In 1973 the art critic of the Cincinnati Post wrote that Thom Shaw “a young Cincinnatian, Art Academy trained, is possessed of a powerful line and sense of balance within his works.” An exhibition of Shaw’s black and white masonite block prints was at the Miller Gallery, then on Edwards Road. I was the art critic.

As it happened, my career veered in another direction although Shaw’s never wavered, but in the 1990s, back in journalism, I was assigned to review another of his shows. “You may not remember me,” I said, when he joined me so that I might take an early look at the exhibition, “but we’ve met before.”

“Remember you? Of course I remember you. Look at this,” and he pulled from his wallet a faded, folded, dog-eared copy of that review. “You were the first person to write about me for print. I’ve carried this ever since.”

I would write about Shaw again, in the next decade or so, as his art only got stronger. He was the African-American to break the color line for living artists at the Cincinnati Art Museum, he was the Taft Museum of Art Duncanson Artist in Residence, he showed widely here in Cincinnati and elsewhere..All this comes back to mind with the exhibition at Art Beyond Boundaries, Remembering Thom, on view through November 18. Shaw died on July 6, 2010, at the age of 63, from complications of diabetes and heart disease.

A series of paintings never shown in the artist’s lifetime is central to the exhibition, put in context with original drawings and woodcuts from throughout his career. The paintings, dating from 1999 to 2007, are the last creative surge of an artist whose physical problems became spurs to his art and whose personal trials were transformed to those of humanity at large. The line is still powerful and the sense of balance remains.

The paintings, in scale unlike what we’ve seen before from Shaw, are large, powerful and carried out in sophisticated (that is, not the usual) flat colors that can make a pastel aggressive. Case in point is Poverty’s Paradise: Emma’s Blues Beat, in which a purple woman is set off by turquoise that is anything but delicate.  (Note: dates are not available for all works.)

Turquoise turns up again in Self Portrait: Eating the Heart Out of Isms and Schisms (2002). It colors both a  figure and the table at which he is (voraciously) dining. Behind him are the torsos of two waiters, portrayed in red and black, and a single yellow note fixes all this in place. This yellow dart, point down, is positioned at top of the canvas directly above the turquoise figure’s head. In Shaw’s work every inch counts toward the sum total.

These paintings are insistent on our attention. They tell us all is not right with the world, that danger exists, ditto inequality. It is Shaw’s particular ability to extrapolate a wider meaning from his own experiences, perhaps most fully seen in Self Portrait: Temporary Custody (2001). A diabetic like Shaw has intimate knowledge of needles, as do drug addicts, and death is not necessarily a distant figure for any of them. In this work, at 72 by 96 inches the largest in the show, the central figure, colored a tortured purple, sits at a table littered with needles while Death, temporarily detained, is roped to a chair. Shaw has given the purple figure, like all those representing himself, an exposed heart, ventricles bulging and arteries protruding. There’s also an alarm clock, kind of a cocky, cartoon-ish alarm clock, while behind the man stand two protective women whom we see only from below the shoulders. So, are we talking about Thom Shaw here, or a particular layer of society with problems of its own?

His Malcolm X Paradox series surfaces here more than once, particularly gripping in a two-section work from 2000 in which a body with four bullet holes, wearing pants in low-waisted prison style, is splayed against a street in the panel at right and the chalk marks around it, body removed, appear at left. In another, from 2002, subtitled Human Bomb, a fire-red figure has a gun and a cluster of explosives. The series, carried out in various mediums, marks the gulf between Shaw’s understanding of Malcolm X’s legacy and its interpretation on the streets.

New works here are painterly, brush strokes evident, the black line that is Shaw’s signature in everything from drawings to prints to oil paintings fully evoked. Each painting includes its own, painted-on frame, usually in white but sometimes other colors, four or five inches rimming each edge.  The effect is much the same as that of the newly re-framed André Derain Bridge at Le Pecq (1904-5) at the Cincinnati Art Museum. That work now has a flat, white-painted wood frame of similar width to Shaw’s faux frames, following Derain’s own statement of what he thought appropriate for the picture. Derain’s work, like Shaw’s, is strongly colored and features insistent line.

Although this artist can be seen (wrongly) as the central subject of his art – in his art, he represents, in the end, all of us, – Thom Shaw seems to have been an intensely private man. I understand his family is of Caribbean origin rather than African, and that he grew up as the oldest child in a large, working-class family in the Cumminsville-Fairmount area of Cincinnati. The streets there were benign compared to those his art would reflect, but daily news of our war-torn world suggests that the gang struggles he recorded are microcosms of international jockeying for power. Shaw’s powerful works give the viewer a heady range of food for thought.

– Jane Durrell


3 Responses

  1. I have a piece (Large 60″ by 77″ by Thom it’s mixed medium and was done some time ago wondering if I can find out more about this peice I’m from Birmingham Mi grew up in Detroit Feel free to call Marty 248=642-7494

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