James Joyce, so it goes, once remarked that his goal in writing Ulysses was “to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed” entirely from the novel’s pages. If there is a painter alive who could be said to have embarked on an equivalent project—of recording his own childhood home completely, through his own medium—it is certainly George Shaw. This artist’s decades-long effort to transform the infinite minutiae of his hometown neighborhood—the working-class council estate of Tile Hill in Coventry, England—into an artistic project of heroic proportions has become an endeavor in Joycean excess.
At first glance, those who have had the pleasure of trudging through the most bewildering sections of Ulysses will almost certainly doubt that Shaw’s crystal-clear suburban landscapes have anything to do with Joyce’s tome of high modernism, or indeed with any literary work. Shaw’s paintings are rendered in blunt realism, their compositions straightforward, and their effect instantly graspable. But extended engagement with Shaw’s paintings will illuminate a strikingly novelistic tenor in their cumulative effect. Shaw’s modest scenes of pedestrian suburban life are unpeopled, yet through allusion and allegory they often reach for some of the grandest narratives of our literary and mythical tradition.
“George Shaw: A Corner of a Foreign Field,” a retrospective of the artist’s career at the Yale Center for British Art, presents the opportunity for close study of these alluring works.1 The survey spans 1996 to the present year. A number of the newest paintings were made specifically for this exhibition and are being shown in public for the first time. Including nearly seventy paintings and more than sixty drawings, the exhibition is the first solo show for the artist in North America (Shaw has been well known in Britain since his nomination for the Turner Prize in 2011). Curation has been led by Mark Hallett, the Director of Studies at the Paul Mellon Centre. Matthew Hargraves, the Yale Center’s Chief Curator of Art Collections, is the exhibition’s organizing curator. The exhibition will next travel to the Holburne Museum in Bath, England.
A brief biographical sketch will help contextualize Shaw’s art within the contemporary climate. George Shaw was born in 1966, the child of Irish Catholic immigrants. Tile Hill, the suburb to which he and his family moved two years later, was created in the aftermath of World War II as part of Britain’s socialistic efforts to rebuild its bombed-out country. Growing up among the economical, modernist homes that lined the working-class neighborhood, Shaw discovered a talent for drawing and painting at an early age. After comprehensive school, he completed a year-long foundation course in Art, then attended Sheffield Polytechnic for his bachelor’s in fine art.
As an undergraduate in the burgeoning Young British Artists landscape of late-eighties Britain, Shaw dabbled in conceptual art, believing that “painting was dead” and that performance and film were more or less expected of the so-called “contemporary artist” (scare quotes very much intended). But seeing Lucian Freud’s exhibition at Whitechapel in 1993 disabused him of what he would later call “classic art-school wank” and convinced him to return to the brush. After keeping an independent studio and working odd jobs through the remainder of his twenties, Shaw was accepted into the graduate painting program at the Royal College of Art in 1996.
Early on in his studies at the rca, Shaw painted his first picture of Tile Hill, using the Humbrol brand enamel paint that would soon become his signature medium. He recalls that the painting, No. 57 (1996), the earliest work in the Yale exhibition, was made as a sort of reaction to both the soulless conceptualism and the fetishism of shock that saturated the British art world at the time. (Only a year before, Damien Hirst had won the Turner Prize for his bisected cows; a year later Charles Saatchi’s “Sensation” exhibition, with Chris Ofili’s elephant-dung painting of The Holy Virgin Mary, opened at the Royal College to significant controversy.) Shaw’s examination of his modest childhood home, he told me, was an attempt to bring his art towards the autobiographical—towards “what mattered” to him. Such sincerity would have had a radical edge to it in the context of l’esprit du jour of the British academy.
The finished painting is small and unpretentious, even a bit clumsy—you can see Shaw struggling against his inert and inelastic medium. But the seeds of a larger project were planted, and Shaw quickly became technically virtuosic in enamels. Not three years later, he painted Scenes from the Passion: The Black Prince (1999)—a marked improvement from his first attempt. The moody subject, a post-rainfall Black Prince Pub, is rendered with a sure hand and a sharp sense for compositional organization. Shaw proves himself capable of conveying a precise and specific idea of light in painting, one that proves to be surprisingly colorful and alive despite the drab and gray atmosphere.
Having thus arrived at what we might consider his “mature style,” Shaw has remained, to this day, strikingly consistent in his material and pictorial craft. To be sure, slight adjustments can be seen as one walks through the intervening years as they are represented by this exhibition. At times Shaw flattens his images with solid and uniform planes (see Scenes from the Passion: The Goal Mouth, 1999); elsewhere paint is drier and more chromatically modulated (see This Sporting Life, almost exactly the same view, from 2009). But one would be hard-pressed to find any significant overarching developments in his essential style. (Tellingly, the curators have divided the exhibition space into bays that are organized primarily according to conceptual, rather than strictly chronological, concerns.)
Taking note of this stylistic consistency, it would be easy to accuse Shaw of “playing it safe,” of intentionally reproducing without end “distinctly Shaw” works because they’ve filled a nice little niche in the market. But I think to do so would miss a crucial, and perversely complicated, point: the centrality of what one might call the populist appeal to Shaw’s own aesthetic.
