Thom Shaw (d. 2010), False Arrest (1997), Ink on Paper
Postcard size is 5.5 inches x 8.5 inches, color printed on vellum paper. Back includes artist information and exhibition title.
Written by DANIEL BROWN (INDEPENDENT ART ADVISOR CURATOR, CRITIC, LECTURER, COLLECTOR)
Thom Shaw (d. 2010) is part muckraker, part commentator on visual and popular culture, part art historian, part didacticist and polemicist. He’s also a consummate craftsman, autobiographer, narrator and, when he chooses to be, witticist. Shaw has, for decades, been the great explicator of the violence of urban black life to a mostly white art audience. He succeeds so brilliantly not to titillate a prominent middle class pruriently looking through the window of the poor, but because he hybridizes his woodcut figures in a manner that has the strength, the timelessness and the eclectic genius of Picasso. Thom Shaw is as serious and ambitious an artist as we know.
If Picasso borrowed what was formerly called “primitivism” from African (and Iberian) masks and sculpture and integrated their reductionist, abstracted qualities into his art, then Thom Shaw does the exact opposite, building from African and American Cubist stylizations into and through European, particularly German, Expressionism (which also portrayed popular demimondaine culture as narrative backdrop). As you see the Kathe Kollwitz in Thom Shaw, you understand the incredibly fine line between high and low art, or high and popular culture, in Shaw. Black inner city life is a demimonde, too, frequently found fascinating by both rich and bohemian/liberal whites. German Expressionism comes close to explicating the horrors of contemporary inner city life. Woodcut, a medium in which Shaw is peerless, exaggerates the stylized qualities of abstracted Expressionism; a Shaw figure may appear down and out, yet regal, iconic, totemic concurrently.
Another section of Shaw’s newer work examines Thugs, and their female equivalents or victims. He suggests that the inner cities are currently more, not less, violent. Faces sometimes look like they come from Picasso’s Guernica. The rich, deep blacks of Shaw’s ink contrast starkly with the pure whites of his paper. These technical masteries offer all his figures and his narrative a larger-than-life sense of grandness, an exaggerated emphasis on scale just as Kollwitz’s do.
“Artwork can be controversial,” [Thom Shaw] once said, “but we, artists, are ambassadors of truth, ambassadors of the human experience. We try to make sense of a world gone astray, and thus have an impact on people whether we intend it or not.”