THIS SUMMER






If it was Anthony Wilkinson that got George Shaw’s career off and running (and it was), then it was another gallerist who helped raise it to the next level. In 2000, Jonathan Watkins, director of the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, oversaw the group exhibition ‘As It Is’, which was concerned with the ‘soft city’, the ‘fluid and impressionistic space between architectural exteriors’.

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George Shaw. Scenes from the Passion: The Library and the Back of the Triple Triangle Club, 2002: Humbrol enamel on board. 77x101cm

I can well see why he chose this painting by Shaw. Damp sky above, wet concrete slabs below. Nowhere the viewer/resident can go in order to find refuge. (Sit on the raised grass bed? The viewer says no.) So why not just stand there in the drizzle, making the most of what’s yours, what no-one can take away from you? Sight and breath and life.

Shaw’s work was seen alongside such influential contemporary artists as Nathan Coley, Paul Noble, Tracy Mackenna and Edwin Janssen, Fischlli and Weiss and Richard Wentworth. Only two Shaw paintings were exhibited, and they’re reproduced in the catalogue in black and white. But, given what happened next, obviously they lodged in full - albeit sombre and subdued - Humbrol colour in Jonathan Watkins’s mind.

Watkins and Judith Nesbitt were the selectors for ‘Days Like These’, the Tate Triennial Exhibition of Contemporary British Art in 2003. This time Shaw’s paintings were seen alongside the work of Nathan Coley (again), Paul Noble (again), but also the likes of Rachel Whiteread, Jim Lambie, Cornelia Parker and Susan Philipsz. Five pictures on this occasion, all of them big - the 91x121cm paintings rather than the 43x53cm ones which had dominated Shaw’s first show at the Anthony Wilkinson Gallery. Why so large? So as to fill the walls of as much of Tate Britain as possible! Five colour pages in the catalogue as well. The painting reproduced below was actually bought by the Tate, which must have given particular pleasure to Anthony Wilkinson and George Shaw both. I’ll discuss the Tile Hill garage motif further down this page.

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George Shaw. Scenes from the Passion: Late, 2002: Humbrol enamel on board. 91x121cm

Even then, Jonathan Watkins was not finished with George Shaw. For no sooner had ‘Days Like These’ closed at the Tate in May, but he gave George his first solo show at a public gallery. The confidently titled: ‘What I Did This Summer’, opened at the Ikon in July of 2003. The show then toured to Newlyn Art Gallery in Cornwall and to Dundee Contemporary Arts in my neck of the woods, finally closing in March 2004, bringing to an end a whole year of Shaw’s work being on display in some of the nation’s top venues.

I’ll get onto the show itself in a minute. But first the catalogue from whose bold cover one gathers that what George did ‘that summer’ was paint, holding the brush in his right hand and wiping it clean of Humbrol paint anywhere from his left sleeve (usually) to just below his right collar bone.

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Photo by Dan Wooton for the publication What I did this Summer, 2004

When one opens up the catalogue, the first colour plate encountered is the one shown below. Not a site I’d associate with Tile Hill. Certainly, I couldn’t find the place using Google. Did this mean that what George did in the summer of 2003 was going to remain a mystery to me? (Not that it’s a summer scene; the paintings hardly ever are, the above image of garages being a possible exception that proves the general rule.)

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George Shaw. Scenes from the Passion: The Memorial, 2003: Humbrol enamel on board. 92x121cm

More or less the next image in the catalogue is a painting of a church called John Baptist. Alas, I could find no church of St John the Baptist in Tile Hill. There is one in the middle of Coventry, but it’s a much grander building than this one. Eventually, by Googling ‘John Baptist, Coventry’, and scouring images, I located the church. It’s in Berkswell which is three miles into the open country beyond Tile Hill. Not in Tile Hill itself? See George Shaw’s whole project crumble about his ears! See me picking through the rubble on the grass muttering: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

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George Shaw. Scenes from the Passion: John Baptist, 2001: Humbrol enamel on board. 77x101cm

The church is Anglican and George was brought up a Catholic. So it’s unlikely to be the church that the Shaw family worshipped in. Another of the reproductions is a view of the cemetery called simply The Graveyard. But I don’t think any of George Shaw’s close relatives will be buried there, though I could be wrong. Have I reached a dead end? Why has George spent so much time in and around this village church? Does the following Google map help me answer these questions?

