George Shaw: My Back To Nature review
Further to my preview of this exhibition, George Shaw’s My Back To Nature finally opened at the National Gallery yesterday. Press reviews so far have ranged from Jonathan Jones’ gushing enthusiasm in The Guardian to Alastair Smart’s rather sniffy dismissal in loathsome Tory arsewipe The Daily Telegraph so, as a long-time follower and supporter of George’s work, here’s my take on the exhibition.
George’s appointment as Associate Artist at The National Gallery was announced in summer 2014. At that time he was working on his final series of Tile Hill paintings, exhibited at Wilkinson as The Last Days Of Belief in 2015, and several of those paintings could have easily been included in this selection. For the past few years his attention has been moving away from the streets of Tile Hill into the woodlands around the estate, where the only evidence of humanity is what’s been left behind – scarred tree trunks, smears of paint, chopped logs, burnt patches, rags, broken furniture and fly-tipped rubbish. As the familiar locations of his childhood home – the library, the pubs, the pathways – are removed under the guise of “regeneration”, he seems to have moved back into territory that existed long before the estate was built, looking for some reassurance in the familiar when faced with the zeitgeist’s headlong rush into a depressing future that’s already exhausted before it even gets here.
This directional shift coincided with the National Gallery’s challenge of a 2-year residency during which he would respond to works in the collection, works he was familiar with from trips to London as a teenager. Walking through the galleries he saw little more than ‘naked women and pictures of Jesus’, struggling to see how any of this reflected his own life experiences. Growing up in a working class family in the Midlands, during an era where the working classes were prominently represented throughout popular culture – everything from Kes to Grange Hill to The Specials to even The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club – it could have been an alienating experience to be surrounded by all that high art snob culture wallpaper, but being already attuned to the wavelength of his future as an artist he found some works that made a deep impression, such as Titian’s The Death Of Actaeon and Constable’s Cenotaph the the Memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds. In both examples, the setting is dark woodlands, just like the ones that stood about a minute’s walk from home, behind the garages that served as a gateway between two different worlds – one the brick and tarmac world of adult rules and school timetables, the other a wild and unruly place where anything could happen.
All of which has fed into the work he’s produced for My Back To Nature. Some of these paintings are amongst the best he’s ever done, with the transition from panel to canvas handled extremely well, especially on the three large-scale paintings featured so prominently in the exhibition. As with almost anything he’s done, the pictures hold your attention with their solemnity. There’s a real sense that in each scene depicted all time has stopped. The birds have stopped singing and you can’t even hear distant traffic or planes overhead. Inside that silence your senses are forced to consider what’s being shown, opening up the possibility for all kinds of interpretations. The Rude Screen is intended to deliberately echo Titian’s Diana and Actaeon, and also the blue robes worn by the cavorting revellers in Poussin’s The Triumph Of Pan. George interprets Poussin’s painting as ‘it started with a carnival atmosphere, but things soon went awry’ and senses something awful is about to happen. His painting is the trace evidence after the crime. For me, I see that blue sheet as the same colour of dress worn by The Virgin Mary in the first paintings I saw of her as a child, and it’s hard to avoid religious interpretations of almost everything in the exhibition.
In Every Brush Stroke Is Torn Out Of My Body, (a title copped from Tony Hancock’s The Rebel) the religious aspect is even more explicit, as a stigmata of red emulsion bleeds down a tree’s trunk. Something has happened here, even if it was only in the imagination of whoever it was who flung paint against a tree. Unlike modern graffiti, where it’s all about showing off and getting your stuff posted on Instagram, this is a private act of expression, an ejaculation of bad intentions. Whereas in
Mocht’ ich zurucke wieder wanken (translation: I want to turn back again) there’s an echo of the tomb where the disciples left Jesus’ ravaged body, so how else to interpret the porn strewn around the entrance except as Mary Magdalene, the ‘fallen woman’ patiently waiting for the resurrection? Other reviewers have made much of the porn depicted in the exhibition, a motif that’s run throughout George’s work since the mid-90’s. Finding these shreds of material (we used to call them ‘nuddy books’) was a formative experience for many a youth growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, an experience that the internet has curtailed. Now all of that guilty awe and shame happens in suburban bedrooms, behind closed doors, and will have none of the powerful associations that George confronts. Looking at photos of George in his studio at the National Gallery it seems there were several more paintings in this vein that never made it into the exhibition (not to mention a ring-binder labeled ‘porn’), which suggests that in the end he felt he might have been overstating his case with too much pink amidst the green. Also not featured in the exhibition are the detailed pencil drawings he did of porn models, the first works he produced during his residency and displayed here on the wall of his studio:
Some of these drawings were recently exhibited (and sold) at Art Brussels, including this one:
I personally think he should have had them in the exhibition, not only to show how good he is at drawing (a talent dismissed when he went to art school in the 80’s) but also as a contrast to the charcoal sketches of himself, naked, posing in the Stations Of The Cross. The paintings he chose to respond to are full of naked flesh, albeit high art culturally-acceptable nudity, and all he’s done is refract his interpretations through the lens of someone who grew up with Men Only and Mayfair as common a part of their daily life as The Beano or Look-In. Even if porn has become a ubiquitous component of contemporary art, I would argue that if sex and death are your themes, then you should really go for it with everything you’ve got. That said, I can also see how this aspect of his work could have distracted from the paintings, which is where all his energy has been applied and where the emphasis of the audience ought to be.
One of the most striking works in the exhibition is possibly his first painting depicting the human form. I have seen an early enamel portrait of Francis Bacon, which highlighted the limitations of using Humbrol Enamel to paint anything except a plastic Spitfire or mudguards on your bike, but The Call Of Nature is a triumph. Depicting what could be the artist himself pissing against a tree, it seems like a deliberate provocation to the art snobs who couldn’t consider such a thing hanging in the National Gallery. It’s irreverence is precisely what’s needed to counterpoint all the heavy religiosity in the exhibition, bringing it all back down to earth, where humanity lives and dies, leaving the traces of its passing as it goes.
If you’re in London any time before 30 October you can see this exhibition for free, and should not hesitate to do so. I also strongly recommend the excellent catalogue that accompanies the exhibition and features some excellent reproductions of George’s art and the paintings he has directly referenced. George’s evolution as an artist continues to fascinate me, and after this it’s very hard to predict what he will do next.