Wives with Knives

In 1995 and 1996 Shag painted a handful of original works that earned him substantial recognition early in his career. Most had strong elements of tiki bar influence, but there was one that was quite different than the others, both larger and more richly colored, and without a tiki idol in sight. I’m referring to Wives with Knives, the Shag painting that turned me on to Shag paintings.

 

Many of Shag’s paintings tell a story, and as he has offered up “I try to set all my paintings mid-point in a story. I usually have an idea about what has happened before and what will happen after the specific point in time that one of my paintings is set, but I never tell others what the story is.” Often the work’s title, which is an important element to Shag, gives clues to the story. However, it’s hard to miss the blade-wielding women in Wives with Knives, as they barge in on unsuspecting or uncaring Shriner husbands, indulging in excess consumption and deity worship.

The main focal point of Wives with Knives is the Shiva-like dancer, posing in the unique Nataraja dancing posture of the well known Hindu god Shiva. For those not familiar with Shiva, he’s considered the supreme god in Hinduism and is often portrayed in his divine dance as part of his duties of both creation and destruction. In Shag’s painting, there’s no missing the parallels. The dancer poses on one bent knee, with the other leg angled and raised off the platform. Shiva, though, is actually balancing over an Apasmara (a demon or dwarf), who symbolizes ignorance. In Shag’s painting, the demon is replaced by a black cat, independently sitting off to the side. Of course the most recognizable comparison to Shiva comes with the two pairs of arms. In portrayals of a dancing Shiva, his right hand holds a drum, symbolizing sound originating Creation. The upper left hand of Shiva contains fire, signifying destruction. In Shag’s painting, the dancer is holding a lit bomb in each of her four hands, which could be interpreted to symbolize both sound and fire (Creation and destruction.)

The choice and use of color is an important element to Shag. Wives with Knives is particularly interesting in that the main colors in the painting are the three primary colors – yellow, red and blue. The use of all three in Wives creates a dramatic effect. The yellow light casting in from the doorway draws immediate attention to the wives with knives by framing them in an otherwise red scene. The blue dancer pops dramatically off the red-based background, visually creating a vibrant movement as the contrasting red and blue compete for the eye’s attention.

Wives with Knives represents a significant piece of Shag history. It is the first to introduce Shriners. It may also be the very first painting to introduce what is now common in many Shag paintings, a strategically placed black cat. (Shag will sometimes use the feline portrait to help create harmony between balance and color within a work). Additionally, Wives is one of the first paintings created in a broader landscape size, a format that lends itself to larger story-telling works, like some of his more current paintings from exhibits like Voyeur, where many of the paintings were a large 24×48 inches.

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