Two artists who are taking part in British Art Show 7, which is due to dock in at Plymouth on September 17, have been nominated for this year’s Turner Prize
Karla Black, whose innovative sculpture become substantial despite their temporary spaces and materials, has her work on display at the Slaughterhouse in Plymouth’s, Royal William Yard.
She’ll be joined there – and in the Turner Prize – by Devon-based George Shaw.
From his Ilfracombe stuio Geroge creates deeply personal paintings of the Coventry estate where he grew up.
Have a read of the interview with him in the Guardian, from just before his retrospective openned at the Baltic, Gateshead.
In one of his early poems, entitled “I Remember, I Remember”, Philip Larkin described a train journey that took him unexpectedly through Coventry, the city in which he was born and where “my childhood was unspent”. Larkin evokes that childhood in a litany of lost opportunities and chances not taken, but concludes: “It’s not the place’s fault… Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.”
Those lines keep coming to mind as I leaf through scans of George Shaw’s paintings of Coventry – or, to be precise, the two square miles of Coventry that constitute the Tile Hill housing estate on which he grew up – on the final leg of my train journey from London to Ilfracombe, where, for reasons that never become entirely clear, Shaw has now settled. Landscape artists once sought the sublime through the rendering of pastoral scenes, but Shaw, in common with many contemporary photographers, as well as English “kitchen sink” painters of an older generation, records the mundane, the quotidian and the overlooked. In doing so, he somehow renders the everyday mysterious.
Here is a drab lane of graffitied garages ending in an ominous-looking wood. Here is a redbrick wall rising up flat and imposing before a row of council houses. Here is a single tall tree standing solitary amid an expanse of scrubby parkland. All are alive with possibility, aglow with resonance and suggestion. These are paintings that prove Larkin’s point that “nothing, like something, happens anywhere”, while simultaneously suggesting that Tile Hill is one of those places where nothing happening is the norm.
“It was – there’s no other way to put it – a nice place to grow up,” Shaw says, when we settle in his local on Ilfracombe’s main street over Guinness and cottage pie before an open fire. “A postwar council estate on the edge of Coventry, with trees, grass and loads of woodland just beyond. The last built-up area before the countryside took over. I don’t think it has ever left me, that sense of possibility and familiarity and possible danger lurking out there somewhere beyond. I haunted the place and now it haunts me.”
A retrospective show of Shaw’s paintings opens at the Baltic in Gateshead later this month. It is a kind of belated canonisation of an artist who, though he belongs to the same generation as Damien, Tracey et al, is as far from the stereotypical YBA as it is possibly to be without being a Stuckist. His friend, the late art critic and novelist Gordon Burn, caught Shaw perfectly when he pictured him “painting the back room of the social club in Tile Hill with all the seriousness of Monet painting Rouen Cathedral”.
Shaw, as the Baltic show reaffirms, is an artist curiously out of step and out of time. Like the references to classic sitcoms that pepper his speech (The Likely Lads, Hancock’s Half Hour, Steptoe and Son) and his sartorial style (brogues, button-down shirt, Crombie, more reformed football hooligan than carefully dishevelled bohemian), his paintings hark back to a time when things seemed simpler. He is a painter of everyday life as it is, or was when he was younger, though there is precious little life in his paintings: no adults, no children, no mongrels or pitbulls or startled wood pigeons, just quiet, deserted places.
“To me, they are teeming with human presences,” he says. “The people I grew up with, family, passers-by, they are all in there somewhere, embedded in the paintings.”
In one photograph of a pub called the Bell, you can glimpse a solitary figure reflected in the glass of a pub window – his late father, as spectral and insubstantial as a ghost.
“When I was approached by the Baltic to do this show,” says Shaw, “I thought, yes, this can be a kind of full stop, a good place to end the Coventry paintings. But then I went back home and it wasn’t like that at all. In fact, it was all a bit confusing.” He reaches for his pint. “I think it was all to do with my dad dying a few years ago, and being alone with my mum in the house, having this sense that everything was changing, everything running to a halt. But, at the same time, it also dawned on me that there was still a lot to do, that making the end part of this body of work might take longer than I thought. And that’s where I’m at right now: at the beginning of the end of the Coventry years.”
Later, I visit his cluttered but ordered studio a few minutes’ walk up the road, in the ground floor of a large house he shares with his long-term partner Kathryn. There, he will show me some drawings he made of George Shaw Sr in the hours before his father’s death. They are tender, intricate line drawings, almost holy. “What else do you do if you are waiting but get the sketchbook out?” he says.
I first encountered George Shaw’s work in a small book entitled What I Did This Summer, published in 2003 by the Ikon gallery. I was initially taken aback by the strange familiarity of Shaw’s urban landscapes, these in-between places that could belong to any suburban hinterland in any neglected British town. They reminded me in some unspecific but uncannily atmospheric way of the Northern Irish streets I haunted as an uncertain adolescent: the same redbrick enclaves and litter-strewn waste grounds, the same scrubby patches of green dotted with tired trees, the same neglected sheds, garages and potholed paths, the same mundane houses, boarded-up pubs and makeshift corner shops.