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Imagery ©2013 Digital Globe GeoEye, Getmapping plc, Infoterra Ltd & Bluesky, The Geoinformation Group, , Map data ©2013 Google

The church is located towards the left of the map, where blue, green, red and yellow lines meet. The different coloured lines are possible routes to the country church from Tile Hill. The yellow route is by train, though there is a walk at both ends. The blue and the red routes are by road and would take about an hour on foot, ten minutes by bus. But I like to think that George simply plunged through an ‘opening’ into Tile Hill Wood (see the green line) and made a bee-line for Berkswell. And - or so George himself might claim - the further that he got from Tile Hill, the less he looked like a hulking great piece of working class shit, and the more he looked like Oscar Wilde tripping through the daisies!

Another thing George did ‘that summer’ was paint bus stops. This one is called
The Bus Stop in the Middle, one tentatively assumes because the stop is located on the pavement in the middle of two lines of houses. Dim light and grim houses: what an archetypical British scene.

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Scenes from the Passion: Bus stop in the Middle, 2003: Humbrol enamel on board. 33x53cm

The following Google image shows that the bus stop is no longer located in the middle of the houses. A garage has been erected in the grounds of one house and the council has obligingly shifted the stop along a few yards to allow access to said garage. I can’t think the householder who now has people queuing for buses outside his or her front window would be over the Moon with the development. And I don’t think George Shaw was that impressed either. For hasn’t he painted the bus stop in its original position as a tribute to how the world was (and ever should be) when he was growing up?

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©2013 Google

I suspect that painting The Bus Stop in the Middle wasn’t enough to get the theme out of the artist’s system. George also painted Bus Stop at the Top ‘that summer’. Why? Perhaps because that was a bus stop that had had the decency to stay still over the years.

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Scenes from the Passion: Bus stop at the Top, 2003: Humbrol enamel on board. 33x53cm

The photo below was taken by the Google camera in 2008. Missing from the image is the purplish tinge that makes the painted scene seem both warm and somehow exotic. Actually, the blocks of colour in the painting bring Mondrian to mind. Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue? Goodness what a metropolitan place George Shaw was raised in! Full of Parisian chic or what?

Then you look again at the Google photo and the brick shit-house of a tower bock hits you square between the eyes. I suppose the odd resident might partake of a cocktail on the balcony of an evening, when that side of the building is bathed in light, but the obscene ribbing he/she would get from teenage punters waiting at the bus-stop might take the edge off any enjoyment.


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©2013 Google

If there is a bus stop in the middle of Bushberry Avenue, and a bus stop at the top of it, might there be one at the bottom? The answer is yes and no. Yes, there is a bus stop at the bottom of Bushberry Avenue (as the Google image below shows). But, no, George Shaw has not painted it. At least not as far as I’m aware. For was George going to spend the whole of ‘that summer’ - when the art world was his oyster - painting common-or-garden bus stops?!

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Imagery ©2013 DigitalGlobe, GeoEye, Getmapping plc, Infoterra Ltd & Bluesky, The Geoinformation Group, , Map data ©2013 Google

Perhaps the run of Shaw’s work being show-cased in such great galleries accounts for the confidence with which George expresses himself in the six-minute video that was made to accompany ‘What I did this Summer’ at DCA. While he introduces his work, the camera pans around the main space at the DCA. One wall has a row of twenty watercolours on it. These are of Tile Hill, but fresh views of the estate as it is now, with special emphasis on the woods that surround the built up area. Hang on a minute: green foliage! Perhaps these are what George did ‘that summer’. He painted timeless views of trees using the timeless medium of watercolour. Perhaps he did this because he was happy. Of course he was happy! George hasn’t painted himself dancing in the woods with Kathryn, Anthony and Jonathan - in the guise of Hermia, Helena, Demetrius and Lysander - but he might as well have done.

