George Shaw: a sense of our time, acute and troubled

George Shaw

Back in February my attention was drawn by a Guardian feature on the paintings made by George Shaw of the Tile Hill  neighbourhood in Coventry where he grew up.  Below is a repost of my response to these paintings – to mark the occasion of the Turner Prize not being awarded to Shaw, sadly in my view.

As Adrian Searle notes in The Guardian today, George Shaw’s paintings of the dilapidated, nondescript landscapes of our inner cities and edgelands demonstrate a ‘sense of our time [that] is … acute and troubled’.  In October, I encountered one of Shaw’s paintings, The End of Time, in an exhibition at the Turnpike Gallery in Leigh.

On the Channel 4 News website, Culture Editor Matthew Cain writes:

George Shaw was born in Coventry in 1966. He studied at Sheffield before later doing an MA at the Royal College of Art in London. He now lives and works in Ilfracombe, North Devon. … Shaw is a painter whose subject matter is the council estate in Coventry where he grew up – and often the mundane everyday objects within it. He paints exclusively in the Humbrol enamel paint used by young model-makers, which again gives his work a unique, instantly recognisable quality.

This unconventional choice could be understood on many levels; it gives the work a child-like, humble quality while on the other hand could be read as a defiant rejection of the history of art and, in particular, oil painting.  There is also a haunting quality to the work and much of it suggests a passage of time and even hints at the inevitability of death. Shaw told me while looking around the show that he identifies with writers more than artists, which makes a lot of sense; for me, his paintings constitute fragments or even pages in a personal and very moving memoir.

According to the judges, Shaw’s work lies at the very edge of tradition. This is because he gives the traditional form of painting his own unique twist; he works exclusively in Humbrol enamel paint, the kind of paint used by children on Airfix model planes.  As one critic said: “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.”

George Shaw: Ash Wednesday

In March, Michael Glover wrote this appreciation of Shaw’s Tile Hill paintings, then being exhibited at the Baltic, Gateshead:

For almost two decades, George Shaw has been painting, doggedly and systematically, the unprepossessing, post-war housing estate in Coventry where he grew up. The means he uses – Humbrol household paints – are as modest in their workadayness and as limited in their tonal range as the subject matter itself. It is as if Shaw has positively wanted to strait-jacket himself in this way.

Almost everything that we see in these paintings is face-on and centred within the picture frame, as if shamelessly gawping back at us: groups of garages; the end wall of a house; the local bus stop or the cop shop. He often favours nooks and crannies, odd twists in a road, locked doors and gates. Everything is past its best. The very idea of these places having had a best in the first place is almost laughable. There is a curious absence of humanity. Occasionally, the lights will be on in an upstairs room, but that is as much of a human presence as these paintings ever register. The light is often uniformly dull and subdued, almost sourly so, edging off to evening. There is frequent evidence of the aftermath of rain – the wet sheen on flag stones, making them look uneven, drab, a clichéd reminder of a culture blighted by chill and damp.

Dead End shows us a view of a garages, with a pitted approach road. The garages face a wall. There is no way out. As usual, nothing is happening. The very bleakness of the scene gives it a mild air of menace, as if it has been singled out for attention because it looks so troublingly unremarkable. Locked gates, boarded-up windows, graffitied walls feel like sad calls for attention. It could be a crime scene. In general, the subject matter seems to be talking itself down. The mood is anti-heroic, bleak, Larkinesque. By contrast, the titles talk up the paintings, as if giving them a gravitas they have no right to possess. An entire sequence takes Christ’s Passion as its collective title – a nod in the direction of Shaw’s sometime Catholicism. It is as if he is recording a time between times, not only when nothing actually happens, but when nothing deserves to happen. Occasionally, symbolism is brought into play, a touch heavy-handedly. A painting entitled Ash Wednesday shows us a distant church behind a stout fence, bathed in a dying orange light. This is almost a poem written by the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold, about the slow, melancholy withering away of organised religion. And, come to think of it, quite a lot of these paintings – and especially the ones that capture the moods of snatches of woodlands and park – seem positively pre-Raphaelite in their fastidious attention to flowers and leaves.