Time and time again, Shaw’s paintings of Tile Hill, which he describes as “essentially one big painting”, evoke the remembered experience of a particular kind of working-class adolescence in which waiting around – on street corners, in bus shelters, outside shops – becomes an end in itself. The psycho-geography of his youth seems to exert an almost obsessive hold on Shaw’s adult imagination. Why does he keep going back there, literally and metaphorically?
“I am a bit of a prowler,” he says, chuckling. “And, I’m a prowler with a camera. I have my territory that I revisit looking for clues to I’m not sure what. I might pass a certain place a hundred times and then, one day, something about it catches my eye. I take a few photographs, usually bad ones, then print them and toss them aside for a while until I find one particular image is nagging away at me. Something is definitely triggered by the photograph and it is that something that I am chasing after when I eventually make the painting.”
That something – a memory, an atmosphere, a recalled adolescent experience or encounter, hinted at but never delineated – lurks in all Shaw’s paintings of Tile Hill. It is there not just in the seemingly mundane subject matter, but in the almost realist style, a style that, in lesser hands, could teeter into kitsch or even folk art. It is there, too, in the sheen of the paint on the wooden surface: the now famous Humbrol sheen. In his choice of paint – Humbrol enamel of the kind used by generations of children to coat Airfix model planes, the miniature Spitfires and Hurricanes they had laboured over for hours – Shaw made his own almost imperceptible nod towards conceptualism, towards the supremacy of the idea and the process behind the art.
The Humbrol sheen lifts the paintings out of the realm of the purely representational, the ultra-realist, and takes it somewhere else, somewhere both old-fashioned and timeless, conservative yet contemporary. “It’s that glow that you only see when you’re walking home from the pub alone,” he says. “That solitary glow, the glow of a telly though a window or streetlights reflected on rain on the streets.” (There is a similar kind of almost eerie atmosphere about British photographer Jem Southam’s series, The Pond at Upton Pyne, which captures the ordinary beauty of a neglected village pond.)
You find yourself wondering if these nondescript places hold bigger secrets: are they crime spots or even murder sites? Could they be places that have a particular personal import for Shaw – an alley where he was beaten up, a wall beside which he had his first smoke, a garage in which he lost his virginity? He, cannily, is not telling: the mystery also resides, he says, in the weight of remembered experience the viewer brings to the work. For all their surface conservatism, then, Shaw’s paintings are a repository of imagined narratives as rich in their way as any pre-Raphaelite tableau or allegorical Victorian landscape.
“Sometimes,” he says, almost wistfully, “usually when I have finished a series of paintings, I look at the work and its innate conservatism shocks me. When I was growing up, I thought I was going to be a really contemporary artist doing video and installation work, capturing the zeitgeist and all that, but…” He pauses, laughing and shaking his head as if astounded at the folly of his younger self. “Then, I realised I was just lying to myself.”
Back in 2004, Channel 4 aired a documentary, entitled The Late George Shaw, as part of its short-lived series, The Art Show. In it, you can see George Shaw lying to himself in a short film he made at art school called The Stutter. It consists of a much younger and trimmer Shaw, with a Morrissey-style quiff and a face covered in what looks like talcum powder, being slapped in the face repeatedly by an off-screen tormentor, each slow-motion slap sounding like a small explosion. “Oh Christ, you’ve seen that?” he says, grimacing, “Classic art-school wank. The really sad thing is, and this still worries me a little, is that if someone had come along and bought the work I was making then, I might have got blinded by the bollocks and carried on in that vein.”
The young George Shaw discovered he had a talent for painting at primary school, when he suddenly found himself popular with his classmates because he could “draw crushed-up cans of Coke and trainers, as well as pictures of Terry Hall from the Specials that actually looked like him rather than an alien from Planet Zog”. His father worked for British Leyland, read avidly, and, like his mother, supported his son wholeheartedly in his pursuit of painting. “If I’d wanted to be snooker player or a carpenter, he would have been the same. Do it and do it to the best of your ability. Push yourself. His only fear was that I’d go to university and come back as Ken Barlow.”
His father also encouraged him, his brother and his sisters, to watch television dramas by Dennis Potter and Ken Loach, as well as the sitcoms of working-class life that still fascinate him today. “He would never show you the content of his own mind or his own heart, but he would always nudge you in the direction of his interests and passions – ‘Watch this! Read this!’ I remember the first time I watched The Likely Lads, the shock of recognition. It was like two guys dressed up as people I knew re-enacting real-life dramas that I recognised.”
