Mr. Madonna: An Interview With Chris Shaw

On May 16, 2013, in News, by Ben Marks
Madonna of the Particle, 2013

Madonna of the Par­ti­cle, 2013

Before the San Fran­cisco Museum of Mod­ern Art shut­ters its South of Mar­ket loca­tion for three years, dur­ing which it will spend almost half a bil­lion dol­lars to more than dou­ble its size for the Doris and Don­ald Fisher Col­lec­tion, the museum’s restau­rant on Third Street closes out its more mod­est exhi­bi­tion pro­gram with nine acrylic-on-canvas paint­ings by Chris Shaw, on view through June 3, 2013.

Shaw has used his swan-song time slot to present a series of vividly col­ored Madon­nas, each based on Madon­nas by such 15th cen­tury artists as Bellini, Bot­ti­celli, and Ambro­gio de Pre­dis. For Shaw, the Madonna is just another pro­pa­ganda icon, a ves­sel to be filled up with what­ever one is try­ing to sell. In Shaw’s case, his Madon­nas have set aside the Christ Child for a Kalish­nikov, a bot­tle of Colt 45, and an orange squid, whose man­tle resem­bles the Pope’s peaked mitre and grop­ing ten­ta­cles sug­gest a fallen priest’s rest­less reach.

While the Madonna with the Kalash­nikov and the one wear­ing a sui­cide bomb vest are the most obvi­ous pokes in the eye of devout Chris­tians, Shaw’s most sub­ver­sive paint­ings may be his Madon­nas of Sci­ence. One holds a mag­net, another peers through a micro­scope, and a third cra­dles an armil­lary sphere, Shaw’s rep­re­sen­ta­tion of what we think we might know about dark mat­ter. And of course there’s a Madonna “hold­ing” a Higgs-Boson par­ti­cle, in which the son of God gets the heave-ho for the newly dis­cov­ered God particle.

On Sat­ur­day May 3rd, 2013, Ben Marks of Col­lec­tor­sWeekly spoke with Chris Shaw in his Oak­land stu­dio about his Madonnas.


Madonna of the Mag­net, 2013

TRPS: So, gotta ask, were you raised Catholic?

Shaw: I was not. I wasn’t actu­ally raised in any par­tic­u­lar reli­gion. I guess if there was a fam­ily reli­gion, we were Uni­tar­i­ans, but that basi­cally meant we went to the Christ­mas ser­vice, Easter, and that was kind of about it. But I know the sto­ries. I grew up in the north end of Boston and I would see the Ital­ian parades, and they’d have the Madon­nas with the money. Some of those themes have car­ried into my work, so I know there is some of that influ­ence com­ing back. It’s not per­sonal or even spir­i­tual. The Madon­nas become a vehi­cle to express an idea.

TRPS: So they’re sim­i­lar to any other icon?

Shaw: They’re almost sim­i­lar to any other icon. I like the idea behind that, that basi­cally icons can sup­port every idea imag­in­able. A lot of times, when I get crit­i­cism around some of the Madon­nas, peo­ple are like, ‘how can you por­tray Jesus as a mag­net,’ or ‘how can you put a bot­tle of malt liquor on this? These things have sacred mean­ings.’ I actu­ally know my icons pretty well. They’re this evolv­ing story that has changed from the begin­ning of Chris­tian­ity to where we are now. You had these heavy Masonic Madon­nas and icons from before the Masons and the Catholic church split up. Right now they would be com­pletely sac­ri­le­gious, but back then they were woven together. The sym­bols change, peo­ple change, and the sto­ries change.

TRPS: In South Amer­ica, the Madonna is a much dif­fer­ent sym­bol than it is in the United States.

Shaw: Yeah, in East­ern Europe, too. They give it a whole dif­fer­ent slant. I think that’s super inter­est­ing. Mostly, I guess, I really like the Madon­nas because every­body has their own twist on them. The ortho­dox ones all have this very unique style, which I love to adapt, and I also really like the Ital­ian ones and the West­ern Euro­pean ones. Everybody’s got their version.

Madonna of the Microscope, 2013

Madonna of the Micro­scope, 2013

TRPS: The Madon­nas in the show have an almost Mid­dle Ages look to them as opposed to High Renaissance.

