George Shaw, the National Gallery's artist in residence, tells Ben Luke his work is about “finding something magical in a vandalised piece of rubbish”.
Ben Luke for The Evening Standard, 20 May 2015
When I arrange to interview George Shaw at the National Gallery, where he’s the latest associate artist, he asks to meet in front of a painting. John Constable’s Cenotaph to the Memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1833-36) is a solemn and brooding depiction of the memorial to Reynolds in the grounds of the house of George Beaumont, a key figure in the founding of the National Gallery. “This is a summation of everything Constable’s thinking about,” Shaw tells me. “The whole of his life is made up of art and artists.” The cenotaph sits in woodland, flanked by busts of Raphael and Michelangelo; in the middle is a stag which turns to the viewer. The combination of the founding president of the Royal Academy, two of the greatest Renaissance artists and Beaumont, then the most powerful man in British art, is a heady mix. “Constable’s really going for it,” Shaw says. “And then is that him? Is he the stag, to be hunted?” It’s fitting that we should meet here, when Shaw is himself immersed in art and artists as part of his National residency. He’s only halfway through it and the results won’t be seen until next year. But in the meantime he has a major show of new paintings, affected by his National “journey”, as he puts it, opening next week at the Wilkinson Gallery in Bethnal Green.
The new paintings are the latest in Shaw’s 20-year opus depicting Tile Hill, the estate near Coventry where the 48-year-old artist grew up. His stunning images of the houses and trees, playing fields, tatty garages and forgotten corners of Tile Hill, made using Humbrol enamel paint, have been shown across the UK and internationally, and he gained a Turner Prize nomination in 2011. The Tile Hill paintings are essentially townscapes and landscapes but they are much more than that. “You could say that a lot of my work is an attempt to paint self-portraits or portraits of my family or people around me,” Shaw explains in the studio in the humdrum bowels of the museum. “I used to say belligerently that I’d never painted a landscape in my life, in the same way that you never get landscape authors — even though Wuthering Heights is set in a landscape, it’s not a landscape novel, it’s about relationships and ancestry and love.” Shaw is an infectiously passionate reader, a cinephile and music fan. His conversation teems with references to mavericks and geniuses of British and Irish culture, from Emily Brontë to Tony Hancock, Morrissey and Francis Bacon. He’s fond of Bacon’s quotation that successful art should “unlock the valves of sensation” and in a group of 14 paintings called The Last Days of Belief in the Wilkinson show, Shaw tries to do just that. He says he’s “trying to work out the difference between when I stopped growing up and started growing old”. He pinpoints 1980. “That’s why the title of all the 14 paintings comes from a song from 1980.” So, If You Ever, Could It Ever Stop, a strangely beautiful picture of three stumpy bollards in front of a road and trees, takes its name from the Japan song Quiet Life, while She Had a Horror of Rooms, a woodland scene with a collapsed wooden construction, is the first line from David Bowie’s Scary Monsters. The paintings are quintessential Shaw: the fusion of stark realism and lyrical romanticism makes him among the most original voices in British art. The works all depict objects in the landscape that have been “altered in some way, either by nature but generally by some unseen hand”, Shaw says. They are about “finding something magical in something which is ostensibly just a vandalised piece of rubbish”. HIS Bethnal Green show marks the end of his Tile Hill paintings. He first started making them — always from photographs — in 1996, eventually creating a group called Scenes from the Passion, a reference to Christ’s journey from being condemned to death to entombment. “It was supposed to be just a sequence of 14 paintings, which was some pompous adolescent allusion to the Stations of the Cross, using a Joycean armature, in which the tale of an everyday, nothing happening was grafted onto the tale of a massive thing happening,” he says. But until now he has never completed 14 paintings in one sequence — “Time has always defeated me,” he laughs. “I thought, right, for the last exhibition, I’ll do what I intended to do in the first exhibition. I have got 14 of these pictures, and it’s a re-enactment of what I wanted to do in 1997.” It’s fitting that this rupture should come during his National residency. He says he’s had to “split my mind in two, because I wanted two distinct areas of thought”, so he has been working for two days a week in Trafalgar Square and the rest of the time at the Devon home he shares with his partner Kathryn.
He’s relishing his time at the National. He gets here at around 7.30am and walks around the galleries, alone bar the occasional cleaner, until 10. “There are certain paintings that hold me for a certain reason, and I want to put a syringe against that painting, suck that little bit of marrow out,” he says. “So with the Titian, for example [Diana and Actaeon], with Actaeon pulling the tatty remnant of a rag to one side to find all these naked women behind there, I found it titillated me like it titillated Titian but it also reminded me of when you were a kid, finding porn in the woods. It was a similar sense of shame and excitement, and I’ve brought everything down to a very base level.” Indeed, near where we sit are paintings of porn mags strewn among the leaves on a woodland floor, as well large pencil drawings of Seventies porn images, a long-lasting strand in Shaw’s work. “There was a connection with coming into the gallery, which is aspirational, it’s on the tourist guide, it’s high art,” Shaw says. “And when you meet [the National’s director] Nicholas Penny, he’s very cultured and they have classical music concerts and they do all that sort of thing. But when you look around at the paintings, it’s all knobs and knockers; it’s leaking down from Soho, on the hill above us.” Will any works here make it to next year’s show? “I know that somewhere in this room I’ve got the makings of an exhibition; these are all studies for something,” he says. “I’ve just ordered 30 canvases, so I feel that something’s coming.” He’s ready to spring into action. And while he’s been heartily welcomed into the gallery, he knows a big task awaits. “I want to be welcomed by the dead. It’s the dead who I want to impress.” He points to the galleries above us: “I want to hang my pictures up there, and that’s the harder thing — to be accepted by them.” The Tile Hill paintings that made his name might be coming to an end but another rich chapter in the career of this singular artist is just beginning.