Art Criticism

George Shaw
What I did this Summer
Ikon Gallery Birmingham

George Shaw Scenes from the Passion: Blossomiest Blossom 2001
Scenes from the Passion: Blossomiest Blossom 2001

In George Shaw’s world it is always late afternoon, a wet afternoon on a small provincial English housing estate; November, perhaps, or February. Everywhere there is a smell of damp. In the small rain-soaked gardens of the hunkered bungalows that line the silent streets, in the empty blue bus shelter outside the run down flats. The tarmac glistens; green mould stains walls and concrete. There is no one about. Children are home from school sprawled in front of the TV, the dog lies by the grate snoring. Dampness seems to seep from the fabric of things. This is the landscape of a lived life. If Edward Hopper were English this is what he might have painted; these suburban streets, the windows blanked by net curtains, the dripping back gardens divided by a grid of fences and corrugated garden sheds, the rundown breeze block garages where weeds sprout through the cracks of concrete among the wind strewn litter of greasy chip papers and photos torn from pornographic magazines.

This is a world where it is always twilight and teatime. “Four o’clock: wedge-shadowed gardens lie/Under a cavernous, a wind-picked sky”, as Philip Larkin once wrote. The trees are bare. The pigeon-coloured skies lour with rain clouds. At any minute there might be another downpour. It is a world that is quintessentially provincial, lower middle class and English, where the slow erasure of the pastoral dream has gone almost unnoticed as new council estates have encroached on what must once have been open fields and woods. Now it is scrub, waste land, a hinterland between two forms of existence – then and now – where children ride bikes and make camps away from adult eyes, people walk their dogs and men expose themselves to the unwary. In the summer children might even pick a few blackberries from among the tangled brambles staining their mouths purple in remembrance, as it were, of some lost rural rite.

George Shaw Scenes from the Passion: A Few Days before Christmas 2002-03
Scenes from the Passion: A Few Days before Christmas 2002-03

Then and now. Loss. These are the themes that underlie George Shaw’s work. Not a soft focused nostalgia but a mirror held up to the quiet smallness of most lives. Though this is not quite despair, for it is redeemed by love; a love of the actual and the real, of a life remembered and lived. This has nothing to do with the oversaturated technicolour of American suburbia, of the well watered lawns of Blue Velvet. You will find no ears lurking in the long grass here. The deserted municipal play grounds with their empty slides and swings streaked with rain contain nothing more than the remembrance of summer games and scrapped knees, a first kiss, a bullying pinch. The church brings back memories of weddings, full of Larkinesque girls in lilacs and yellows, of an ill fitting suit and tie borrowed for the day, of an elderly neighbour’s funeral or the Cub Scouts’ Christmas concert. And the war memorial? Remember the war memorial? That’s where you hung around when you bunked off school, a can of illicit beer and a cheap packet of fags in your pocket.

George Shaw Scenes from the Passion: Late 2002
Scenes from the Passion: Late 2002

This is a world of margins, of perimeters, of places in between. In between then and now; here and there. Where a path that runs across scrubland is known as ‘behind the shops’ or forms a short cut through the new estate, once known as Ten Shilling Wood, that now leads, from nowhere particular to nowhere particular, perhaps from the new surgery to the bus stop into town. Every corner reverberates with the lost sounds of childhood; the Action Man fort hidden among the dock leaves down behind the swings, the secret gang that met in the abandoned garage. And now, seen again through different, adult eyes, eyes that have taken in a wider world, what is there? The smallness of home and a tree; a cherry tree extravagant as a bridal gown, with the “bloomiest blossom” that shimmers like a small epiphany in the fading evening light, bright against the house that looks pretty much like all the others houses in the street. That is what happens when you go back. What once seemed like the whole world looks tiny, run down, dowdy. What must once have felt like a smart new pub, a forbidden adult zone, The New Star – the very name is redolent with a touching optimism – now looks drearily dilapidated with all the conviviality of a DHSS office.

George Shaw Scenes from the Passion: The First Day of the Year 2003
Scenes from the Passion: The First Day of the Year 2003

This is George Shaw’s past. Born in 1966, he grew up on a council housing estate in Tile Hill, Coventry before leaving for an MA at the Royal College of Art via Sheffield Poly. This is the land of his childhood with its empty playing fields, peeling comprehensives and run down housing estates. Where mothers marry young and many of the men are unemployed. The title of the show What I did this summer reads like the essay subject given to young children on return to school in the autumn term. Implicit in it is a Wordsworthian remembrance of childhood, that moment “of splendour in the grass”, which despite the actual, mundane reality seems, on reflection, like an endless summer; a lost land on the other side of adulthood. Shaw has written that “for me, time has…become diagrammatic around certain points in my childhood.” So he makes paintings – always devoid of people – that function as archetypal scenes rather than being located in specific moments or memories. To this end he takes long rambling walks around Tile Hill, taking hundreds of photographs along the route. There is nothing aestheticised about these photos, they are simply snaps, developed at the local chemist. But among them may be one with that special quality he is looking for – some mood, some trigger of a memory. Then he makes a drawing which he describes as being similar to something copied from a ‘How To Draw’ textbook. The drawing is coated on the reverse with charcoal dust, then pinned to a piece of previously primed white MDF onto which he traces the outline with a fine pencil before beginning to block in areas of colour. All his paintings are made with Humbrol enamel paints – the kind used by small boys to paint airfix models – which he builds layer upon painstaking layer, so that the specificity of the trees, say, resembles the fine detail of early Dutch landscapes or the highly polished finish of the Pre-Raphaelites. It is a lengthy painstaking process. The model paint is important, forming a bridge between his boyhood and his later, adult awareness of art history. For his influences are broad, from the chiaroscuro of the Victorian painter John Atkinson Grimshaw to an awareness of modernist architecture. Many of his earlier drawings and installations rely on the dark figures of popular culture, such as Peter Sutcliffe, mythologised in the sensational pages of the tabloids. Photographs in the catalogue of his studio show books ranging from the poems of T.S.Eliot and the complete verse of Belloc, to those on Caspar David Friedrich, Picasso and the Look-In Television Annual. Interspersed with these are the photos he has taken of Tile Hill with ones of Tony Hancock, astronaughts and clutch of museum postcards of paintings.

George Shaw Scenes from the Passion: The Middle of the Week 2002
Scenes from the Passion: The Middle of the Week 2002

There is a strong desire to create narratives from Shaw’s work. Each painting conjures a poetic atmosphere, a possible story, so it is not surprising to learn that he is also interested in writing. But most of all what these paintings evoke is an overwhelming remembrance of things past, a tenderness towards something lost that can never quite be regained because what is being portrayed can no longer be experienced from the inside but is now seen with the eyes of some one who has left, someone who has been changed by a wider perspective. Perhaps the melancholy is due not only to a loss of the past, but to the loss of a certain uncomplicated innocence. Yet there is nothing haughty or patronising about these works. In the shadows of these wet gardens and quiet streets, these recreational grounds and community halls, these hinterlands of suburban banality Shaw discovers meaning and a kind of love. Larkin said of this encroaching suburbanisation “And that will be England gone,/The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,/The guildhalls, the carved choirs.” “There’ll be books”, he wrote. And also, one might add, paintings that capture that indefinable moment between then and now, here and there, the past and the present, paintings that show us who we are, where we have come from. In the microcosm of these slumbering estates, lies a whole world.

George Shaw What I did this summer at the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham from 30 July to 14 September 2003

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2003

Images © George Shaw 2001-2003

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