In an illuminating interview printed in the exhibition’s catalogue, Shaw explains these aesthetics of inclusion:
I didn’t want to make a kind of artwork that had an exclusivity to it, to just appeal to the curator of a biennale. Seems to me a dead-end way to go through life. I wanted to actually make a piece of work that the farmer down the road can actually come in and go, “Oh, that’s really nice, that is.”
“So, you want the work to be popular?,” his interlocutor asks. Shaw responds: “Yeah, I think if art is a kind of language and if you’re the only one who speaks the language, there’s no point in having the f***ing language!” Speaking on poetry in a little-known 1942 lecture at the University of Glasgow titled “The Music of Poetry” (later published in essay form), T. S. Eliot advanced essentially the same point, albeit in more eloquent fashion: “whether poetry is accentual or syllabic, rhymed or rhymeless, formal or free, it cannot afford to lose its contact with the changing language of common intercourse.”
When it comes to images in this technology-besotted world, our representative “language of common intercourse” is surely the vernacular of the photograph. As such, it makes sense that Shaw would have turned to photography in developing his own visual idiom. Elsewhere in the interview, Shaw defends his use of source photographs in pragmatic terms, pointing out that artists have used lens technologies practically throughout the history of illusionistic Western art (Leonardo da Vinci experimented extensively with the camera obscura). But clearly, Shaw’s parallel adoption of the vernacular of photography—its specificity and attention to documentarian detail, but also its perceptual flatness and organizational simplicity—plays a significant role in the accessible aesthetics that he seems so keenly interested in.
This is not to say that Shaw’s paintings are facile, that they descend to kitsch. Nor do I mean to suggest that the works fail to rise above the mechanical simplicity of the digital lens. The enamel paint that Shaw uses has a uniquely organic material quality—as if stuck in the process of congealing on the support’s surface—and there’s a sensitivity to touch and space that seems unavailable to most doctrinaire photorealists. Departing from his photographic sources, Shaw takes free “painterly license” in the selective use of both focus and chromatic intensity.
Formal questions aside, at the heart of Shaw’s art lies an unceasing engagement with paradoxical questions of time and flux. In a way, his paintings are, like the photographs he uses as source material, specific to the minute. This is most evident in his sun-drenched daytime scenes, whose exactitude of light and shadow gives us an idea of the precise time of day. And yet, the absence of any moving objects in Shaw’s paintings—people, animals, cars, falling leaves—endows them with a stillness that transcends the fleeting moment.
Considering the works in series introduces yet another aspect by which the paintings relate to time. Perhaps as a consequence of confining himself to such a small area—the two square miles of the Tile Hill Estate—Shaw has embraced the idea of creating a “cycle” of paintings on more than one occasion. The clearest example in this exhibition is Shaw’s Ash Wednesday series, a group of seven paintings executed from 2004–05 that depict various scenes in Tile Hill at half-hour intervals—the first at 6 a.m. and the last at 9 a.m. Six of the seven pictures made it into the Yale exhibition, and the grouping is breathtaking—even despite missing 7:30 am. Nowhere else in the exhibition is Shaw’s grasp on light and color, clarity and drama, more readily evident.
The room upon which the Yale exhibition opens and closes holds another series cycle, which Shaw made while serving as the Associate Artist of London’s National Gallery from 2014–16. The three works, set in a wooded area adjacent to the Tile Hill Estate, are a feast for the eyes, if perhaps a bit high in trans fat. Shaw’s tightly rendered spaces glow with evocative, smartly keyed-up color. In the left picture, a central blue workman’s tarpaulin hangs on a thin branch in the foreground, partially obscuring an otherwise brown and inactive view. In the middle, a cave-like darkness within a surrounding overgrowth presides over a forest bed littered with scraps of found paper pornography. And on the right, a nearby tree is marked by a splash of bright red paint, likely the doing of a marauding miscreant.
The looming central darkness (in whose gleam the viewer can see a muddled reflection of himself), as well as the blood-like gash of paint on the right-most tree, endow the paintings with a sense of foreboding. But learning that the series was inspired by Titian’s Diana and Actaeon (1556–59) and Death of Actaeon (ca. 1559–75), to which Shaw had unfettered access while at the National Gallery, clarifies the violent nature of its allegory.
Nearing the end of the Yale retrospective, we begin to see that the Tile Hill of Shaw’s childhood will not “suddenly disappear from the earth,” as Joyce surmised might happen to his hometown of Dublin, but that it is instead in the midst of a slow but inevitable course of evaporation. As Shaw returns to scenes that he had depicted years before, he finds closed pubs, dilapidated towers, and bulldozed factories. It’s as if the neighborhood has undergone a turn in Thomas Cole’s famed Course of Empire series, but without any sort of grand “Consummation” nor disastrous “Destruction.” In the exhibition’s catalogue, essayists readily lay blame on Thatcherite economics, and, more recently, the “poisoned political atmosphere of Britain in the immediate post-Brexit era.” But although viewers may infer a “Stay” vote by some of Shaw’s most recent titles, the paintings as images dispatch no plainspoken political directive. Such restraint is undoubtedly in character for this painter of quiet introspection.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 3, on page 48
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