THE NEW LIFE








Over the next two-and-a-half years George Shaw worked towards his next solo exhibition at Anthony Wilkinson Gallery. But that’s a pretty dull way of putting it. Especially since there’s so much to say about this period.

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George Shaw. Scenes from the Passion: The Cop Shop, 1999-2000: Humbrol enamel on board. 43x53cm

First, on a personal note, my time reviewing shows for the Independent on Sunday, began shortly after George Shaw’s first solo exhibition in 1999 and ended shortly before the second in 2001 (as with Paul Noble). How frustrating was this: 150 shows reviewed, but not one by either Noble or Shaw, whose work I particularly admired. At the end of 1999 I did include a paragraph on George Shaw in a fatuous article (not my idea) suggesting a few artists to look out for in the year ahead. In return for this plug I received a Christmas card from the artist, featuring a winter landscape painted by Caspar David Friedrich. This reminded me of something I’d already concluded: that Shaw’s ostensibly mundane work was an original way into the sublime.

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George Shaw. Scenes from the Passion: The Path to Pepys Corner, 2001: Humbrol enamel on board. 43x53cm

In Feb/March of 2000, George teamed up with John Strutton - a friend, room-mate and fellow artist from the Royal College, MA - in order to present a show called ‘The Land of Nod’. I went to the exhibition at Lift Gallery, which focussed on their teenage obsessions, during which visit I realised I really should have been at the pair’s opening performance. At least if their double-act from a double-ended bed had had the energy and wit of the show’s invite. Thirteen paragraphs, each beginning, ‘Born in 1966’. One reads in full:

Born in 1966 these tawny-arsed nudists bought a rag-and-bone yard in Shepherd’s Bush whilst ghost-writing suicide letters from defrocked comedians and lead singers.’

Or again:

Born in 1966 these wandering onanists, shufflers of the five knuckles, vomited, bled, spunked up, sweat, pissed and pooed the big themes of classic literature, art and philosophy.’

This image from John Strutton’s
website perhaps best sums up the show. Not sure if that’s George on the right or left, but that’s definitely Rembrandt in the middle.

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John Strutton and George Shaw. The Land of Nod: Performance Rembrandt Drawing

‘Born in 1966 these wee willy wanker wonka winkies were the inspiration behind Krapp’s more amusing Top of the Pops appearances.’

Looking back ironically from the grand old age of 34 is one thing, getting on with life is another. George seems to have met and fallen in love with Kathryn, who he went to live with in Nottinghamshire sometime after the success of his first show. What I know about this phase of the artist’s life largely comes via an intriguing
piece written by Gordon Burn in the Observer in October 2001.

Burn starts with a resonant quote from Shaw: ‘
In London, I was regarded as a great hulking working-class piece of shit. Here I’m seen as an Oscar Wilde figure, skipping through the daisies.’ In other words, the artist was finding it difficult to sit writing in local pubs without drawing unwanted attention to himself. What was he writing in dimly lit northern pubs? I’ll come to that later.

Burn tells us that at the time of his visit, George’s studio was in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, the birthplace of DH Lawrence and where a heritage industry has grown up around the famous author. ‘
There is a tourist trail in the form of a blue line painted along the pavements and footpaths, that brings you to every Lawrence-connected building still standing.’ Perhaps George was aware of the irony: would his own Tile Hill boast a tourist trail one day? Certainly, I’m aware of such an irony. In the pages that follow I’ll be making available Google maps marked with a blue line that will lead anyone interested past sites of many specific paintings by George Shaw.

Apparently, the weekend before Gordon Burn visited George Shaw in Eastwood, George had taken his father on a pub crawl in Nottingham that took in all the pubs used by Arthur Seaton in Alan Sillitoe’s 1958 novel
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Good to know that George is not above a bit of cultural stalking himself. Indeed, there’s more to say about that which I’ll come to further down this page.

Shaw makes it clear to Burn how much he owes to his father’s influence. Burn writes: ‘
George along with his sisters and brother, would be pulled out of bed to watch early Ken Loach and Dennis Potter re-runs, particularly the Nigel Barton plays, Potter’s sequence about a displaced working-class boy turned disillusioned Labour politico, and be urged to “Watch this. This is your education.”

