The only artist who can unite England

The only artist who can unite England

Jonathan Jones for The Guardian - 7 February 2019

★★★★★
Holburne Museum, Bath 
Flags and graffiti on rundown estates speak for the people left behind by their country’s Brexit politics – yet these are images of redemptive promise

An England flag flutters over sharp, spear-like fence tops, in front of a roof as bleak as a bunker, in George Shaw’s painting Someone Else’s House. Painted in 2018 as we stumbled towards the Brexit crisis that is now upon us, its title seems plain enough. This is a remainer’s alienated view of Brexit England as a strange, bigoted neighbour skulking behind a nationalist fence. Yet there’s a twist – or two. The red cross on the flag is the cross of St George, and it’s been painted by a man called George. There is a white cross inside the red one – what does that mean? This may be a more private and quirky symbol than we know; perhaps it is even religious. Since Shaw, who was raised Catholic, makes similarly subtle religious allusions in many of his paintings, that does not seem a far-fetched interpretation.

In other words, Shaw is not outside the scene. He’s not looking down on people who choose to put up a flag, shuddering at the millions who voted leave. On the contrary, he’s the artist of the left behind, in more ways than one. He paints left-behind people and left-behind cats and dogs. Or rather left-behind pubs, lockups and care homes, for there are no people in most of Shaw’s scenes. The only human figure in his mini-retrospective at Bath’s Holburne Museum is the artist himself, pissing against a tree in his picture The Call of Nature.

Shaw’s style, too, is left behind. A survey last year produced the interesting claim that leave voters are more likely to prefer old-fashioned realistic art while remainers like abstraction. If so, Shaw may be the only person who can reunite Britain. He has been shortlisted for the avant-garde Turner prize, yet the exactness and attention to detail of his paintings ought to satisfy the most conservative eye. Painting does not get more proper. Shaw has something of the outsider artist about him, so innocently and arduously does he pursue his calling. He uses Humbrol aircraft modelling paints that give an enamelled sharpness and shine to his art. His stylistic sources, you suspect, include the meticulous portrayals of Spitfires and Lancasters he’d have seen as a kid on model aircraft kits.

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george Shaw, Someone Else’s House, 2018
George Shaw, Scenes from the Passion: The Fall 1999