Shaw: Actu­ally, they’re a lit­tle bit of both. The three large ones, the “Madonna of the Micro­scope,” the “Madonna of Evo­lu­tion,” and the “Madonna of the Mag­net” were all appro­pri­ated poses. The one that’s maybe the most rec­og­niz­able would be the “Madonna of the Micro­scope,” which was a Bot­ti­celli. It was a Madonna and Child. One of the things I love about Renais­sance art and par­tic­u­larly Ital­ian Renais­sance art is the depth of geom­e­try that goes into them. They do a great job of round­ing every­thing out and tak­ing it away. That’s a pretty big influ­ence on me.

TRPS: What do you mean by round­ing out and tak­ing away?

Shaw: Well, they tend to obfus­cate the foun­da­tional frame­work, which is very angu­lar. They use curves and shad­ing and color to dis­guise the under­ly­ing struc­ture. A lot of times, the under­ly­ing foun­da­tion of those Renais­sance paint­ings was very sym­bolic and com­pletely tied to sacred geo­met­ri­cal con­cepts that carry their own story, if you know how to read them.

Madonna of Dark Matter, 2013

Madonna of Dark Mat­ter, 2013

TRPS: When you were paint­ing your Madon­nas, did you start with the foun­da­tional geometry?

Shaw: Gen­er­ally, yeah. I built them up in the same way. The ortho­dox icons are about the most uncre­ative thing you can imag­ine. They’re com­pletely for­mula. You can prob­a­bly go buy a book that’ll tell you step by step how to make one. But I like that idea. It’s a very non-art idea, but I like tak­ing that non-art idea and then twist­ing it, mov­ing the arms around, switch­ing it up. The old mas­ters changed the cen­tral pieces, but I try to build from the bot­tom up in a geo­met­ric way to recon­fig­ure the image right down to its root, to give it a new foundation.

TRPS: There is this push and pull in your work between schol­ar­ship and its rejection.

Shaw: Well, yeah. I carry a cer­tain chip on my shoul­der for what­ever rea­son about def­i­n­i­tions. When I was at the Cal­i­for­nia Col­lege of Arts and Crafts, we took a lot of art his­tory classes. You learn about all this reli­gious art, but your work is sup­posed to be about your ideas, art for art’s sake in the mod­ern world. But I like reli­gious art. It’s pure pro­pa­ganda. It’s for­mu­laic. It’s non-original. A lot of times peo­ple think the color palette is really bad because the col­ors are all very sym­bolic, too. They’re put together for a dif­fer­ent rea­son than color har­mony. So in a lot of ways, reli­gious iconog­ra­phy breaks almost all the aes­thetic rules of mod­ern art. That might be another rea­son why I choose them. I like to push this reli­gious pro­pa­ganda from back in the day into its mod­ern equiv­a­lent that is maybe based a lit­tle bit on con­cept and my influ­ences. I guess I’m more influ­enced by the Berni­nis the Bot­ti­cel­lis the Belli­nis, all the B guys in Italy, than I am by some of the bet­ter con­cep­tual artists of today.

TRPS: Let’s start with the Madonna hold­ing the God par­ti­cle as opposed to the son of God.

Shaw: That one was about as straight­for­ward as they get. Some of them actu­ally go quite a few lay­ers deeper in terms of the dif­fer­ent types of metaphors that I put into the piece. But yeah, the God par­ti­cle. I had to do it. How could I not make that?

I’m kind of a nat­ural shin kicker, always have been. Com­ing out of an art-school back­ground where the abstract and the con­cep­tual is the high­est thing, I just nat­u­rally want to say no to that. As a poster maker, I’m sup­posed to make images that are sup­posed to affect peo­ple. White on white is not going to help me get my point across.

Madonna of Evolution (Simian Vanitas), 2013

Madonna of Evo­lu­tion (Simian Van­i­tas), 2013

TRPS: And posters are sup­posed to be functional.

Shaw: Yes, they have this actual func­tion, they’re not art for art’s sake. They have a pur­pose. Icons have a pur­pose, too, to com­mu­ni­cate and get things across. That’s why I choose them.

TRPS: We’ve talked about the God par­ti­cle. Tell me a bit about the magnet.

Shaw: I’m a huge fan of magnets.

TRPS: So, uh, you’re attracted to them?

