of the stores in my hometown carried them. So I had to surreptitiously go along with my sisters when they bought clothes in Saginaw, Michigan. I didn’t realize how big an influence they were until I did my book of distorted faces, and I realized it looked like a group of Famous Monsters covers” (D. Harvey, “Jim Shaw’s Real Mirage: a Partial Inventory,” Afterall: a Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry 19, 2008, p. 102-103).
The artist would use this same drawing method in his Noir series for which he would depict stock Hollywood character types under cinematic lighting in a way to intensify the emotion conveyed. Made concurrently with the Distorted Faces, the Noir portraits test the performance of archetypal emotions from the cultural imaginary, while the artist’s aim with the Distorted Faces was to see if “there was anything left of a personality when decomposed and mixed with another face” (J. Shaw, “Here Comes Everybody: A Conversation Between Jim Shaw and Mike Kelley,” Jim Shaw: Everything Must Go, Luxembourg, 1999, n.p.). Curator and critic Alison Gingeras described the Distorted Faces portraits as “recycling the eccentric flotsam of middle America.” Continuing, she writes, “Uninhibited by the constraints of naturalism or conventional logic—thanks in large measure to his propensity for associative thinking—it is only natural that Shaw’s approach to portraiture would revel in what most would consider misrepresentation… aptly reflect[ing] his general life ethos, “to understand the meaning of life through misinterpretation” (A. Gingeras, “Misrepresented: The Portraiture of Jim Shaw,” Jim Shaw: Distorted Faces & Portraits, 1978-2007, Zurich, 2007, n.p.). In this way, Untitled is part of a compendium of images and objects that contribute to Shaw’s larger project of constructing a portrait of American culture.