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George Shaw. Scenes from the Passion: Back of the Club 2, 2001: Humbrol enamel on board. 43x53cm

In 2001, Burn did not just visit Shaw for the afternoon, as I had in 1999. The two have much in common, for example an interest in the personality and crimes of the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, who Burn wrote about in Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son. Artist and writer seem already to have formed a friendship by the time the interview took place. Burn writes that one afternoon he left George doing a painting of the back of the Social Club in Tile Hill, ‘a subject he treats with all the seriousness of Monet painting Rouen Cathedral.’ The above painting must be the one Burn means, though Shaw had already painted the subject in 1998. Here is the comparable painting from three years before:

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George Shaw. Scenes from the Passion: The Back of the Social Club, 1998: Humbrol enamel on board. 43x53cm

The difference in light conditions, the slightly different angle from which the building is viewed and, most of all, the fact that the surfaces are shining after rain in the 2001 picture, make the paintings seem... well, very different. I’m not sure how illuminating the comparison with Monet and Rouen Cathedral is, after all Monet painted the cathedral 30 times. Perhaps Burn’s parallel is between Monet and any subject, on the one hand, Shaw and any Tile Hill subject, on the other. Ah yes, that makes more sense.

However, I’m more interested in another comparison that Burn makes: ‘
The narrow miners’ back-to-backs Lawrence immortalised in his early novels find their modern equivalent in the gimcrack, Plexiglas-panelled, low-cost workers housing of Tile Hill that George Shaw has decided to make his subject.’ Actually, the Gordon Burn feature is as much about DH Lawrence as about George Shaw. Perhaps because, back in 2001, the artist was not well enough known for an editor to nod through such a long feature on him alone.

I suspect George Shaw feels more positive towards his hometown than DH Lawrence did of Eastwood: ‘
Ugliness, ugliness, ugliness: meanness and formless surroundings, ugly ideals, ugly religion, ugly hopes, ugly love, ugly clothes, ugly furniture, ugly houses... Pull down my native village to its last brick and make an absolute clean start.’

Lawrence was elitist and anti-democratic. George Shaw is much more of the people, at least partly because of the influence of his father. However, the feature ends with a fascinating detail. Gordon Born tells us that George’s father’s brother was an artist, who painted a portrait of a red-haired man specially for George’s dad who hung it on the fireplace wall of their house in Tile Hill, where it has hung ever since. It was a portrait of DH Lawrence.

George was not able to explain to Gordon Burn how that came about, but perhaps it’s not that hard to understand. Lawrence came from a working class background. He championed self-education and the arts, as did George’s father. I’ve a feeling that in 2001, George’s father would have been very pleased at the progress his son was making in the art world, especially if George was buying the drinks during their
Saturday Night, Sunday Morning pub crawl.

The feature by Gordon Burn that I’ve spent so long discussing was printed on Sunday, October 21, 2001, and it ends by giving the dates of George’s second show at Anthony Wilkinson. That is, ‘The New Life’ was to open on Saturday, October 27. And what was in the show? Well, I don’t know exactly, as the gallery’s archive entry for the exhibition features a batch of paintings that weren’t painted until 2002. But Jonathan Jones wrote about the show in
The Guardian and he names two of the pictures. The following paragraph introduces one of them:

‘A slightly dilapidated art deco house stands in a darkening landscape on the edge of town. No one is around. The windows are chilly, unresponsive eyes, the drive is desolate, the sky is mute and lifeless. The Old House (2001) reminds you of the monstrous juxtaposition of a blue daytime sky with a woody, nocturnal suburban scene and a single glowing street lamp in Magritte's The Empire of Light. And like Magritte, Shaw isolates objects, picks them out brightly and harshly, then leaves them there mysteriously. His paintings have the hard, clear precision of 1990s British art, but something more sensual as well.

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The Old House, 2001: Humbrol enamel on board. 92x121cm

I think it’s worth saying that this ‘old’ house was just a few yards from the grounds of George Shaw’s primary school. George would have had this view of the house when walking home from school on a winter’s afternoon. Did that exterior doorway ever tempt George? To what alternative reality would it lead? No doubt an air of mystery about the building caught the imagination of boy George. Hence the twilight which imbues the recollected scene.

