Wednesday, 9 March 2011

The England of Larkin: George Shaw at the Baltic

George Shaw, Baltic Centre, Gateshead

By Rebecca Rose
February 28 2011 19:00

George Shaw’s paintings are resolutely concerned with the past. “I’m pretty upset by the notion that we have a final day,” the 44-year-old says. “I find it more reassuring to look backwards.”

The past for Shaw is encapsulated in a nondescript half-mile radius called Tile Hill, a postwar housing estate in Coventry where the artist grew up. Although he no longer lives there, for the past 15 years the pubs and pebble-dash houses, backyards, scrublands, bus stops and recreation grounds of his youth have been the sole focus of his work.

He has documented its streets, paths and sheds obsessively in several thousand photographs, now stashed in boxes in his home in Devon; occasionally, he singles one out to form the basis of a painting. Forty of these are now on show in Shaw’s mid-career retrospective at Baltic; the title, The Sly and Unseen Day, is a quote from Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles about that unknown moment when we cease to exist.

These views, at once unremarkable and specific, are for Shaw a way of both measuring and dismissing the march of time. “I use it as my yardstick,” he says, “a point of departure from which I’m able to measure my own journey in life.” Yet it looks as if the estate has changed little since the artist’s youth. Shaw omits any pointers to time in his work – people, cars, shops, posters; it could be 1966, the year of Shaw’s birth, or it could just as well be 2011. If it weren’t for the dates next to the paintings, this could be a decade’s output or half a century’s.

But while his works are not easily datable, Shaw is nevertheless concerned with recording the ravages of time – intermittent bouts of vandalism; the boarding up of pubs and shutting down of community centres; the way nature eventually reclaims. In a 2009 painting, “This Sporting Life”, a goalpost in the football ground has been beaten into the earth; in “A Little Later” (2009), a roadside is strewn with plastic bags; in others, graffiti initials, terse obscenities and bloodlike splats of red paint disfigure the backs of buildings. These are the eternal in-between spaces – the sheds, bins or outhouses where we escape to as children. It is in these otherwise insignificant corners that we steal our first kiss, smoke the ends of soggy cigarettes or sob out of earshot.

Although deeply personal, Shaw’s work invites a collective experience of memory. There can’t be an English viewer who doesn’t feel the weight of Englishness in his art, whether they grew up in a Tile Hill or not. The leaden sky and those puddled paving stones in “The Library and the Back of the Triple Triangle Club” evoking the deadening boredom of another wet day; the early curfew of night falling on a dreary disused playground; a cheerful red postbox in “The First Day of the Holidays” hinting at a world beyond the stultifying parameters of childhood. If there is something poetic in his work, Shaw is the first to admit his debt to earlier celebrators of the mundane. This is the England of Philip Larkin and T.S. Eliot, of Morrissey, The Specials and Ken Loach.

The unquestionably dark side of Shaw’s work is often leavened by lurid splashes of colour – nature having its way, against the odds. The grass in “Scenes from a Passion: Pig Wood” is acid-green and bristly, like AstroTurf; in “Ash Wednesday: 7.00am” the communal green is a strangely artificial shade of jade. In perhaps his most beautiful work, “Ash Wednesday: 8.30am”, morning sunshine the colour of Bird’s custard illuminates a roadside fence, slicing through its slats on to the pavement. In another painting from his “Scenes from the Passion” series entitled “The Cop Shop”, a semiabstract array of tower blocks rendered pristine in pastel tones emits a pearly light that is almost reminiscent of the romantics, of Caspar David Friedrich or Charles-François Daubigny.

Shaw puts these startling colour effects down to the unusual paint he uses – Humbrol enamel, the sort used by boys to paint model aircraft. Glossier than oil paint, it dries to create a uniform surface, which in the bright light of the Baltic gallery gives it a sheen not unlike that of a colour photograph.

Shaw is modest about his ability as a painter, claiming that “the combination of the mundane subject matter with the enamel paint creates an effect that is greater than the sum of its parts”. His is a terrific skill, however, and his paintings, both alienating and comforting, hyperrealist and dreamy, are a refreshing antidote to the installation and video that often dominate these cathedrals of contemporary art.

As we sit in Baltic’s lively riverside café, I ask Shaw if he is planning to branch out. Or is there still mileage in Tile Hill? “I haven’t been for ages, actually,” he replies, a thoughtful expression creeping over his face. “In fact, I feel an urge coming on.”

‘The Sly and Unseen Day’ continues until May 15

Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead

See also:
18 February 2011 - 15 May 2011
The Sly and Unseen Day

This major exhibition of the work of British artist George Shaw will bring together some forty paintings from 1996 to the present day. Within a practice that has encompassed drawing, video-making, performance and writing, Shaw is best known for his expansive body of painting. Based upon photographs taken of and around his childhood home on the Tile Hill Estate, Coventry, Shaw’s landscapes are at once familiar and unnerving.

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