Jim Shaw Transforms a Former Masonic Temple into a Postmodern Hellscape
By: Sola Agustsson
One can’t help but think of the current political climate when looking at Jim Shaw’s apocalyptic installation The Wig Museum, one of two inaugural exhibitions at the new Marciano Art Foundation in Central LA. The Scottish Rite Freemasons, the previous owners of the building, left behind an eclectic collection of set designs, paintings, wigs, and costumes they used in their rituals. These artifacts were perfect materials for Shaw, whose work has explored religion, the occult, and the esoteric for three decades, often using found materials from thrift stores.
Jim Shaw: The Wig Museum is the artist’s first major solo exhibition in Los Angeles, where he has lived for the last thirty years. Originally coming out of the Detroit-based Destroy All Monsters, an art collective and band formed with Mike Kelley, Ron Asheton, and Niagara, Shaw interrogates pop culture and late capitalism using biblical imagery, particularly from the Book of Revelations. This new immersive installation combines murals, sculptures, and drawings that reverberate his earlier themes, and re-contextualize materials from the Scottish Masonic temple.
The Wig Museum incorporates figures and symbols also featured in Shaw’s concurrent LA solo at Blum & Poe. Many paintings exhibited at the gallery reappear as black-and-white cutouts at The Wig Museum installation. A hairy creature tortures a leonine superhero in Nebuchadnezzar in Abu Ghraib (2017), which references the longest-reigning king of Babylon, as well as the American occupation in Iraq and use of torture. The Wig Museum reflects on an Anglo-Saxon power that is coming to an end, and in appropriating the wigs and using the hairy figure—a literal walking wig—as a symbol for that power, Shaw depicts the hairpiece-wearing masonry with an ironic eye. The Queen of England is reimagined as Anima Sola, a “lonely soul” trapped in purgatory, in one painting—the Old World elite, rather than the American elite, seem to be more of the target in this series. However, The Wretched Refuse (2017) also depicts Donald Trump amidst a sea of popes wearing alligator heads, taking note of the current “wig-wearer” in power. Additionally, Blum & Poe features Shaw’s more abstract “Chaos” series, dark drawings of figures tangled in what looks like human hair—or perhaps a pit of flames.
Wearing wigs has been a marker of status and wealth in Anglo-Saxon culture for centuries, especially in secret societies. The Scottish Rite Masonry mandated that wigs be worn during all meetings and staged elaborate performances starring the all-male cast donning a variety of ornate headgear. At the Marciano Collection, a small room dedicated to the wigs formerly worn by the Scottish Masonry highlights the performative nature of the act of wig-wearing. They are reimagined in bright, glam-rock styles, with names like Maelstrom and Galaxy, again mixing high and low brow, performativity with the esoteric.
There are also distinctive Los Angeles elements to the installation: a film strip cutout frames the main mural’s hell pit, Old Hollywood-style signs hover around the “Wig Museum,” and spotlights color the walls. There is a cinematic layer to the installation, which creates a sense of self-awareness the Masonry lacked in their pageantry. Biblical symbols—a three-headed snake, an angel, and a devil— are painted over landscape backdrops, and a colossal waterslide leads to a painting of heaven. The expansive room would dwarf most art installations, but Shaw’s immersive dystopia appropriately fills the auditorium that once sat up to 2,000 Freemasons for their operas and plays. In fitting with the mood of the Freemasons, Shaw’s exhibition blurs the line between entertainment and ritual in politics and power, exposing the extravagance of the Anglo-Saxon elite while still retaining the mystery in its mythology.