In his complex exhibition “A Corner of a Foreign Field, realist English painter George Shaw undertakes a time traveling odyssey to investigate the flourishing forested environs and the remains of Tile Hill, the post war council estate in England where he grew up. From 1996 to 2018, Shaw produced 70 paintings, prints, sketchbooks and 60 drawings that poignantly capture, in a “before” and “after” sequel, images of what a relatively short time ago was a vibrant neighborhood as it atrophies from neglect. The show is subdivided into ten themes that evolve through the course of the exhibition: there is “Recording a World,” “Landmarks and Memorials,” “Graffiti and Abstraction,” “Ash Wednesday,” and “The End of Time,” to name but a few. The artist blends references to art history, personal memory, popular culture and 70s political realities to create a convincing amalgam of visual art whose reminiscent energy can be viscerally felt.
As the political support for welfare diminished, interest in the concept of the council estate faded and residents whose jobs were outsourced decamped elsewhere in search of livelihoods. In the twenty-first century, merely ten to fifteen years since its heyday, this once dynamic community became decayed and diminished, becoming the ruins of deserted homes, garages, playing fields and clubhouses whose decline is a source of indignation and regret at the obvious waste. Positive memories no doubt endure, as this insightful show does not read as morose.
Right: George Shaw, “The Rude Screen,” 2015–16, Humbrol enamel on canvas, Private Collection, courtesy of the artist and the Anthony Wilkinson Gallery, London. © George Shaw 2018.
Shaw relates his romps in woods as a youth to mythology and masterworks in his painting entitled “The Rude Screen.” He eloquently translates a random crumpled tarpaulin caught on tree branches into an exquisite drapery study linked in color to Renaissance images of the Madonna as well as to Titian’s masterpiece “Diana and Actaeon.” With a contemporary touch, another painting of woods is strewn with torn pages of pornography that hints at the recent doings in the shadows. The work entitled “Every Brush Stroke Is Torn Out Of My Body,” displays a splash of the reddest blood that drips from a tree trunk, perhaps in requiem for Christ’s passion. Trees continue to remain symbols of the Christian cross. Through millennia, humans have come to realize their correspondence with trees; both have long limbs and narrow “fingers,” they are both erect but keep their “feet” situated on the ground. Subconsciously, we still experience our interconnection to trees. The convincing large-scale charcoal “Woodland” drawings seem to invite the viewer to step into the lush elaborate forest scenes as if in long awaited homecoming, but cut logs leave a taste of dismay.
Left: George Shaw, “Scenes from the Passion: No. 57,” Humbrol enamel on Board, 1996.
Shaw persuasively renders the council estate houses of Tile Hill, with the bittersweet melancholy appeal of Edward Hopper’s small American towns seen in the twilight of lost importance at the glow of a fading day. His sensitive depiction of walls and windows is especially moving, as houses morph into subliminal faces with “window” eyes and “door” mouths that subsume the personas of their occupants. The home is an intimate structure that replaces the maternal womb. It is a place of rituals and sacraments in our relationships, a nucleus of solitude, and of safety. It is the essence of contentment and belonging, which provides shelter and containment. The human psyche is often thought of as a house with various levels that progress through time (p.556, The Book of Symbols, ARAS, Taschen, 2010). Shaw’s comparisons, then and now of the once glorious Art Deco hotel in “The Age of Bullshit,” are deeply telling of the folly of wrong-minded governmental policies. In a piece from the “Recording a World” group, Shaw reveals enduring beauty which survives as sublime visual poetry in the puddle that reflects a string of deserted garages. The enigmatic painting entitled “No Return” portrays a stunningly painted light green fence, which hides all but pale intimations of the milieu behind it.
Right: George Shaw, “It’s All The Same to Me,” 2014–15, Humbrol enamel on board,Private Collection, courtesy of the artist and the Anthony Wilkinson Gallery, London. © George Shaw 2018.
The “Spare Time” series, a group comprised of forty-six drawings from 2005 – 2008, including collages and found objects, offers a pastiche of popular culture and pornography that speaks of youthful fun and obsession. There is a head of Frankenstein, and a portrait of Francis Bacon entitled “Old Clothes Do Not Make A Tortured Artist” among Shaw’s drawings of his adolescent monsters and idols. Beautiful naked and scantily clothed, seductively posed women make this display a brimming visual diary of a boy who discovered young what matters most, and had the intuition to inscribe it on paper and canvas. Shaw’s use of challenging Humbrol enamel model airplane paint, another holdover from his younger days, puts a sheen-like burnish to his elegantly executed painterly finishes.
Muted yet perceptible spiritual references form the underpinnings of the “Scenes from the Passion” and the “Ash Wednesday” groups. The “Ash Wednesday” series (the first day of Lent in a Catholic season of penance) displays in a progression of times in one day, views of Tile Hill and its trees, whose shadow forms allude to the words from Catholic liturgy, “We are dust and unto dust we shall return.” The artist, inspired by the spirituality of the works of William Blake, references what can be deduced as hints of Golgotha and Gethsemane in the trees’ cross-like branches and transparent deep lingering shadows.
Left George Shaw, Scenes from The Passion: A few days before Christmas, 1998, Humbrol enamel on board, Private Collection, courtesy of the artist and the Anthony Wilkinson Gallery, London, © George Shaw 2018
George Shaw’s ambitious autobiographical works display with loving constancy his appreciation for the surviving beauty and pathos redolent of cherished memories. The Tile Hill area, though neglected, continues to hold treasures of form and color in architectural constructions and in the richness of its natural habitat. His mesmerizing woodland works, including “Scenes from the Passion: A Few Days before Christmas” are brilliantly vibrant and quietly alive. “Scenes from the Passion: The Way Home,” and “Scenes from the Passion: Pig Wood,” take the viewer through paths and a clearing respectively, into an area of shadow, mystery and verdant depths of freshness. Each painting brings tree-forms such as twigs, branches and trunks, dark silhouettes and deep green leaves into a finely detailed network that has survived to provide an escape from the untended structures they surround.
These works are not concerned with emotional expression. Nor are they conceptual; there are no texts included within the pristine formats. Conscientious observation plays a crucial role in the unfolding of images that establish an experiential autobiographical diary which comments with discretion on culture, politics and societal priorities and values. While art in general has evolved over time into many peripheral forms, miraculously, the core of visual art has not altered greatly since its origins in the caves of Lascaux and Altamira. The show is about seeing and remembering. With the exception of Picasso’s art, and the genesis of abstraction in the twentieth century, visual art remains largely about sensory perception.
Right: George Shaw, “Scenes from the Passion: The Hawthorne Tree,” Humbrol enamel on board, 2001.
The exhibition is not dry or academic; visually it flows fluently, but for this viewer the numerous subdivisions into sections and categories are a bit daunting; the informed public is canny at discerning differences and nuances to be found in artworks. Some of the titles read as short essays in themselves. Shaw is nothing if not thorough. His works are focused on the reality of a surviving realm of charm whose persistent though damaged presence may possibly provide a metaphor for human life as it progresses through our decades of wear. This is a memorable exhibition of masterly poetic scope.
By Mary Hrbacek, Contributing Writer
George Shaw: A Corner of a Foreign Field at Yale Center For British Art
Through December, 2018
View films commissoned by YCBA about the life and times of British artist and Turner Prize winner, George Shaw.