George Shaw: My Back To Nature preview

George Shaw - My Back To Nature catalogue cover

My favourite artist George Shaw has a new exhibition opening 9 May. ‘My Back To Nature‘ comprises most of the work produced during his 2-year tenure as Associate Artist in residence at the National Gallery in London. The brief was simple – produce work inspired by the existing collection, to which George has often had exclusive access, wandering the rooms and corridors early in the morning before the hordes turn up, soaking up centuries of high art influence and flushing it through his own ideas about art and culture, hope and despair, life and death. From what I’ve seen so far, the results are some of his best work for a long time.

George Shaw - The Living and The DeadGeorge Shaw - The Foot Of A TreeGeorge Shaw - The School Of LoveGeorge Shaw - The Old Master

The images he’s created are some of his darkest – predominantly woodland scenes focussing on weird twisted stumps and logs that recall Paul Nash’s ‘monsters’, as well as traces of human detritus that, removed from their original context, assume a ritualistic element. A tarpaulin sheet draped over a branch is the revenant spirit from M.R. James’ ‘Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad‘. A fly-tipped mattress is a makeshift sacrificial altar for worship to Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan. He admits you can reduce the whole project down to ‘sex and death’, long-understood by any artist that matters to be the only real themes we need. Some of the paintings look like crime scenes, others suggest suburban re-enactments of Golgotha, and as a contrast to all this Thanatos we get Eros in the form of porn mags strewn through the undergrowth. George has discussed before the profound experience of finding these things as a teenager, in his mind conflating the images from a shredded copy of Mayfair with the high art titillation of Titian and Poussin that he saw on his milk train trips to the National Gallery.

George Shaw - SouvenirsGeorge Shaw - Natural Selection

George has clearly risen to the challenge presented by the National Gallery, producing a huge amount of individual images that have to be considered as a single work. Clearly a lot of thought has gone into this and what is for the most part gloomy paintings of old trees suggests a deep meditation on the things that really matter to him.

One of the images from the collection that really struck me is this ink drawing ‘Study For Hanging Around’:

George Shaw - Study For Hanging Around

I could not help but see echoes in this of my own painting from last year, ‘The Passion’:

Rik Rawling - The Passion

which only confirms to me – once and for all – that I’m never going to get away from the influence his work has had on me, so I might as well just accept it and make the most of what I can do with that influence.

George Shaw – My Back To Nature – is at the National Gallery, 11 May – 30 Oct 2016

Exhibition Catalogue can be ordered here.

George Shaw interviewed for BBC Radio4 here (start at 19 minutes in)

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