Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Empty World

It's perpetual twilight in Tile Hill, the West Midlands estate George Shaw grew up in. It's also Autumn, about 4.30pm in the afternoon, and you can smell the gently rotting vegetation mixed in with a faint whiff of dogshit, and everyone's indoors. Shaw quotes The Smiths' song lyrics on the gallery's information sheet for his new show Woodsman, as well he might for the work is filled with the dark poeticism of this very British band. He paints the empty stillness of drab England: communal parks, garages, prefabs, primary schools. The shared spaces, the semi-urban edge of damp woods.

The estate was built in the 1950's/60's just outside Coventry, one of many government council housing initiatives of the post-war push. Like most of the industrial Midlands Coventry was a booming economy, and monies were flowing off the backs of the motor and aviation industries. It was just one of many new estates built to house the workers of British Leyland, Jaguar and Rover, but the city was hit hard by the decline of these industries in the early 1980's when Shaw was a teenager, and the subsequent recession of the 1990's compounded the desolation.

Shaw returns to the now faded estate infrequently, taking hundreds of photographs of places that were important (so many that I wonder if he now experiences the place at all other than from behind the arms-length of a lens), and it is these childhood haunts that find their way into the paintings, which are mostly large and photo-realist and painted with Humbrol enamel which itself has the association of childhood. But he now lives in the West Country, far from the gallery-hotbeds of Hackney and Mayfair in, I imagine (although I have no particular reason for thinking this), a sort of rural enclave with a view of the sea where he can get to grips with remembering his formative years in solitude. I understand George's need to remove himself from the landscape in order to artistically map it: I know from my own childhood explorations that it is difficult to investigate the peculiarities of memory unless you remove yourself in order to sort the fictions, which come thick and fast, as memory is layered over the distance of time, and of place. Memory also changes, and to use childhood and personal history as a subject is to wrestle with a moveable feast, constantly evolving. You have to be slightly obsessed with it.

And there is something obsessive about the paintings. They are painted in minute detail, the artist picking over the nuances of the photograph, copying flatness so that it is even flatter. The work is very still, and quiet. Each mark is tightly controlled: there is no shake of the hand, no emotional response to the landscape itself. The paintings are stoically blank-faced, and although naturalistic there is nothing natural about the work because there is nothing spatial about it. But perhaps that is how they are meant to be, because other than being uncannily still they are also devoid of life, which feels like a denial of people and of family, of formative personalities. The intention seems to be to allow them to be filled with a sense of sadness or loss, perhaps a sadness for personal place damaged by economic circumstance or sadness for people we are not allowed to see. Perhaps it is merely sadness for the passing of time.

Like most people, my memories of my own childhood are filled with the clamour of noise and colour and, importantly, people, but the only figurative inclusion to the show is the woodsman on the pub-sign of the same name on the exhibition invite card, but even that's been demolished. But peopled or not, flat or not, there is no richer seam than personal history.

George Shaw
Wilkinson, until 9th April 2009