And yet, for all their unremarkableness, these paintings are utterly remarkable. They seem to have captured, quite uncannily, the quidditas of the humdrum, and to be raising it up in front of our eyes as if inviting us to look behind and beyond what we see. They are not so much their banal subject matter as the products of a painter who is haunted by that subject matter. They are not so much the depiction of a circumscribed world as a view of England, dying into itself, unloved, unregarded.

There’s an extensive gallery of George Shaw paintings here.

The Guardian has a video of George Shaw’s exhibition at the Baltic earlier this year here.

Here’s my own post written at the time:

George Shaw: Nothing happens anywhere

George Shaw: The Time Machine, 2010

These look interesting: paintings by George Shaw (featured in a Guardian gallery here) of  scenes of typical urban desolation on Tile Hill housing estate in Coventry, where he grew up.  I think they speak  expressively of the landscapes through which we hurry each day, their elements so familiar that they become almost invisible to us.  Look at the metal fencing in the painting above – it’s of a type seen everywhere, like the squat brick block it protects.  Look at the way the brickwork at the corner of the fenced area has collapsed, how the sycamore saplings are thrusting through the bars, and the scrubby, worn grass and sinking flags of the path in the foreground.  It’s all around us, a nothingness that’s everywhere.

Writing about Shaw’s paintings in The Observer, Sean O’Hagan recalled the poem by Philip Larkin, in which memories of his own childhood in Coventry are triggered by his northbound train unexpectedly halting there.  ‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere’, concludes Larkin. It’s that sense of nothingness that is captured in Shaw’s work.

George Shaw: Landscape with Dog Shit Bin, 2010

As Sean O’Hagan writes, ‘Shaw… records the mundane, the quotidian and the overlooked. In doing so, he somehow renders the everyday mysterious’.  In ‘Landscape with Dog Shit Bin’ (above) we see this clearly, the lingering signs of municipal projects, abandoned or forgotten.  Was this a car park? What happens here now?  Amid the natural browns and greens and the grey of the tarmac, there’s the bright, red flag of the dog shit bin.

Sean O’Hagan again:

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.

George Shaw grew up on the Tile Hill estate in the early 1970s. The estate his family had moved to in 1968 was built after the war, as part of the nationwide programme to create modern housing for working class families. The estate is cut across by long paths and roads, and edged with woods, a remnant of what was once the Forest of Arden. Shaw has used this suburban environment as the inspiration to paint his highly detailed, photo-realistic works whose vividness derives from his use of Humbrol model paint (the kind used by generations of kids to coat Airfix model planes).  This gives the paintings a surface sheen:  ‘It’s that glow that you only see when you’re walking home from the pub alone,’  says Shaw.  ‘That solitary glow, the glow of a telly though a window or streetlights reflected on rain on the streets’.


George Shaw, The Back that Used to be the Front, 2008

He paints the back of the social club in Tile Hill with all the seriousness of Monet painting Rouen Cathedral.
– Gordon Burns

Looking at Shaw’s paintings reminded me of Thomas Jones’ painting – remarkable for 1782 – ‘A Wall in Naples’, about which the late Tom Lubbock commented:

A wall is nothing to look at.  As far as a representational picture can be, this is a picture of nothing. As such, it also faces an important fact – the fact that we spend quite a lot of time looking at not much. It’s a side of our visual lives that the art of painting generally overlooks. ‘A Wall in Naples’ is a tribute to all those non-focal moments, when our gaze does not settle on anything in particular. The glimpse of the world that this painting preserves is one of those occasions, when sight grasps nothing, when sight is simply stopped – comes up against a brick wall.

Thomas Jones, A Wall in Naples, 1782

Sean O’Hagan’s article not only introduced me to the work of George Shaw, but also that of photographer Jem Southam.  There is, writes Hagan, ‘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’.

