There is an image that the French typically have of the United States, sometimes it’s subconscious, sometimes it’s explicit. It often informs their view of America and Americans, and it usually involves elements of the following: religion, New York, huge smiles, guns, big cars, Los Angeles, pleasantness, the west, smiles, the death penalty, religion, evangelism, money, loud voices, early dinners.
Here in Paris, a big exhibit just opened last night of the American artist Jim Shaw that deliciously reinforces many of these images of the U.S.—that’ll give Parisians that wonderfully comforting sensation when reality actually conforms to your pre-conceived idea of it.
The exhibit is called “The Hidden World,” and it’s an assemblage of stuff gathered by the L.A.-based artist famous for his collections of American thrift store junk and bad amateur paintings. Evidently, in recent years, he’s been interested in the cultures and subcultures of American religion, and the show includes official Mormon church photos from the 80’s of staged scenes of the good Mormon life, and really awful religious murals that look like some nice Baptist church deacon, after a couple shots of Kentucky moonshine, tried copying Michelangelo.
The opening for the show was packed, a Pernod Ricard-sponsored event complete with vodka-tonics and a food truck serving burgers, tacos and brownies (American foods are actually the acme of food chic in Paris these days). There was a “Souvenirs shop” where you could buy a log for 20€ with your name branded into it—by an actual “blacksmith” in the courtyard of the Chalet Society, the large (and amazing) arts space showing the exhibit. (Add to earlier list of “American” images: logs).
The show is a little over-the-top, it’s a little bit ironic. There were many hipsters at the opening—they’re still proof of irony—looking a lot like hipsters from ten years ago in New York, when I was their age. (Which is odd, but sort of normal, too, since there is often a five- to ten-year lapse between the start of a trend in Brooklyn and when it arrives in Paris’s 7th arrondissement, the bourge-ie neighborhood where this gallery is). There were a lot of art world people there, since this week is also when Paris’s enormous contemporary art fair, the FIAC, takes place. They’ve probably seen Jim Shaw’s work before and smiled knowingly at this cleverly-curated collection of vintage Americana.
But the viewpoint of most of the French non-hipsters, and maybe even a few of the hipsters, was probably not ironic. They were probably even a little creeped out—but in a good way—they probably experienced that yummy frisson of apprehension in seeing the evidence, the proof that their most deeply-rooted preconceptions about Americans—the religious extremism, the over-earnestness and puritanical blandness, their lack of culture and bad taste—are true!
I am exaggerating, of course. A little. The French are fascinated by Americana, without really understanding that it’s Americana. They think it’s American. Or rather, they like to think it’s American, even if they know better, and they generally do. It confirms that their projection of the U.S., their idea of America—fed by all those American television series and movies, by YouTube, by the recurrent news of school shootings, sex scandals, and death penalty executions that the French media invariably highlights—well, it’s not entirely untrue.
And if the whole logs ’n’ preachers ’n’ six o’clock BBQ suppers thing is not untrue, then the French, in their absolute opposite otherness from this America, are still safe and secure. They might even feel slightly superior–fleetingly, gratifyingly.
I think this Jim Shaw show is going to be a big hit.