The only other painting named in the Jonathan Jones review crops up in the following paragraph:

Shaw paints the ragged, brutal landscape that we recognise: woods with rubbish strewn about, gardens with parched roses. But the use of modelling paint is a false trail; it makes explicit the autobiographical nature of the paintings, the way they wallow in the landscape of Shaw's childhood, but it draws attention away from the craft and art history that is involved. The inviting depths that Shaw hints at in a bulging morass of leaves in The Opening (2001) remind you of French rococo painter Fragonard. Shaw's British provincial landscape is just as sensual as Fragonard's fancy gardens.’

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The Opening, 2001: Humbrol enamel on board. 92x121cm

Fragonard, like Magritte, may be an interesting art world point of reference. More interesting to me though, is that boy George, on the way home from school, having looked right to clock the old house, would, if he looked left almost immediately after, be faced with this intriguing hole in the hedge.

Well, I could be wrong. But having had a look via Google at the pavements flanking the three woods in Tile Hill, the pavement adjoining Tile Hill Wood itself bears the only likeness to the pavement in
The Opening. And having walked the length of the wood, courtesy of Google Street View camera, there seems to be one spot that best fits the bill as far as pattern of paving stones is concerned. This is it:

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©2013 Google

Amazing that a hole in the hedge painted in 2001 could still be recognisable in 2008 (which is when Google took the above picture). The patch of tar on the right has changed marginally in the intervening years, but the pattern of slightly darker paving stones is consistent between the painting and the photograph. Or am I fooling myself?

The following photograph clearly shows the old house on the right and, not at all clearly, the the site of the opening on the left, just past the lamp post. So what does George do? Choose between civilisation, as represented by the old house, or the wildness that the hole in the hedge surely leads to? I can imagine young George telling himself that he doesn’t have to decide for now, he just needs to get home for some downtime. But even as a schoolboy he would know that when he grew up he’d be investigating both the old house and the hole in the hedge.

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©2013 Google

The press release for ‘The New Life’ contains this statement from the artist. (While reading it, try keeping in mind the choice between the old house and the opening in the hedge): ‘For a long time I could never make the work I really wanted to make. An unhealthy cocktail of embarrassment or indecision prevented anything from happening. I simply couldn’t make up my mind whether to be Jimmy in Quadrophenia or Millais, Oscar Wilde or Dennis Potter, Alan Bennett, or Samuel Beckett, Morrissey or Francis Bacon, Arthur Seaton or Andy Warhol, Ian Curtis or David Hockney, my Mum or my Dad, Tony Hancock or van Gogh, Billy Liar or T.E.Lawrence, Rob in the Fifth Year or James Joyce, Dracula or Jesus Christ, John Lennon or Piccasso, William Blake or Jerry Dammers. This is the shortlist of the voices that talk to me and of the bodies I have buried in the mundane corners of my homelend. These figures line the path of this idle passion, like parents on a one-hundred yard sprint.’

Fair enough, most self-absorbed baby-boomers could relate to a list like that. On the other hand, most people just have two parents (mine are Vincent and Evelyn Waugh). Hence it does simplify things that one of the pamphlets that George Shaw wrote is called
Morrissey versus Francis Bacon. As it was written in 2000, this wasn’t amongst the batch of pamphlets that George sent me in 1999. Luckily all the pamphlets from 1996 to 2003 have been published collectively by Ikon Gallery in a George Shaw reading fest called This Was Life.

Morrissey Vs Francis Bacon begins with a featureless room in which a single 40-watt light bulb is dangling from the ceiling. Two figures lurk in opposite corners of the room. One is an older man. ‘He wears a black polo neck jumper with the sleeves pushed up, a chunky watch around his wrist. A faint ticking can be heard. He is seated on a stool with his legs crossed tightly.’ Something like this self-portrait by Francis Bacon, below left, painted in 1973?

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And in the other corner of the room? ‘
The other is younger. Slim. James Dean hair pushed up and back, jeans, loose blouse. He stands, uncomfortable, twisted, hand on hip.’ I’ve done a quick Google search. There are any number of photographs of Morrissey of the Smiths era that vaguely fit the bill. Something like the one above, then?

George Shaw writes that he is in the middle of the room and afraid; watching and waiting. ‘
Something would happen given time. Something would be lost and something would be found.

