The British Art Show comes around every five years and George Shaw was one of 39 artists selected by Tom Morton and Lisa Le Feuvre for BAS 7, sub-titled ‘In the Days of the Comet’. The show went around Nottingham, Glasgow, London and Plymouth; opening on 23 October 2010 and closing more than a year later, on 4 December 2011. A prestigious show to be part of; a pretty good show to see.

Shaw’s stunning - if bleak - contribution consisted of three large paintings. Actually, three of the largest that he’s ever painted in Humbrol enamel, at nearly one-and-a-half metres high and two metres long. Each of the paintings mark the end of something. Here is how they were hung in Nottingham.
The Next Big Thing, The Blocked Drain, Your End, from left to right. Sounds dismal, looks amazing:

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George Shaw. Installation shot at ‘Days of the Comet’, 2010

I expect George approved of the hang as he is pictured in another shot with the three paintings in view over his shoulder. By the time the paintings got to Glasgow’s GOMA, where I saw them, they were hung in a different order: Your End, The Next Big Thing, The Blocked Drain. Sounds like a Philip Larkin poem. Still looks amazing.

On this page, I’m going to stick with the Nottingham hang, looking from left to right, as it ties in with the Tile Hill geography, walking from north to south. I know it looks like all the action takes place at the third of the sites, but I think it’s worth coming along for the ride, one stop at a time.

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

The first painting is reproduced in all its visceral blackness below. It’s another view of the site of the Hawthorne Tree pub, following on from the smaller painting of earlier in 2010, shown at the Void in Derry, in which the pub was depicted as a burnt-out shell, but still standing. Here the building has been demolished, clearing the way for, as the artist facetiously puts it, the next big thing.

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George Shaw. The Next Big Thing, 2010: Humbrol enamel on board. 147x198cm

So far so gloriously foul. But a walk through leafy Tile Hill may cheer us up. Until we reach a part of Hawthorne Lane that George has painted several times before, looking north. He’s never painted it with more feeling and skill than here though. The red dog-waste bin you can see on the left, where a path strikes off into the wood, was again the subject of a smaller painting earlier in the year, I mean: Landscape with Dog-Shit Bin.

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George Shaw. The Blocked Drain, 2010: Humbrol enamel on board. 147x198cm

The view below is taken from Google Earth. It shows the path into the woods on the left quite clearly, though the photo was taken in 2007, before the introduction of the red bin. The large puddle of the painting can be seen in the middle of the foreground of the aerial photo, though it’s dried up. The puddle must come and go with the rains, year after year. Perhaps the blocked drain of the title is permanently blocked with dog shit. Part of the motivation for painting the site over the years has been to record the disappearance of the garages. Perhaps a flashy new bin, brim-full of dog-shit, while the drain remains blocked with still more canine excrement, is a suitable memorial to the crap garages.

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©2013 Infoterra Ltd & Bluesky

The third painting is Your End. An odd bit of wall that has been tagged close to goalposts. In part, the title refers to the term that boys use - or used to use - when referring to what team a prospective player should join. “That’s your end,” was what we used to say to each other in Hamilton. But Your End is also so titled because George Shaw does not understand the green tag that’s been marked on the wall. And when you can’t understand the local language, you’re in big trouble. You might even see yourself as having come to the end of your useful life.

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George Shaw. Your End, 2010: Humbrol enamel on board. 147x198cm

Shaw talks a little about this picture in the catalogue to ‘In the days of the Comet’. He says: “My thinking in the making of this painting can be summed up by the thoughts of Thomas Hardy’s Tess: ‘Time would close over them; they would all in a few years be as if they had never been, and she herself grassed down and forgotten.’”

Hardy only wrote one novel after the bitter tragedy of
Tess, and that was the even more bitter Jude the Obscure. By the end of that book, Jude and his three children are grassed down and forgotten. It’s a masterpiece which many of it’s early readers thought showed a perversity on Hardy’s part, pursuing his own protagonist with relentless misfortune. Upset by the reaction of critics, Hardy stopped writing novels at the age of 55 (the same age as the character in The Woodlanders gave up the ghost when his tree was chopped down, my age now), turning to poetry instead.

George Shaw has not had any criticism for the darkness of his latter-day vision. None that I’ve read anyway. So hopefully he won’t feel the need to abandon painting and take up poetry instead.

Because of the rise in the ground, I had a feeling that the site of
Your End might be in the vicinity of the flats at Plants Hill, and my pal Google has confirmed this. However, Street View doesn’t get close to the section of wall that the artist painted. Still, top right of the photo below shows the flats behind the wall, top left of the painting. On the far left of the Street View photo, under the compass, can be glimpsed the goalposts and the wall itself.

A block of flats, goalposts, a green field that seems to go on forever, and a wood that represents one of the remaining patches of the Forest of Arden. What more could anyone want? I’ve said this before and I may have to say it again if things start to get too bleak: Oh, what a paradise it seems.

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©2013 Google

The wall can be seen more clearly in the aerial shot below, because of the shadow thrown by the sun in the east. I’ve marked George Shaw standing behind the wall, painting the scene with his increasingly dark, still visionary skill. As I watch the sombre painting taking shape, I realise I’m in a much better mood than Thomas Hardy ever was, and bring to mind a football match: Francis Bacon Vs Morrissey.

Actually, I’m not sure if it’s going to be much of a contest. They both seem to be content to hang about in their respective penalty areas, preening themselves. Still, I’ll go through with collecting pre-match quotes, even if I have to jog from one penalty box to the other...

