Cannibals come in all shapes and sizes. Or so Jim Shaw’s The Donner Party (2003) would have us believe. On view for the first time in the U.S., the wonderfully ironic installation conflates Judy Chicago’s iconic work The Dinner Party (1974–79) with the Donner Party of 1846, those infamous Western pioneers who ate members of their own entourage, pointedly suggesting that artists-—in a manner of speaking—are cannibals, too.
Nearly every aspect of The Donner Party mimics Chicago’s work, which honored historical and mythical women. Featuring a circle of 12 covered wagons on top of which sit 27 sculptures made by various collaborators and arranged like place settings, Shaw’s send-up even parodies Chicago’s embrace of the domestic arts. Each setting includes a 1970s-era home appliance—hair dryer, popcorn maker, portable TV, massage pillow, etc.—revealing Shaw’s penchant for making art out of everyday objects as well.
Shaw is known for creating sardonic, complexly layered work, and The Donner Party does not disappoint. His seemingly inexhaustible critique of the Modernist legacy in contemporary art-—with all its -isms and notions of authorship and originality-—gains new legs here, enlivened by his story of a fictional feminist cult, O-ism. Centered on the worship of a goddess symbolized by the letter O, O-ism also reflects Shaw’s fascination with religious and utopian fringe societies in America. The kooky characters that make up O-ism’s pantheon are portrayed in a panoramic Western landscape accompanying the installation, and are the subjects of the place settings themselves.
The best examples are both tongue-in-cheek and irreverently mad. Meret Oppenheim/Robert Oppenheimer,by collaborator Carolina Thomas, merges a re-creation of the former’s 1936 fur-lined teacup with the latter’s atomic bomb. Shaw’s contribution, Judy Chicago/Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow, is especially mordant: Depicting a toy barn ablaze with painted Sculpey flames, it equates artist Chicago with the cow that allegedly started the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Poor Judy-—Shaw has made her his vehicle, metaphor, and pawn. But as Shaw’s satiric film The Initiation Ritual of the 360 Degrees (2002) proves, with its all-male cast of art-world luminaries performing an induction ceremony, Chicago is only his latest victim.