George Shaw: My Back to Nature at Abbot Hall

Last Saturday we drove up to Kendal to visit the latest exhibition showing at Abbot Hall. It’s devoted to the work of George Shaw, a working class artist from Coventry who was a Turner Prize nominee in 2011 for The Sly and Unseen Day, a series of paintings of Tile Hill Estate in Coventry where he grew up. As with the present exhibition, these were painted using Humbrol enamel paints, which I used to use as a young teenager to paint Airfix and Tamiya model aircraft and military vehicles.

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From a distance his paintings have a photographic quality – perhaps not surprising as he paints from photographs – but closer up it’s clear they’re not. Imperfections in the surface due to the use of his unusual medium become visible and the paint has an unusual sheen quite different from more traditional media. He doesn’t romanticise his subject, but shows it “as is”. However, they’re usually devoid of people so the scenes look deserted and a little intimidating.

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We’d seen The Sly and Unseen Day at the Baltic in 2011 and were keen to visit the current exhibition, which  was originally shown at the National Gallery where he spent two years as Associate Artist (2014-2016) The paintings are inspired by woodland scenes from the National Gallery’s collection – three of which (by Piero del Pollaiuolo, Nicolas Poussin and John Constable) are on loan to Abbot Hall and showing in another room in the Gallery.

But these are urban woods, in and around the estate where George Shaw grew up. They’re not idealised Sylvain landscapes, but clearly well used by locals who leave behind the residue of their visits – litter, beer cans, discarded mattresses, pornographic magazines and damaged and vandalised trees. The scenes are very typical of woodland bordering urban areas. There are similar scenes in some parts of the Plantations at Wigan.

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Taking the paintings by the Masters

Shaw is interested in how their stories – often featuring violence, illicit sex and drunkenness – have parallels in the way that people might behave in the woods today, when they think they are unobserved.

He considers his paintings to be modern equivalents, showing evidence of the same tyes of activities, or at least the modern equivalent. One major difference being the absence of people – except for one painting where the artist himself can be seen from the rear, clearly relieving himself against a tree.

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George Shaw was brought up as a Catholic and that certainly comes across in a number of works in the exhibition.

This is complemented by Shaw’s interest in Christian imagery, especially how landscape artists of the past often alluded to the Crucifixion in their depiction of trees.

such as this one

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one of a group of three paintings that can clearly be interpreted as a representation of the crucifixion.

There’s a series of 14 charcoal drawings – The Loneliness of the Middle‑Aged Life Model  – which are self portraits showing the artist in various poses – reaching, stretching, kneeling , and crucified. They are clearly  inspired by the fourteen stations of the cross.

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There’s also a series of drawings of the head of Christ

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It was also interesting to see the selection the three of the artist’s sketchbooks from his residency which give a further insight to his inspiration and technique.

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There’s a video accompanying the exhibition where George Shaw talks about his  work, his development as an artist and his residency at the National Gallery. He comes across as a very engaging, pleasant, unpretentious and humorous individual. We spoke to a some of the Gallery staff who had talked to him when he visited the Gallery with his family and they all had nothing but good words for him.

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9 thoughts on “George Shaw: My Back to Nature at Abbot Hall

  1. I remember how difficult it was to use those paints, when I helped my brother paint his models. Very interesting that he uses them as a paint medium, with quite amazing results 🙂 Thanks for sharing, Lynne

    • They were always very thin and runny as I recall. In the video showing at the exhibit btion George tells how he leaves the tins open for a few days so they thicken up a lttle. Still a challenge to paint with them nevertheless.

      • Yes, I enlarged the photos and I can see deeper into the painting, I quite like them, his paintings are not meant to be perfect, well these ones, as they are not perfect subjects…….. as I know nothing about paintings, am I on the right track or is it just what each individual sees !

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