Research point: Artists who work in series with the landscape ~ Part 3: George Shaw
There are several reasons I’ve chosen this artist for the third in this series of posts:
- I wanted to look at an artist with whom I’ve only recently become familiar
- I thought it would be interesting to focus on someone who concentrates on a more urban environment
- I can see aspects that might be useful for my intended assignment piece for Part 3
George SHAW 1966-
Initially, I wasn’t sure if George Shaw’s work would fit the ‘working in a series’ remit for this research point. However, knowing that his subject matter is invariably the Tile Hill council estate, in Coventry, where he grew up, I thought it might. In the course of reading for this post, though, I learned that Shaw himself refers to this body of work as a series.
Shaw grew up on the Tile Hill estate in the 1970’s. It was part of the post-war building drive to create modern housing for working class families. Vestiges of the woodland on which it was built can be seen, even now.
The artist witnessed the effects on the area caused by the declining car industry and these are a feature of this series, together with a certain nostalgia for what he describes as a happy childhood. Returning for a visit to his parents’ home after university, Shaw took a series of photographs which were the foundation for all the work he’s done since. Originally, he planned to make fourteen paintings, as an act of preservation, but has now painted more than 200 pictures, in a series that’s lasted more than twenty years (so far). He has taken in excess of 10,000 photographs of the estate, and works exclusively from these – he doesn’t draw or paint in situ, at all. This aspect of his work was one of the things that caught my attention as, for health reasons, I am often unable to be outside, and so rely heavily on the use of (my own) photographs as sources for my subject matter. ‘Painting from pictures, rather than from real life, reduces the light’s dynamic range (much detail is lost in shadows) and flattens the perspective, but also allows painting at strange times and under bad weather conditions – especially rain – while keeping an indirect individual link to the place’ (Meardi, 2011). Shaw describes himself as ‘a prowler with a camera’ – “I might pass a certain place a hundred times and then, one day, something about it catches my eye. I take a few photographs, usually bad ones, then print them and toss them aside for a while until I find one particular image is nagging away at me. Something is definitely triggered by the photograph and it is that something that I am chasing after when I eventually make the painting” (O’Hagan, 2011).
‘Shaw’s paintings depict scenes and subjects which are commonly found on suburban housing estates in England such as houses, gardens, pubs, schools, playing fields, patches of woodland, paths, social clubs, libraries, and details such as puddles, litter and graffiti. The paintings focus on everyday, familiar things which might often be considered uninteresting or insignificant’ (Baltic Mill, 2013). All his subject matter stems from a half-mile radius around his childhood home. Extending the childhood/adolescent strand of his work is the fact that most of this series has been painted using Humbrol enamel paints, more commonly associated with Airfix model kits. ‘The medium is so thick that it can only be applied with tiny brushes and only used effectively on board, thereby lending the pictures a somewhat manufactured or impersonal look’ (Dorment, 2011).
One of the most notable features of these pictures is the absence of people, resulting in a feeling we’re in some kind of wasteland. As a consequence, the viewer becomes the sole inhabitant. ‘We have the sense that we are witness to what has either just happened or is about to happen… The limits of our looking are stretched and, to release the tension, we insert ourselves’ (Wolahan, 2011). One example of this is The Birthday (2012). Whatever that title might conjure up for most people, I doubt it would be this – a side view of what appears to be some kind of shed, uninhabited and shadowy. Such oblique views are frequently found in Shaw’s work. At first glance, it can be difficult to know what the focal point is meant to be, leaving it to the viewer to decide – other examples can be seen below.
This opaque quality is one of the things that draws me to Shaw’s work. Despite their apparent mundanity, on closer inspection, the pictures are mysterious, atmospheric. Shaw has been quoted as saying ‘It’s their very dullness that fascinates me. I have no wish for quick answers. Most things worth having come slowly in the dark’ (Larsson, 2011).
More recently, Shaw has been using watercolour to depict Tile Hill. Just one watercolour, though – Payne’s Grey, which he describes as “the colour of English rain” (O’Hagan, 2011). Prior to seeing these, I hadn’t really considered using one watercolour to work tonally – not for a ‘finished’ picture, anyway. It is very effective, though, in creating mood.
‘One big misconception about his work, Shaw says, is that it is an exercise in photorealism. “There is a realism about them: the trees look like trees and the grass looks like grass. It has to, or else it would be ironic. My art tutor said that what makes my work real is that it is loaded with contradictions. Is it to do with class or to do with a pastoral tradition or with a British landscape tradition? It is all those things”’ (McNulty, 2011). In addition to the realism that does exist in his paintings, Shaw has alluded to another aspect of his work – the unseen, the mysterious. ‘I’m a great admirer of James Joyce and the ambition of his novels to contain the whole of the world, geographically, mythically, personally. Map makers generally make maps of the paths they have walked, of what they have left behind. I’m aware, though, that there is a rich history of cartographers making things up, of inventing creatures, peoples and places on the edges of the world beyond what was physically visible and possible. In some of my later work, these mysteries exist in the representation of dark corners; paths that lead to unseen destinations, curtained windows, and an atmosphere that something has happened or will happen or is in fact happening quietly and unseen’ (Larsson, 2011). From what began with the intention of being a short series, Shaw now says that he’s stopped thinking about the paintings as being individual works, seeing them instead as ‘components of one large work’ (McNulty, 2011).
