George Shaw ‘I Woz Ere’

George Shaw’s paintings of his childhood council-house-haunt are the talk of the art scene. This week it was announced Martin Boyce pipped him to the post, claiming the 2011 Turner Prize.

When people hear of George Shaw’s paintings, many assume that his remarkably neat-around-the edges approach to the fraying and untidy suburbs will result in a gritty social realism. So they begin to fret for the discomfort they expect to feel. People assume that these paintings will invoke fear, but can I correct you now: they don’t. They are, in fact, deeply romantic yet contemporary paintings. They are in part chilling, but mostly stilling.

In them I see – hard edged as they are – the heritage of English landscape painting that started with John Constable continued. In Constable’s landscapes, Englishness is materialised in the fleecy clouds and vivid rainbows after rain has fallen. In contrast, George Shaw’s scenes are anticipatory – we are forced to wait on empty skies. But in both, the distinctive English climate is identifiable in the juxtaposition between a dull brooding sky and almost fluorescent foliage – whether in an urban or rural setting. (So, could it be true, as Jonathan Jones has suggested, that it was Shaw’s Englishness, before an international Turner prize panel, that narrowed his appeal? That aside…)

Let me delve further into his Romantic character, for I believe the comparisons may extend a little more. The artist describes each of his pieces according to the feeling he held at the time he painted them. Often his paintings are pathetic fallacies making real the rain that was about to come in his life – the terror that awaited – which is apparent in the menacing Scenes from the Passion: The Hawthorn Tree’, in which an abandoned haunted house beckons its visitor from the end of a wide silhouetted drive. In this example, weather stands in place of a pressing feeling. However, sometimes his paintings illustrate a season; alluding to a season of life – such as a period in love. Shaw paints a chilly and lonely winter’s day in ‘Young Lovers Part’ that is shrouded in lilac and insipid blues.

Naturally, ‘I woz ere’ has attracted many locals inspired by the popularity of a local hero and hoping to have their own trip down memory lane. However the artist insists his paintings cannot be read as historical and social documentation, even though his creative process begins with the social realist’s greatest tool – the photograph.

Shaw began to dream of these scenes after he had left this place and so began to paint them only when he returned as a visitor – by this point they had become plagued with the past. Like much of the tradition of English (rural) landscape painting, they are nostalgic – clothed in factors which aren’t factual; memories, feelings and most importantly, fantasy. Shaw has commented, “Of course it was all in my head because the only thing that was out of place [on returning] was me.”

Oddly, even though I know these are paintings about his life and experiences, I don’t find the bulk of them over psychologically charged. They are marked mainly by an absence. Yes, the artist has defined himself as a painter of ghosts, eulogies and tombstones but bar perhaps two or three, the paintings are contemplative. Despite detailing ‘threatening’ locales, they do not force any impression onto the viewer. Rather, the scene sits back patiently and waits to be questioned by the viewer. Against all assumptions, these paintings are not as gritty or aggressive as their subject matter would suggest.

We do want to visually interrogate his paintings as his technique is enticing. Radically flat yet three dimensional; soft to touch yet tirelessly hard-edged. Some of his earlier paintings show how his choice of medium – Humbrol air fix paints (used to colour model planes) – have been utilised in a fine art context without much deviation of style. Scenes from the Passion: The Goal Mouth’ (1999), for example, could have been completed using paint-by-numbers (I do not say this to criticise). The outlines of the council houses are so boldly defined and are barely embellished; half of the composition an unbroken band of lime green. Later on he turns to a gentler – but never imprecise – touch.

What is consistent throughout his oeuvre is his wonderfully flat monotone skies. He chooses to build his landscapes onto all sorts of colours – from beiges (greener sometimes, greyer other times), to potent aquas and – perhaps my favourite – the fleshy peach of Scenes from the Passion: Ten Shilling Wood’ (2002). Everything is lit up by this sky, and not only because he has painted peaches into every part of the landscape hit by light, but because this colour itself lifts the whole painting. Here I can conclude that this exhibition will not dampen your view of the English landscape, but raise your expectations of what contemporary painting can be.

George Shaw ‘I woz ere’, a free exhibition at the Herbert Museum and Art Gallery, Coventry, until 11 March 2012.

Published on The Student Journals

Pictured: ‘Scenes from the Passion: Ten Shilling Wood’, 2002.

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