George Shaw: The Past Is A Foreign Country

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.
J.P. Hartley, The Go-Between

I’ve had this book for a few weeks but I wanted to just sit with it a while and gather my thoughts before I wrote about it. A new George Shaw exhibition catalogue is always a major event for me (“which speaks volumes about the kind of life you lead”, says a voice and, as usual, I don’t listen to it), having had my entire creative life destroyed and rebuilt when, in 2008, I acquired copies of the books I.D.S.T. (2001) and What I Did This Summer (2003). There is no adequate way to describe the effect of seeing his paintings for the first time, except to say that it immediately killed off any lingering traces of my old way of working and also answered a lot of questions that had been lingering at the back of my mind for a long time. He proved that it’s not only acceptable to use even the most mundane of surburban upbringings as the source of serious artistic endeavour, but that it is in fact absolutely necessary. Up to that point I had worked in comics and illustration, creating escapist and often lurid fantasies that had absolutely nothing to do with the life that I had experienced, and I think the notion that all of that life was somehow invalid and not worth exploring had started to gnaw at me. George’s example validated my desire to express a more personal vision, referring directly to the Albert Camus quote that seems to define the source of the creative impulse in a way I’ve seen no other writer do:

“A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.”

Those great and simple images for me were exactly the kind of moments that George was depicting in his paintings. After seeing them, the nondescript little south Leeds village I grew up was reinvigorated as a place where universal truths about life and death were expressed, and in as sincere and passionate a way as anywhere else. Over the subsequent years that influence has barely diminished, and while I’ve evolved my own aesthetic, I still enjoy his work more than any other artist, living or dead, and this book serves as a summation of over 20 years spent working on over 200 paintings and an untold number of drawings that are arguably one single and utterly unique work in the history of art. Published to coincide with the new exhibition A Corner Of A Foreign Field, which opens later this week at the Yale Centre for British Art in the USA, this is a massive overview of the man’s life and work that does ample justice to the subject. I’ve collected almost all the catalogues and books published in relation to his work over the past two decades, and this covers far more territory than all of them combined. It’s a dense hardback that you wouldn’t want to drop on your foot, very well produced with some of the best reproductions of his paintings that I’ve ever seen. The essays are largely irrelevant, as is typical for most art books, and in the past his catalogues have avoided this by including more interesting material, such as poems by the likes of John Burnside or, far more effective in my opinion, photographs of his studio or his bookshelves, that add so much depth to the appreciation of his work and cancel out any amount of piffle by critics and commentators.

There’s plenty of photos like that throughout the book, taken in various studios over the years, offering glimpses of works in progress, reference materials (looks closely in the image above, and you’ll see a page from what we used to refer to as ‘nuddy books’, a quaint artefact from a truly bygone era) and some clues as to his working methods. Dozens of photographs of the Tile Hill estate and environs, taken over the past two decades, are tacked to the wall, and while very few of them are directly referred to in his paintings, they serve to create a ‘mindscape’ from out of which something that might demand depiction can emerge. Alongside these there’s usually a pin board of found imagery that indirectly informs his working practices:

You almost don’t need to interview the man (though Jeremy Deller does a reasonable job in this book), just look at this photograph and that’s all you need to know. These are the presences that lurk just off the edge of his paintings, many of which I recognise and feel an affinity with: Kes, T.E. Lawrence, Siegried Sassoon, Holman Hunt’s ‘The Scapegoat’, Don’t Look Now, Truman Capote dancing with Marilyn Monroe, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Francis Bacon, Samantha Fox… it’s heady stuff, and I’ve used similar techniques myself over the years. Had I a proper ‘studio’ rather than a back bedroom, the walls would be entirely covered until it resembled Joe Orton & Kenneth Halliwell’s Islington death bunker, and in the book there are photos of George in the early 90’s in his flat in Nottingham, with the wall plastered with a vast collage of images that range from Pre-Raphaelite paintings to pages from Loaded. It’s a way of reinforcing your position in the world, taking the Blakean stance of ‘this is important, because I say it is’, and making no apologies for it. Sometimes George does use the images as reference for pencil drawings, works that stand as a vital counter-point to the paintings and which do get a generous amount of coverage in the book. This drawing:

for example, looks like nothing anyone would bother to draw, but once you understand the provenance of the image, it makes sense. This is a crime scene photo from Killing For Company, Brian Masters’ book about the civil servant and serial killer Dennis Nilsen, and shows black bin-liners filled with body parts from one of his victims, casually left in the bottom of a wardrobe. George’s genius is revealed in the choice of title: ‘Narnia’. It’s not trivializing the circumstances at all, but rather acknowledging the otherworldly dreamlike quality of the situation, wherein Nilsen had so dislocated from consensus reality that he was coming home from his toil at the Job Centre to spend quiet evenings with the corpses of the young men he murdered. Figures like Nilsen loom ever present throughout the book, along with Peter Sutcliffe, the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’, and murder victims like Genette Tate and Carl Bridgwater, placed alongside poets and pop stars and characters from children’s TV shows like Grange Hill‘s Cathy Hargreaves:

(My 2014 drawing of Cathy Hargreaves can be seen here). They need to be considered alongside the paintings, because they inform a deeper understanding of the paintings themselves. There’s never anyone in these paintings, and the reference materials and drawings explain why. Almost every painting is like a stage set for a ghost story, though the ‘ghost’ is often more akin to a thought or a feeling or a sensation that is associated with longing, memory and the evolution of a personal mythology. The paintings reproduced throughout the book are clustered into sections that either discuss specific exhibitions or explore common themes – woodland paths, graffitied walls, landmarks and memorials – and each comes with a useful commentary by the book’s editor Mark Hallett, often providing key details about the creation of some of the paintings or the locations depicted.

This is ‘Scenes From The Passion: A Few Days Before Christmas’ (2002-3). It’s a place on the western edge of the Tile Hill estate, just on the boundary of Tile Hill Wood. People walk their dogs through here, or dump bags of rubbish. Not much else happens. I’ve been here, and there’s nothing to suggest it’s a sight anyone would want to capture in paint, and yet look what George made of it. It’s absolutely gorgeous, lit by an ethereal evening light and loaded with the kind of dark romanticism that I find irresistible.

This is ‘Ash Wednesday 9.00am'(2005), from the Ash Wednesday series. This series of seven paintings is probably my favourite set of paintings by George, painted at the absolute peak of his potential, where his Millais-esque attention to detail found him lovingly depicting each blade of grass on a deeply-shadowed lawn, or the stains of weathering on a council house wall. He spent one late winter morning in 2004 walking around the estate, taking hundreds of photos, blessed with a morning of glowing light and startling contrasts, and spent the rest of that year making a series of paintings that are loaded with symbolism and silent brooding power. In this painting, you’re about two doors down from his childhood home, looking at a tree that is no longer there. I know, ‘cos I’ve been there and that silver birch is no longer standing, but in this painting it is impossible to look at it and not make an association with the crucifixion of Christ. The colour of the sky – achieved using Humbrol enamel paints, lest we forget – is perfect, and sets the tone for the rest of the painting, a painting where Pre-Raphaelite sensibilities collide with ‘kitchen sink’ realism to startling effect.

There’s also new works featured, including this one – ‘The Border’ – painted earlier this year. Following several years where his technique had gradually become looser and more expressionistic, the past year has seen an emphatic return to the detailed depictions from his early career, and a direct re-engagement with the subject that first inspired him all those years ago. After coming to believe he was finally done with Tile Hill, the recent work sees him using depictions of the estate as it is today to comment on contemporary British culture and the disastrous political climate we find ouselves in. The transition from MDF board to canvas has led to a change in the colours he uses and how the paint is applied, but there’s also a sumptuous richness to the painterly surface that often looks like he’s using oils. I like the new work very much, but I can’t help but prefer the work that first really made an impact on me, and that’s the paintings from around 15 years ago, the ones made with “aching verrisimilitude” for not so much a specific time or place where something happened, but the haunting echo of a privately-held yearning for something to happen.

It should be obvious that I’m quite taken with this book. It’s an excellent introduction for the uninitiated, and really serves the man and his legacy well. It all bodes well for the exhibition, which comes to the Holburne Museum in Bath in early 2019. Highly recommended.


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