He also says that ‘Far from being paintings of a place, they’re really self portraits‘ (George Shaw: I woz ere (TRAILER), 2012). What may have started as a form of preservation evolved into something deeper and more personal – an exploration of memory, loss and change. ‘“My work is not historical or social documentation. It grows out of my imagination, my own heart and my own anxieties […] It is not about place – it is quite abstract. The painting is of how far away you are from there. It is a tethering so you know how far you’ve come”’ (McNulty, 2011). Shaw no longer lives in Tile Hill – he moved to Ilfracombe in Devon, in 2004.
As I said at the beginning of this post, one of the reasons I chose to look at George Shaw was that I could see a correlation between his work and the subject I’m likely to choose for Assignment 3. I don’t live on an estate, but the only view from my house that meets the criteria for the assignment is one that looks out onto brick walls, featureless houses and tree tops. Initially, I felt I couldn’t use this view as it was simply too dull. Looking at Shaw’s work, though, I wonder if I could make a feature of the featurelessness? The walls are a combination of brick and stone – so varying textures. Walls and boundaries have a certain symbolism for me, too, with the difficulties I have in going outside. The tree tops I see are all the more important to me because the rest of the view is so uninspiring. That is one aspect of Shaw’s work that strikes a deep chord with me, in fact – the encroachment of nature upon a development that all but wiped it out. Nature… the landscape, endures.
One quote that surfaced time after time as I sifted through articles on Shaw came from Philip Larkin, another son of Coventry: ‘nothing, like something, happens anywhere‘. This seems fitting for Shaw’s pictures. Hard to know whether something or nothing is happening, and there is a sense that this place could be any place. Any estate built at that time. ‘The works exist within a permanent state of in-betweenness. They seem quite dislocated from reality’ (Ogle, 2011). I find it interesting how subjects can be almost universal symbols for uneventfulness and ordinariness, yet evoke strangeness and unease, while at the same time representing familiarity, continuity and stability for others (Shaw, most of all). Multi-layered work, indeed.
Baltic Mill (2013), George Shaw [Online], Available at https://www.balticmill.com/documents/view/67a0d53730eaf17adc8f7cdd56a88c5e (Accessed 20 October 2013).
Dorment, R. (2011), ‘Turner Prize 2011 exhibition, BALTIC, Gateshead’, The Telegraph, 20 October 2011, [Online] Available at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/turner-prize/8839291/Turner-Prize-2011-exhibition-BALTIC-Gateshead-review.html (Accessed 20 October 2013).
George Shaw: I woz ere (TRAILER) (2012) Vimeo video, added by Jim Turner [Online], Available at https://vimeo.com/47646556 (Accessed 21 October 2013).
Larsson, M. (2011), ‘George Shaw’s Time Unspent’, Vice, unspecified date 2011 [Online], Available at http://www.vice.com/read/george-shaws-time-unspent (Accessed 20 October 2013).
McNulty, B. (2011), ‘Turner Prize 2011 nominee George Shaw: I’m my own man’, The Telegraph, 2 December 2011, [Online], Available at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/turner-prize/8929220/Turner-Prize-2011-nominee-George-Shaw-Im-my-own-man.html (Accessed 21 October 2013).
Meardi, G. (2011), ‘George Shaw’s Tile Hill paintings: my neighbourhood or the universal English working class estate?’, Around Europe 2010-12, 15 March 20110 [Online], Available at http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/guglielmomeardi/entry/george_shaws_tile/ (Accessed 20 October 2013).
O’Hagan, S. (2011), ‘George Shaw: ‘Sometimes I look at my work and its conservatism shocks me”, The Guardian, 13 February 2011, [Online] Available at http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/feb/13/george-shaw-tile-hill-baltic-interview (Accessed 20 October 2013).
Ogle, W. (2011), ‘George Shaw: The Sly and Unseen Day’, Dulwich OnView, 7 June 2011 [Online], Available at http://dulwichonview.org.uk/2011/06/07/george-shaw-the-sly-and-unseen-day/ (Accessed 21 October 2013).
Wolahan, E. (2011), ‘Hometown Unglory’, The New Inquiry, 20 September 2011 [Online], Available at http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/hometown-unglory/ (Accessed 20 October 2013).