Jem Southam, The Pond at Upton Pyne, January 1999

I Remember, I Remember
by Philip Larkin

Coming up England by a different line
For once, early in the cold new year,
We stopped, and, watching men with number plates
Sprint down the platform to familiar gates,
‘Why, Coventry!’ I exclaimed. “I was born here.’

I leant far out, and squinnied for a sign
That this was still the town that had been ‘mine’
So long, but found I wasn’t even clear
Which side was which. From where those cycle-crates
Were standing, had we annually departed

For all those family hols? . . . A whistle went:
Things moved. I sat back, staring at my boots.
‘Was that,’ my friend smiled, ‘where you “have your roots”?’
No, only where my childhood was unspent,
I wanted to retort, just where I started:

By now I’ve got the whole place clearly charted.
Our garden, first: where I did not invent
Blinding theologies of flowers and fruits,
And wasn’t spoken to by an old hat.
And here we have that splendid family

I never ran to when I got depressed,
The boys all biceps and the girls all chest,
Their comic Ford, their farm where I could be
‘Really myself’. I’ll show you, come to that,
The bracken where I never trembling sat,

Determined to go through with it; where she
Lay back, and ‘all became a burning mist’.
And, in those offices, my doggerel
Was not set up in blunt ten-point, nor read
By a distinguished cousin of the mayor,

Who didn’t call and tell my father There
Before us, had we the gift to see ahead –
‘You look as though you wished the place in Hell,’
My friend said, ‘judging from your face.’ ‘Oh well,
I suppose it’s not the place’s fault,’ I said.

‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.’

Also raised in Coventry (though not Tile Hill, as far as I’m aware) were Jerry Dammers and Terry Hall of The Specials.  Their song, ‘Ghost Town’, about the decline of the town during the recession of the early 1980s,  spent three weeks at number one in 1981 at the same time as the riots in Toxteth and Brixton.  The lyrics seem germane once again:

This town, is coming like a ghost town
All the clubs have been closed down
This place, is coming like a ghost town
Bands won’t play no more
too much fighting on the dance floor

Do you remember the good old days
Before the ghost town?
We danced and sang,
And the music played inna de boomtown

This town, is coming like a ghost town
Why must the youth fight against themselves?
Government leaving the youth on the shelf
This place, is coming like a ghost town
No job to be found in this country
Can’t go on no more
The people getting angry

Be Young and Shut Up

Watching the live coverage on Channel 4 News last night of the Turner Prize award ceremony at the Tate, I sensed a whiff of 1968 in the air.  Mobilised via Facebook and Twitter, two hundred students from Goldsmiths, the Slade, St Martin’s, Camberwell and other art colleges had left occupations across London to disrupt the Turner award ceremony in protest against upcoming government cuts to arts and humanities funding.

As Channel 4 cameras filmed the cultural elite arriving and air-kissing, the chants of the protesters occupying the Tate entrance hall could be heard clearly: ‘We are not just here to fight fees! We are here to fight philistinism!’  As Tate director Nicholas Serota introduced the event, the din continued.  Nor did he miss the opportunity to underline the point:  ‘Everyone who cares about the arts is bound to be concerned by cuts to arts in higher education. Art schools have been laboratories for the kind of work that has gone on to win the Turner prize’.

The protesters’ chanting could be heard as sound artistSusan Philipsz accepted the prize as this year’s winner. Later, she added her support to the demonstrators case that her generation of artists had benefitted from free education and a good investment in arts education.  ‘It’s becoming really difficult for people to have an education with all the grants being cut. I really do sympathise with them – everyone has the right to an education’.