I can’t help wondering
where George wrote these words in 2000. In a pub in Eastwood with DH Lawrence looking over his shoulder? Anyway, the story goes on obscurely, like one of Samuel Beckett’s Texts for Nothing, which Shaw is clearly familiar with (Beckett is another of Shaw’s surrogate parents, after all). Towards the end, we learn that in 1985, when George was 19, he both visited London with his father in order to look at paintings by Francis Bacon and took a train on St Patrick’s day to see Morrissey and the rest of the Smiths. And the upshot of such trips? ‘Waiting in the shadows, waiting for a result I drank myself into normality and the damage was permanent.’

The text ends: ‘
What started out as realism has become another allegory to add to the list. I’m concerned only with waiting.’

All of our youth we’re mainly concerned with waiting. Waiting to choose wildness or domesticity? Sometimes it seems that way, even thinking about it now. It may appear that George chose
The Old House, having spent his adult life painting the streets of Tile Hill. But in my opinion he dived - no, crawled - through the opening in the hedge. But whether he dived or crawled, he had a paintbrush clutched in his hand. George Shaw is a wild child!

I want to return briefly to the Gordon Burn article written in 2000. Firstly because in the article George Shaw talks of the time he stalked Francis Bacon. I’ll quote at length since the material is so apposite:

Gordon Burn:
‘As an adolescent, he developed an obsession with Francis Bacon. He drew Bacon's studio from photographs found in books and magazines. Then, when he was 16, he started to stalk him. He'd use the school holidays and any other opportunity to travel to London. He'd take the milk-train from Coventry to Euston, and loiter in Reece Mews in South Kensington where, by taking a magnifying glass to a picture of the back of one of the canvases, he had discovered Bacon lived. In one end of the mews and out the other, guiltily, shiftily, round and round. This went on for a year before he got his first sighting of his prey. 'I thought, "Fuck! This is fucking incredible! He could be in there, working on something now. And I was just absolutely transfixed." So what did he do? 'As is usual with me, I found my body doing my thinking for me and I found myself banging on the door. I don't know what I thought was going to happen. I just thought something would happen. I think it's the hope that you might uncover something that hasn't been uncovered before. That there would be something hidden, or something dark, or something that has never been explored before. It's actually you standing in the real world on a bit of concrete or a bit of grass, finding something out for the first time. And it's also, I suppose, the avoidance of dealing with your own life. And the sash window went up and "Fuck off!"...

If George was 16, the year would have been 1982 and Bacon would have been 73. Still quite capable of telling an unwanted visitor to go forth and multiply.

Now let me return to the very end of the Gordon Burn piece. Again I will quote in full, so intriguing is this paragraph which I’ve already alluded to:

Gordon Burn: ‘
Many years ago, perhaps even before he was born, Mick Shaw, George's uncle, painted a picture especially for George's dad. His dad put it on the fireplace wall of their house in Coventry and it has hung there ever since: a triangular face, bright eyes, fiery red hair like George's own. He says his sister grew up assuming it was the devil. It wasn't of course: it was DH Lawrence. George says he never knew why. “My dad and my uncle Mick aren't the type to talk about things like that,” he said. “They’d rather talk about the colour of a jacket in Rebel Without A Cause.

I wonder if the painting really was of Lawrence. I’m glad I haven’t actually seen the painting itself. Why do I say this? Because it leaves room for me to imagine this conversation taking place between George’s father, who was also called George, and Uncle Mick:

George Senior: “Is the painting of Vincent done yet?”

Mick: “Of course.”

George Snr.: “Let’s see it...”

imagesVincent van Gogh Paintings_178

George Snr.: “Excellent! Now, Mick, you must promise never to reveal to George the identity of this fiery-haired individual. If asked, you will say that it is DH Lawrence. Got it?”

Mick: “But why, George?”

George Snr.: “My son, your nephew, has the potential to be a great painter. But if George is to realise this potential he must think he is going to be a great writer.”

Mick: “There’s no way I can fault the logic in that, brother!”

George Snr: “Think about it. My son will take literature very seriously, I’m making sure of that. In contrast, art will seem like a playground to him. Then over time - and at the right time - the hobby will displace that which has seemed to become dull.”

Below is another painting,
The End of August, from around the time of ‘The New Life’. The railway passes in an east west direction towards the south edge of Tile Hill. On several occasions George Shaw painted underpasses in 2001. As a youth, George may have stood in the underpass itself, waiting. While waiting he would be acutely aware of two things. First, that he was alive. Second, that he did not know what to do with that life.