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Still from George Shaw - What I did this Summer. Artist talk. ©2004 DCA

Technical point. Humbrol enamel paint comes in gloss and matt finishes. I’ve read that George just uses gloss. With the painting below, the sky is obviously gloss. The wet street is bound to be gloss also.

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Still from George Shaw - What I did this Summer. Artist talk. ©2004 DCA

While there’s much less reflection bouncing off this row of paintings. one would think that the painting nearest the camera had been painted using matt paints, not gloss. But not so, apparently.

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Still from George Shaw - What I did this Summer. Artist talk. ©2004 DCA

Below is the painting in question seen straight on in a still. A swing, strangely situated, with trees and shrubs hiding the play spot from the row of houses, putting children in a potentially dangerous position. The scene is painted in low light, perhaps as day fades into evening. All rendered in gloss paint, but painted in such a way as to give a matt finish!

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Scenes from the Passion: The Swing, 2002-3: Humbrol enamel on board. 77x101cm

As you can see from the next still, it looks like the DCA has gone to the trouble of painting the gallery floor with grey gloss enamel. Sure it would have taken the installation team a month to have done the job with the little brushes and the tiny tins that George is accustomed to working with, but then when you’re a top artist that’s the sort of attention to detail you expect... I jest. George no doubt jested too, feeling on top of the art world, with four, nine and three Humbrol paintings of old Tile Hill lining the other three walls of the main space of the DCA.

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Still from George Shaw - What I did this Summer. Artist talk. ©2004 DCA

When George was being interviewed for the video, he was sitting more or less at the apex of the St Andrew’s cross of light beams in the above picture, with three paintings hanging on the wall behind him. The old house on his left, the John Baptist church on his right. But the painting that he was sitting closest to was another of what I’d characterise as the ‘opening’ paintings. Below is the painting that was almost touching George’s left shoulder. Three run-down garages, the middle one being empty. An opening: a space to sit and think.

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

I can’t find the exact site of the above painting. Some of the garages on the estate have been knocked down. Some still exist, but as the following Google map shows, Street View (available along the blue line) does not often extend to the locations of rows of garages (marked with blue tacks). The row of garages shown in the thumbnail insert is the closest row to the old Shaw household, but it’s not the site shown in
The Middle of the Week.

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Imagery ©2013 DigitalGlobe, GeoEye, Getmapping plc, Infoterra Ltd & Bluesky, The Geoinformation Group, , Map data ©2013 Google

Here is a view of the garages marked by the blue tack bottom left of the above satellite image. Can you picture George sitting outside the middle one? Or on the concrete where two garages from George’s youth have been demolished?

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©2013 Google

Actually, George didn’t search out these places of solitude when he was growing up just so that he could be overlooked one day. No, these spaces bring to mind words like privacy, muse, even hermitage. But now that George is grown up and in the public eye, he is bound to be overlooked by art critics. In the following still from the DCA’s video, George, sitting close to
The Middle of the Week as previously described, rounds off the interview by talking about people who travel the world in search of the sublime. He mentions Asia, then Caspar David Friedrich and the Austrian Alps, where the sky meets the earth and questions of God and the smallness of human kind might well come to mind. He then asks: “What happens if you don’t go to these places? Does that mean you’re any less connected to the greater themes in life?” His final sentence rang around the four walls of the DCA in 2004, it still rings just as true in my ears today: “I think if you can’t find the sublime in your own front room then it’s really not worth finding.”

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Still from George Shaw - What I did this Summer. Artist talk. ©2004 DCA

I think George probably meant ‘back-yard’ rather than ‘front room’ given the nature of the Tile Hill project. But then again it’s the Shaw family’s front room that boasts the portrait by his Uncle Mick. So let it stand.




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.