Shaw: Yeah, I’m attracted to mag­nets. I love mag­nets in all ways. I wish I could say that paint­ing was more metaphor­i­cal, but that one’s almost… it’s not a self-portrait but it’s a self-portrait of a lot of things I care about. The actual paint I used was all cop­per or iron-based only. A mag­net will stick to the paint­ing. Any­way, I had to do some­thing with the mag­net because it’s been a project of mine for a few years, to try to develop mag­netic paint, which I’ve done it, but I haven’t been able to do it cheaply enough. Any­way, the curves in that piece, they’re all based on mag­netic flux curves.

TRPS: So, the poten­tial sym­bol­ism of a mag­net tak­ing the place of the baby Jesus, that’s like the far­thest thing from your mind?

Shaw: That’s almost the far­thest thing from my mind, yeah. If you’re a born-again Chris­t­ian, it’ll piss you off because it’s almost sac­ri­le­gious, but that’s really not what it’s about. I used the Madonna to hold the things that I chose to com­ment on. She’s lit­er­ally the ves­sel to hold these ideas, as she was with Jesus. She’s my icon.

Madonna of the 40oz., 2010

Madonna of the 40oz., 2010

TRPS: To hear you describe it, it’s almost a benign piece.

Shaw: It’s super benign, but it’s also one of the ones that bugs peo­ple out the most. The older piece that’s in the show, the “Madonna of the 40oz.” is another that really annoys peo­ple. How­ever, that’s about the deep­est paint­ing I’ve ever made, and again, it’s obfus­cated. It’s kind of turned into a car­toon in a way, but I was shot at in my cor­ner store at point-blank range, and the guy missed. It hap­pened the day after the Rod­ney King thing; it was wrong place, wrong time. I had bought my friend a 40oz, walked up to the counter, dude that stood next to me pulled out a gun, pulled the trig­ger, and missed. And so that piece is all about going to the cor­ner store and meet­ing your maker.

TRPS: What hap­pened after the guy missed?

Shaw: I dove into the chips and he took another shot at me. The guy behind the counter dove under­neath the counter. The guy grabbed my eight bucks, or what­ever, and my beer and the rest of the money from the cash reg­is­ter, and ran out the back door. I went home, smoked a joint, went back over there and made my police statement.

Bad Religion and Madonna by Chris Shaw

Left: Bad Reli­gion screen print, 2010. Right: Madonna of the Sui­cide Vest, 2012.

TRPS: You used the “Madonna of the Sui­cide Vest” for a Bad Reli­gion poster. How did the “Madonna of the Squid” become a Soundgar­den poster?

Shaw: That was about neces­sity. Chuck and I were going to make these Soundgar­den posters for Fox Oak­land. I had been work­ing on an image with a squid but it was going south on me. I drew it like nine dif­fer­ent ways but didn’t like it. And then I was like, well, I could put it in a Madonna. I had painted all these Madon­nas who weren’t hold­ing any­thing yet. It’s like what­ever they were going to hold, I had them on ice. So I incor­po­rated the squid into it and I was like, that works. It was exactly what I needed. It was almost too easy. It’s also about the most reli­giously sub­ver­sive paint­ing I’ve made.

TRPS: How so?

Shaw: It’s all about the pope. It’s all about the pope and the pope is the mon­ster. The shape of the squid’s body is the same as the pope’s hat. Peo­ple started fig­ur­ing that one out.

Soundgarden and Madonna by Chris Shaw

Left: Soundgar­den screen print, 2013. Right: Madonna of the Squid, 2013.

TRPS: As an artist, if you use Madon­nas in a series of paint­ings, you have to be pre­pared for the fact that there are peo­ple for whom that image means spe­cific things and will never mean any­thing else.

Shaw: It’ll never mean any­thing else. I get off the BART train some­times and there’s a Fil­ipino guy there sell­ing news­pa­pers. Under­neath his lit­tle desk-cart thing, he has a shrine of the Madonna. And every time I walk by I go to check it out. He keeps it up and moves it around and stuff. My inten­tion is not to piss that guy off. I actu­ally really like what he’s doing. I think that’s cool. I just don’t think that we’re going to be singing on the same page about this stuff. We could argue it all after­noon and it’s not going to mat­ter. So it’s not really a jab at him as much as it’s more of an explo­ration for me. That’s a tough dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion for some peo­ple to make.

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