Bacon: “
You see, painting has now become, or all art has now become, completely a game, by which man distracts himself. What is fascinating actually, is that it's going to become much more difficult for the artist, because he must really deepen the game to become any good at all.”

I wonder if george Shaw would agree with that. I think I do. Anyway, let’s hear what Morrissey has got to say:

Morrissey: “
Disappointment came to me, and booted me, and bruised and hurt me, but that's how people grow up.”

After showing off in their own penalty areas for a few minutes more, the mavericks separately make off into the woods, both of them singing
This Charming Man.

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

So that leaves me with the wall and its mysterious green tag What do I see? What do I hear?

Enter with a trumpeter before them: Bottom as Pyramus, Flute as Thisbe, Snout as Wall. All aboard for the dumb show:

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George Shaw. Your End (detail), 2010: Humbrol enamel on board. 147x198cm

QUINCE (as prologue): “Gentles, perchance, you wonder at this show,
But wonder on, till truth make all things plain.
This man is Pyramus, if you would know;
This beauteous lady Thisbe is, certain.
This man with lime and roughcast doth present
Wall, that vile wall which did these lovers sunder;
And through Wall’s chink, poor souls, they are content
To whisper; at the which let no man wonder
.”

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George Shaw. Your End (detail), 2010: Humbrol enamel on board. 147x198cm

Isn’t that fabulous? The Bottomless heights of
A Midsummer night’s Dream! Thanks to Shakespeare, Shaw and an anonymous tagger, I’m now seeing Tess whispering to her Angel, and Jude whispering to his Sue. The living are dancing with the dead!

I suspect that all I’m saying is that what goes around comes around. What goes into the earth comes out of it, and vice versa. Whether in the days of the comet, or in those of Comet, whose Coventry store was one of the last to close at the end of 2012.

In short, three great paintings (or just one?): Your End, My End, Everybody’s End.




POSTSCRIPT

I wrote the foregoing on the first of February, 2013. It was just a few days later, on February 4, that George first got in touch with me about this writing project, responding to my email of early January which enclosed the first couple of pages of this site. Towards the end of his email he touches on the reference I make to
A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the ‘Of Innocence’ page. George writes:

‘I
did Midsummer Night’s Dream at school and remember it fondly. I loved the Rude Mechanicals as they were called and would like to add to your quotes one from Snout, who plays the wall and the hole in the wall, or chink:

‘In this same interlude it doth befall
That I, one Snout by name, present a wall;
And such a wall, as I would have you think,
That had in it a crannied hole or chink,
Through which the lovers, Pyramus and Thisby,
Did whisper often very secretly.
This loam, this rough-cast and this stone doth show
That I am that same wall; the truth is so:
And this the cranny is, right and sinister,
Through which the fearful lovers are to whisper.’


That quote is remarkably like the one I’d used just a few days before. Both speeches are from Act 5, scene 1. After Quince’s patronising words there is the following exchange in the high-ranking audience:

Theseus:
“I wonder if the lion be to speak.”
Demetrius:
“No wonder, my lord: one lion may when many asses do.”

Then after Snug’s equally patronising words that George has dug out for me, there is this aside:

Theseus:
“Would you desire lime and hair to speak better?”
Demetrius: “It is the wittiest partition that ever I heard discourse, my Lord.”

The happy coincidence of this prompts me to babble on for a little longer, hopefully in the inspired and ingenious manner of Snug or Quince (or their immortal master).

In the 2007 interview between George Shaw and Gordon Burn, the artist mentions that he’s been painting a garage that has holes in it. Below is an example of such a painting:

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George Shaw. Hole in the Corner, 2006: Humbrol enamel on board. 43x53cm

Peep-holes also come up in the Burn/Shaw conversation. George recounts a story about LS Lowry. The painter was once walking down the street where he saw a man looking through a peep-hole for ages. Lowry waited until the man had gone and then put his own eye to the peep hole, only to be confronted by the sight of a man digging a hole.

I like that story. It makes me want to engage with it.

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George Shaw. The Peep Hole, 2006: Humbrol enamel on board. 29x22cm

Here is a peep hole, or chink, that I’ve been looking through for ages. (Well, for about two months so far, on and off.) What have I been looking at? A man digging a hole. Actually, not just one hole, but lots of holes. I see what George means though, when he refers to all the holes he’s been digging as being part of the one fabulous hole that he’s got in mind.

“Tile Hole,” is the last thing that the digger said to me. Though I’m not sure that I heard him right, as it was my eye rather than my ear that I had in position ‘A’ at the time.

Not my brown eye, I hasten to add. Though I suppose it is possible that what George said to me was “Arse hole”. I say this because I’ve just watched
The Late George Shaw, a Channel 4 documentary from 2004. Near the end of it, George is painting in his studio. He’s talking about the work of other artists that he finds the most exhilarating. He says:

“I can’t pinpoint what it’s about, what draws me into its world... The reason I’m eager to enter that world is to find out what it is that pulls me in. I don’t want to be told it. I don’t want to be told it by an art critic. I don’t want to be told it by some lame-arse writer. And I certainly don’t want to be told it by the artist themselves. I’d like to hear what they were thinking when they were making the work, but there has to be room for the work to grow into other things.”

Yes, there always has to be room left. By the artist, by the writer; for the viewer, for the reader. And one way to leave room is to add room. Something I will be continuing to bear in mind.





Acknowledgement: 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.