Platform
A new leaf

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 47, Summer 2016

Page 40

Platform
A new leaf

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 47, Summer 2016

Page 40

Platform
A new leaf

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 47, Summer 2016

Page 40

Platform
A new leaf

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 47, Summer 2016

Page 40

Platform
A new leaf

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 47, Summer 2016

Page 40

Renowned for his suburban subject matter and painting in Humbrol enamel, George Shaw tells Michael Prodger how he raised his game to take on the Old Masters at the National Gallery

In 2014, when George Shaw took up his two-year residency as Associate Artist at the National Gallery, he had mixed feelings about accepting the invitation. He had been going to the gallery since he was a teenager in Coventry in the 1970s, but settling down to interact with the greatest artists in history was, to put it mildly, disconcerting. He was in awe amounting to fear of Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens et al and didn't know what the effect of living with that fear might be.

But in the end he decided that, if nothing else, the experience "would give me a kick up the backside". And, he admits, it did.
Nominated for the Turner Prize in 2011, Shaw belongs to the same generation as the Young British Artists, but he is not of them. There is nothing bohemian, knowingly metropolitan or show-offy about him. He has just turned 50, sports a ginger buzzcut, and is an exceptionally affable man who talks thoughtfully and unaffectedly about art.

He is best known for his haunting pictures of the unlovely edgelands around the Coventry council estate where he grew up – ramshackle garages, broken fences, graffitied walls and angular trees. All are scenes bearing the traces of a human presence, but the people are absent. The environment offered by the National Gallery couldn't be more different.

The results of his residency are now on display in an exhibition titled George Shaw: My Back to Nature (titles are very important to him). "Making art is by its nature arrogant", he tells me when we meet to look at the new pictures, "so a little lack of self-awareness helps." But Shaw is not an arrogant man ("I've never had the laurels to rest on") and his time at the National helped him come to terms not only with his own art, but with the art of the past, too. With the position of Associate Artist comes a studio beneath the main rooms and access to pretty much all the gallery's business, from the collection to the back-of-house activities. He was observing the conservation department at work and seeing pictures out of their frames when he realized that even the greatest paintings are essentially just "objects made by real people" rather than semi-religious artifacts, and even the most lauded painters are really only other versions of him, "They still got hungry or bored or needed to scratch, they still worried about the bills being paid." It both humanized the artists and gave him a new respect for painting
itself: "It's difficult."

Curiously for a painter who eschews the human figure, he began to look at "body pictures" when he arrived at the National Gallery. He immersed himself in the collection's innumerable dead Christs and "naked women in the woods". He would draw in front of them early in the morning before the public came in and gradually found that he was returning to certain themes; the figures started to "dissolve" from his drawings.

The themes that gripped him are broadly sylvan and Ovidian. In paintings such as Giovanni Bellini's brutal The Assassination of St Peter Martyr, Poussin's The Triumph of Pan and Titian's Diana and Actaeon, he saw images of what goes on in the woods when you leave the safety and order of the town behind. For Shaw, woods are places where "something – anything – could happen. They are sites of transgression and transformation." He found, too, that the pictures reminded him of the scrubby woodland where as a boy he would hang around, killing time and getting up to low-level illicitness. "I saw the great themes of the National Gallery being played out in the landscapes of my childhood," he says. Not murder, of course, but underage drinking and sexual investigation with the aid of porn magazines – a sort-of bacchanalia in the 1970s Midlands.

Shaw doesn't like to press the resemblances, but his new paintings make oblique references to the National's pictures in all sorts of ways. For example, the foreground of Poussin's The Triumph of Pan is littered with clothes, wine cups and flowers, discarded as the revels heat up; the detritus reminded Shaw of the beer cans, glue-sniffers' bags and condoms he would find in the woods as a youngster, "the remnants of something from the night before".

In pictures such as The Tree of Whatever, showing a mound of empty cans piled into the hollow between four joined tree trunks, he hints at what that 'something' might have been. More clues are offered in other paintings: The School of Love shows a mattress thrown into some bushes; The Heart of the Wood portrays a clearing with the ashes of an impromptu fire at the center. His woods are definitely not bucolic glades – they have a distinct edge to them. As in all his work, stories are merely implied and secrets are hinted at. The human life that shaped these scenes has slipped away off the canvas.

This sort of seeping-into-the-blood influence is just what the National hoped for from its Associate Artist scheme. "The benefit of having an artist in residence working whilst surrounded by the National Gallery collection is that it offers a unique opportunity to re-discover the collection with a fresh outlook," says the gallery's director Gabriele Finaldi. "It's also rewarding to know that the gallery participates in some way in the artistic development of a contemporary artist."

Shaw also found that the influence of the National's paintings led him to change his technique and materials: he put aside the boards he usually paints on and returned to canvas. "It took me a while to get used to the spring of the material. I had to keep on tightening it. I needed longer brushes and had to work standing further back from the picture."

But he still uses Humbrol paints (beloved of generations of schoolboys for painting Airfix model planes) because they give a dulled enamel finish, subtly unlike oil paints. And he still composes his paintings using a mixture of photographs, sketches and preparatory studies.

The biggest of his new works are exactly the same size as the gallery's Diana and Actaeon trio by Titian. There are square canvases too, like the Poussin, "because they make you focus on the center. It is much harder to compose using the golden section in a square, though heaven knows I've tried."

What Shaw likes to do, he says, is to play with "the conceptual framework of conservatism" – paint on canvas, landscape subjects – but twist it. "Philip Larkin did that," he says, "he was a poet who was radical under a conservative exterior." Even the simplest of his tree studies are not quite what they seem.

Among his new pictures is a series showing tree trunks, seemingly a direct homage to John Constable's Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree of c.1821. They depict real trees but, rather than being simply botanical records, each trunk is marked by holes in the bark or the gnarled tissue around lost branches. These scars resemble faces, gaping mouths or caves – the spirit of the woods, perhaps. A larger triptych, Hanging Around, shows three bare trunks, roots and lower branches. They nagged at my subconscious but I couldn't place the feeling until Shaw said: "It's Calvary. It's the crucifixion." He likes the idea of the viewer searching to frame what he or she sees: "I want it all," he declares. "I want the viewer to get both my implied story and their own superimposition."

There is, in the midst of his painted woods, one figure painting. It is titled, with his trademark multiple layers of meaning, The Call of Nature, and shows Shaw from behind, urinating on a tree trunk. "It is the only self-portrait I've ever done. And it's the only picture I've painted where the landscape needs a figure. It is, incidentally, the same size as the late Rembrandt self-portrait that stood out in the National's show in 2014." It also brings a sense of completeness to Shaw's National Gallery paintings: "I've painted every genre here – still life, religion, landscape, figures, history."

Now that he has come to the end of his residency, I ask him if the experience has pointed him in a new direction. "It has increased my anxiety at time passing. What I need is a longer life." More realistically, he says his stay "has helped my interest in figures resurface". His paintings may all be set in a wood, but "isn't that what the wood of Ovid is – a changing room?"

Michael Prodger is an art historian and Assistant Editor of the New Statesman.

George Shaw: My Back to Nature, National Gallery, London WC2 until 30 October. Admission free.

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