In 1938, a member of the American Abstract Artists Group, Ibram Lassaw, published an essay in the American Artists’ Yearbook in which he highlighted the central credos of interwar abstraction, arguing that the painting’s status is “its own reality” and not merely a secondary representation of external reality.
His power lay in his ability to express direct emotion while reinventing art from first principles. Artists were abandoning traditional styles and working methods that came from different philosophical and psychological mindsets, as well as different technological eras. The important thing was that the art was alive, full of suggestions and possibilities. As Jürgen Habermas wrote in Modernity – An Incomplete Project – “modernity revolts once again against the normalizing functions of tradition; modernity lives from the experience of rebellion against everything that is normative”. This meant that in the closing years of the last century and the early years of this, there was little room for painting that could be considered narrative. The painting and its properties were the only stories in town.
Shaw’s scenarios suggest existential isolation in their dark emptiness
But with postmodernism‘s deconstruction of modernist shibboleths, the dogmas dissolved. Where abstraction had prevailed, artists began to find new ways to engage with figuration. One of them is the British painter George Shaw, who embraced the liminal spaces of his childhood social housing estate to create paintings that, despite their pedestrian subject matter, suggest the romantic sublime. After the war, these estates promised those in town centers and bomb-damaged buildings without adequate sanitation a new Shangri-la. With their manicured front gardens, indoor washrooms and fitted kitchens, these neat little homes represented a plumbing utopia.
Built on brown sites and unproductive farmland, all of the ticky-tacky huts looked pretty much alike. These instant communities had no history or social ties. A purpose-built pub or a small local shop might be the only nod to creating all things community. Most of the time, residents had to take a bus to the local town to do their shopping or go to school. That these properties quickly became dilapidated and dilapidated, their new cracked concrete, green mold and graffiti covering the walls, is not surprising. And for the young people, what was there? Nothing but the boredom of hanging around garages kicking a football or a trip to the surrounding wastelands to smoke, sneer at dirty magazines and smoke a little dope.
This was the backdrop to George Shaw’s early life before art took him to Sheffield Polytechnic and the Royal College of Art. After graduating he came to prominence with his paintings of Tulse Hill, a suburb of Coventry where he grew up in the 1970s, ‘The Local’, on display at The Box, Plymouth, reflects the sightings personal information about isolation. , loss and belonging told in three chapters. The first painting encountered is Le Nouveau Romantique. A large oak tree with a heart sprayed with silver paint on its trunk. References are multi-layered. There is a nod to early 1980s youth culture with its icons such as David Bowie, as well as 18th century German Romanticism and British landscape painting. In Shaw’s childhood, trees in the local woods acted as billboards, announcing the desires and frustrations of disgruntled local youth. At one point, this oak tree had a swastika sprayed on its trunk with fluorescent green paint, which then had to be covered with a bright yellow heart.
He is to the English HLM what Edward Hopper was to the American restaurant.
Shaw’s scripts suggest existential isolation in their dark void. He is to the English HLM what Edward Hopper was to the American Diner. Yet, while Hopper’s paintings included lost souls such as the Nighthawks in a nearly empty diner, Shaw’s paintings are mostly devoid of people. We find ourselves asking questions about the lives of those we cannot see. What invisible despair hides behind the curtains? What shattered dreams are suggested by Injury Time, 2019, a painting where a storm-broken tree stands center stage on a scruffy green border in front of two small houses, shrouded in gray skies. Everywhere there is a sense of absence, a sense of what has been lost. The small groups of identical houses ooze melancholy. While it’s not quite the romanticized yearning Wordsworth felt for his lost childhood days of “splendor in the grass,” there’s still a powerful nostalgia here. A row of orange plastic fences, along with traffic cones, block the entrance to a cul-de-sac of sparse houses. The image seems to suggest that the past can never be reclaimed, while elsewhere a section of the same orange fence closes off a path that leads from the edge of the estate to a distant group of trees, evoking the lines of Rudyard Kipling: they close the road through the woods/seventy years ago.’ Fragility and transience are hallmarks of Shaw’s work.
Titles are important to him. The painting of a lone soccer ball sitting in front of two small mounds of dirt, the grim housing estate in the background, is titled The Goal Mouth Revisited (2019-21). It’s not hard to imagine a handful of scruffy little boys spending wet afternoons kicking a ball rambling around this makeshift pitch. Many works have the word “revisited” in their title: The Subway Revisited, Sunday Evening Revisited and The Banana Flats Revisited (all 2019-2021). It is as if the artist were in perpetual search for a lost prelapse world. Besides looking back, he said the paintings anticipate a time when he will be nowhere. “And there will be a time (closer and closer each day) when the world will be filled with only what the human leaves behind.” I paint ghosts.
The exhibition continues with a series of new paintings of the sky above his childhood home and a poignant group of meticulous drawings that focus on near-empty interiors and incidental objects – the row of pegs casting their shadows, a net curtain hanging from a window. , the kitchen sink – made after the loss of his mother.
The final section of the exhibition features a series of paintings of Shaw seen from the back, walking along a country road, a path leading from the former family home. Like the disappearing man, he becomes smaller through each painting until we are left with just the road, an image of departure and inevitable disappearance. The fact that they are painted with Humbrol enamel paint, the kind he used as a child to paint Airfix models and on shop signs, fairground rides and narrowboats, gives extra meaning to remembering things. past.
Perhaps the new paintings of stone circles, sunrises and laburnum in his Devon garden, painted during lockdown, are less successful. Although technically adept, they lack the poetic power of his estate works, with their romantic dystopian melancholy. For what is unique about Shaw’s finest work is his ability to make paintings that resonate with stories of forgetting and remembering, establishing him as the visual Proust of suburbia.
Words/Photos Sue Hubbard © Artlyst 2022
George Shaw The Local The Box, Plymouth until 4 September 2020
Sue Hubbard is an award-winning freelance art critic, poet and novelist. Her fourth collection of poetry, Swimming to Albania, is published by www.salmonpoetry.com. Her latest novel, Rainsongs, is published by Duckworth and her fourth, Flatlands, is due out at Pushkin Press in 2023.