The two were close throughout his father’s life and one senses that George Sr remains an abiding presence. “He lived in Coventry but he wasn’t from there, so he had this outsider’s outlook on the place. I think he passed that sensibility on to me. Plus, he had a fascination with mortality and death, with time running out, that I have definitely inherited. I’m obsessed with time passing. Always have been, even as a child. You know that Eliot line from The Waste Land: ‘Hurry up please, it’s time’? That’s it exactly. Even in the pub, time is racing past and I’m always trying to stop it somehow.”
His paintings often have strangely apposite titles, usually taken from the New Testament. One series is called The Passion; another, which depicts Tile Hill at seven different hours of the day, is called Ash Wednesday. “Originally, I was going to call them dead obvious names like A Tree, A Pub, A House, A Corner, but then I had this idea to give them bumptious titles as I was in thrall to James Joyce and TS Eliot. I didn’t know any Greek or Latin, just the New Testament, so A House became The Washing of Hands and A Pub became Jesus Falls for the Third Time. You often see people stare at the paintings, then stare at the titles, even more baffled.” He was, he adds pointedly, “doing religious titles before Damien”.
Shaw, whose mother was from Co Donegal, was brought up Catholic, which, he says, “fine-tuned his sense of being an outsider”. As a teenager in the 1980s, he graduated from being a skinhead dancing to 2-Tone records to an indie kid in thrall to Joy Division and Cabaret Voltaire. After obtaining a BA in fine art from Sheffield Polytechnic in 1989, “I was a bit like Tony Hancock in The Rebel, except that I was pretending to like Throbbing Gristle instead of the Specials and the Smiths. The only time I ever had any anxiety about where I come from was when I was sitting in a room with a load of middle-class art students talking about their lives. Until then, I had never thought of Tile Hill as a place I had somehow escaped out of. When I lived there, it was not a place I wanted to leave behind. It just was what it was – my life.”
It took him several years after college to reconnect with his sense of place and his art, the one feeding into the other. In 1996, to his great surprise, he was accepted for an MA in painting at the Royal College of Art in London. It was the start of a road back to the kind of painting he wanted – needed – to do.
“I had this sudden realisation of my younger self when I was starting out as a painter. Between the ages of 13 and 17, say, I was completely and utterly passionate about what I did. There was nothing superficial about it, no sentiment, no questioning. I wanted to be an artist so I looked in books and I turned my bedroom into a studio. I was certain, but that certainty was diluted along the way, especially at art school.”
He takes a deep breath and gathers his thoughts, which have been tumbling out of him. “I didn’t want to do anything after art school but when I eventually went back to painting, all I could think about was that extraordinary enthusiasm I once had. It was a real sentimental journey back to find the person I once was, and to find a way of making a serious painting about the place I was born and grew up in without someone thinking it kitsch or ironic.”
In a way, he has been on that same journey ever since. Shaw’s retrospective show at the Baltic is called The Sly and Unseen Day, a quote taken from a passage in Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, in which the eponymous heroine imagines the day of her death waiting on the calendar, unmarked, inevitable, to take her by surprise. As well as highlighting the dark undertone of Shaw’s work – time, transience, the inevitability of death – the show places him very much in a English realist tradition, though one defined more by certain matter-of-fact writers – Larkin, the Orwell of Coming Up for Air and The Road to Wigan Pier – and certain essentially English popular songwriters: vintage Ray Davies, early Paul Weller, Morrissey at his most Mancunian.
“I’m a child of the classic pop song and classic sitcom,” he says, chuckling. “I explore within a painterly tradition what usually gets explored though TV drama or music. I’ve thought about this a lot and, like most things in Britain, it’s to do with class. It’s like when I went down to London as a teenager to visit the National Gallery or the Tate: as much as I loved a lot of the work, I never felt it reflected anything of my life back to me. But, when I went into Woolworths and listened to the latest single by the Jam or the Specials, I heard my life reflected back loud and clear, and with all its tensions and uncertainties. There was always this opposition being put up: art was not about my life, whereas pop culture was. And, I didn’t like that opposition, still don’t, even though in a way I still work out of it.”
Thus far, Ilfracombe, which is more Betjeman than Larkin in its threadbare seasideiness, has had no apparent effect on Shaw’s paintings, either formally or in terms of their subject matter. (He lived in DH Lawrence’s hometown, Eastwood, before relocating here, and it, too, had little impact on his work’s extraordinary sense of place.) In his expansive studio on the ground floor of a former high-street shop, Shaw’s imagination returns daily to those two square miles in and around the Tile Hill estate in Coventry where he grew up.
Lately, he has been painting Tile Hill in watercolours, and enthuses about Payne’s grey, a shade that, he insists, is “the colour of English rain”. Perfect, then, for the rendering of an everyday England that still exists out there in that neglected suburban hinterland where nothing – and everything – happens daily. A place we might now call Shawland.
This feature was republished on 15/2/11 to accord with the print edition
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010