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Book Review – George Shaw : My Back To Nature by George Shaw ( National Gallery )


George Shaw – Introduction by Colin Wiggins published by National Gallery Company, May 2016

The National Gallery’s Rootstein Hopkins Associate Artist for the past two years, George Shaw unveiled his new work at an exhibition entitled My Back to Nature at the Gallery in May 2016. This book is published to accompany the exhibition and gives the opportunity for former Turner Prize-nominee to reveal some of his inspirations for his work.

Colin Wiggins in his introduction in the book considers Shaw’s long-term relationship with the National Gallery,  ‘ Despite his childhood and teenage years being spent on a Coventry council estate he would nevertheless make regular day trips to London, armed with a sketchbook, to draw from works by artists he found inspiring even then, especially the mythological landscapes of Titian.’

By 2014, Shaw had made his reputation as a painter of run down council estates often using Humbrol enamel paint as his chosen medium. When the artist began his residency in a studio within the National Gallery it was these variety of influences that began to ferment before he began to produce work for the exhibition.

Shaw in the chapter entitled Rooms Used in Daylight as Though They Were Dark Woods begins to explain his own particular take on the National Gallery and art, ‘The National Gallery is as much part of my bringing up as say Hammer Horror films, Grange Hill, Joy Division or the sound of Grandstand’ . Although Shaw was drawn to paintings, the relationship was often complex, ‘ I have never really associated art with pleasure or happiness. It was and still is, a heavy darkness at the centre of what art is for me. All the death and flesh is serious stuff.’

It was this serious stuff that Shaw was able to indulge in during the residency with private access to the paintings in the National Gallery. On these walks through the gallery, he began to make the connection of his memories of the woods of his childhood and the mythical woods of Titian and Poussin.

The next chapter ‘ Beneath the Trees Where Nobody Sees’ takes on this theme with the way that Bellini’s Assassination of Saint Peter Martyr offers the woodland as a location for violent acts. Another favourite theme for Shaw is pictures that portray the dead Christ, particularly fascinating is Crivelli’s The Dead Christ supported by Two Angels with a mouth like wound, body hair and a crown of thorns that resemble living branches.

We return to the woods for the chapter ‘ Every Brush Stroke is Torn Out of My Body ‘, the mythical representations of Titian in The Death of Actaeon for Shaw illustrate the sacred and the profane. The next chapter, All Goings – in and Comings – out ; All Goings -on ‘ examines how some works by Poussin provide examples of how mythical themes can be used to present sexual scenes that in other spheres would be considered unacceptable. Ritual and orgies are another aspect of perceived woodland experiences.

In the final chapter, ‘The Gallery Will Be Open Again Tomorrow ‘ we find Shaw fascinated by the Gothic undertones to Constable’s Cenotaph to the Memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds. The picture is the cenotaph being framed by dense tall trees with a stag in the foreground. Shaw’s reaction to the picture provides some insight into his own particular approach, ‘ Half of me is made of sentiment and nostalgia and weakness. The other half takes the piss. What I am left with is my own dull paintings that tell half the story about me being here and the anxiety I feel about not being here.’ The rest of the book reproduces his series of paintings on canvas for the exhibition and drawings with a biography and a list of exhibited works.

This is a fascinating, unusual and entertaining book with a series of attractive illustrations that explores the relationship between art galleries, paintings and artist. This often personal relationship is seldom discussed or considered but is often fundamental to the development of an artist, Shaw in a witty and insightful way indicates some of the ways that paintings provide inspiration for artists to pursue their own careers. For someone of Shaw’s background, the National Gallery provided a place to fire his artistic imagination when he returned to his Coventry home. Like many artists, Shaw chooses to both reject and pay homage to the past in his works. This book illustrates how Shaw uses the past to perceive the present, his often amusing titles and subject matter often obscures the serious and intelligent undertones of his work.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

For more information or to buy a copy, visit the National Gallery website here

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