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George Shaw. Scenes from the Passion: The End of August, 2001: Humbrol enamel on board. 77x101cm

What’s the sound that George hears when he’s standing at the mouth of the underpass as a 17-year-old? It’s the sound of the train that could have taken him from Tile Hill to Coventry from where he could have boarded the London train and been there in not much more than an hour. What a fool he was not to be on that train. For when Francis Bacon had stuck his head out of the window and told him to fuck off that time, he’d probably been in the middle of a wank. (Do seventy-three year old painters still wank? George had no reason to believe otherwise.) So what the painter had actually meant was ‘fuck off now and come back later’.

Later. This is George talking in 2012 about a show in Tulca, Ireland:

I should at least know one thing well, something by heart perhaps. And if I have to think what that one thing is or might be then I will know that my heart is empty.’

What is the one thing that George Shaw knows well? It’s got to be Tile Hill, every nook and cranny, as the following sequence demonstrates:

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George Shaw. Scenes from the Passion: The Evening, 2001: Humbrol enamel on board. 43x53cm

George introduces us to this spot in a film made for Channel 4 in 2004 called The Late George Shaw. In this still from the film, he’s approaching the site of The Evening. That’s the banana flats of Jardine Crescent that you can see behind the artist.

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Still from The Late George Shaw, The Art Show, Channel 4, 2004

Cue a Google aerial view on which I’ve marked George, and, with a question-mark, the seemingly bizarre non-space into which he’s looking when he turns the corner and confronts the brick walls he painted three years before. The non-place he was always puzzled by, man and boy.

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Imagery ©2013 Infoterra Ltd & Bluesky, Map data ©2013 Google

Was it built so that people who weren’t meant to smoke could smoke? George wonders aloud. Was it for sniffing glue? Or for snogging? Were you supposed to lie there? Personally, I don’t see the harm in having a daft space when the world is divided into so many sensible ones which only serve to restrict the imagination and keep people’s thoughts and aspirations running between straight lines. In the top half of the above aerial shot there is a children’s play-park and a basketball court, for example. Is it too much to ask for a space where one might read Sons and Lovers by oneself? Or leaf through a copy of Penthouse? I would have thought George, as a teenager, would have been up for either.

I should remind myself of these words of the adult Shaw
: ‘I started to make these paintings out of a kind of mourning for the person I used to be: an enthusiastic, passionate teenager who read art books and novels and poems and biographies and watched films and TV and listened to music and dreamed. They are paintings of places that were familiar to me in my childhood and adolescence, places in which I found myself alone and thoughtful. They are places in which I forgot things.’

OK, Sons and Lovers rather than Penthouse, in George Shaw’s case.

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Still from The Late George Shaw, The Art Show, Channel 4, 2004

In the film, looking at the brick wall at the back of the space, George wonders what the white stuff is. Paint? Or some bodily fluid? Yes, it’s a pretty sordid scene. But, like The Opening, this is potentially the kind of place for a wild child. A conduit to another place. Step right this way to otherness.

Actually, was it not once a public toilet? In the image below, that looks like a door at the back of the wall on the left. So the wall on the right would be to protect male modesty when emerging from the bog and adjusting one’s fly. Even more sordid, then.

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Still from The Late George Shaw, The Art Show, Channel 4, 2004

The funny thing is, just a few yards from here, close to where George Shaw is walking four shots back, or right in the middle of the aerial view three shots back, there is a conventionally stunning view. That is, if one stands, looking south along the path, at the right time of day, this is what one would see:

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George Shaw.Scenes from the Passion: Ten Shilling Wood, 2002: Humbrol enamel on board. 44x53cm

I wonder if, when George Shaw painted this little beauty in 2002, a corner of his mind was thinking of the 2001 picture whose site was just a few yards to the left.

As for Morrissey Vs Francis Bacon Vs DH Lawrence (cum Vincent). That’s a contest that’s got a few rounds to go yet.






Acknowledgment: The images of George Shaw’s works on this site are copyright the artist. Many of them appear courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery, photography by Peter White.

If any copyright holder wishes an additional credit, or for an image, or words, to be removed from this page, then they should contact me and I will adjust things accordingly.