It certainly evoked memories of ’68, another time when the cultural barricades were mounted and students protested at inequalities in higher education.  In February 1968, when the French Minister of Culture, Andre Malraux removed Henri Langlois as the director and cut the funding of the Cinémathèque Française in Paris, the heartbeat of the Nouvelle Vague,  there were violent protests at the Cinémathèque (in which one of the participants was an as-yet unknown Daniel Cohn-Bendit).   An international uproar by cineasts culminated in the shutdown of the Cannes Film Festival that year. Langlois was ultimately reinstated as the director of the Cinémathèque and full government funding restored.

Meanwhile, on this side of the Channel, in May 1968, some students and staff began an occupation at Hornsey Art College, in protest at what they saw as increasingly authoritarian control over their education (remembered earlier this year in Tate Etc, the Tate’s art magazine). The local authorities quickly relinquished control, the college Principal left the building, and so the remaining staff and students took over the day-to-day running of the college for the remainder of the term – this included organising classes, staffing and resources, managing the canteen facilities and overseeing essential building maintenance.

Another parallel between the events of December 2010 and those of May 1968 is their imaginative forms and slogans.  Recent demonstrations have been notable for their witty, individual slogans on home-made placards, just as the May events spawned a plethora of libertarian slogans such as:

  • Soyez réalistes, demandez l’impossible. (Be realistic, demand the impossible).
  • On achète ton bonheur. Vole-le. (Your happiness is being bought. Steal it back).
  • Sous les pavés, la plage! (Beneath the pavement, the beach!)
  • L’imagination au pouvoir! (Power to the imagination!)


  • Sois Jeune et Tais Toi (Be Young and Shut Up) [above]

The slogan I remember vividly was a British one – ‘Don’t Demand, Occupy!’ was the poster-cover of The Black Dwarf, the radical newspaper edited by Tariq Ali and others.  I first saw it in October 1968,  travelling down to London for the second big anti-Vietnam war demonstration, when that issue of The Black Dwarf circulated on the coach.

It was nonsense, of course – but at once thrilling, capturing as it did the disposition of the times: no time to waste articulating a position – just do it!   It must have been in that spirit that the editorial board decided on the slogan.  Black Dwarf had enthusiastically supported the Hornsey occupation, which had been followed by sit-ins at Colchester, Hull, Brighton, Coventry and the London School of Economics.  All of them, by the way, energised by a raft of demands!

This month’s protests have been particularly imaginative in their utilisation of social networks, gathering crowds via Facebook and twitter.  On Saturday, UK Uncut mounted successful protests at two dozen Topshop stores around the country, imaginatively making the link between the tax avoided by companies like Philip Green’s Arcadia and the public spending cuts: if the rich paid their fair share, public services could be maintained and the poor safeguarded.

As Polly Toynbee commented in today’s Guardian:

What a clever, well-targeted protest. When the whistle blew and the protesters emerged from among milling shoppers perusing handbags and hats, it took just a few hundred people to shut down Philip Green’s flagship branch of Topshop, in London’s Oxford Street – and 22 other stores in his empire around the country. Summoned by Twitter, the UK Uncut movement brings together an instant army, peaceful, good-natured and witty in its songs and chants. For a while they stopped Green’s tills ringing on the year’s busiest shopping Saturday. […]

Philip Green, quite legally, put the ownership of his Arcadia empire into his wife’s name in Monaco and paid her £1.2bn, tax free. (If only some gigolo would sweep Lady Green off her feet and so make off with all her husband’s untaxed billions). Arcadia is not some flighty finance company, easy to base anywhere: its money is earned in UK high streets from British pockets and the law could make it pay British tax – as it should Cadbury, whose profits Kraft is moving to tax haven Switzerland. […]

Toynbee concludes:

This week there are daily protests: women were outside the high court today against a budget that cuts 72% from women; tomorrow schools and sports celebrities protest against the axing of the school sports budget; Wednesday and Thursday see two days of student protest. This has hardly begun. Wait for the rest in next year’s great post-April shock. The knack is for protesters to stand on principle and on the side of the public: students are protesting against cuts that hit their successors, not themselves. Everyone is affected by tax dodgers whose lost funds could cover the deficit.

Be young and stand up!