Nothing, like something, happens anywhere

February 5, 2010

I have been working in Art & Design for the last decade and when asked to name my favourite artists, I don’t struggle for answers. But rather than produce a list of names, I think it would be interesting to share some images and perhaps explain what attracts me to them. Some will be big names, others upcoming artists who haven’t received much attention.

George Shaw is Coventry-born artist who specialises in landscapes, although the subject matter is non-traditional. His early work depicted buildings and urban scenes from the Tile House Estate in Coventry where he grew up. Following his early exhibitions, much was made of his use of Humbrol paint (normally used to paint Airfix models) to realise his work, but I have always felt that this is a minor detail that only serves to detract from his intentions.

What struck me about the paintings has always been his unusual choice of subject matter. Aside from some of his early work, there are no people in his paintings, just renderings of drab environments – pub car-parks, concrete underpasses and badly maintained playing fields. I suppose many would view them as depressing, but there is a depth to his images that made me want to explore his motivations. I am particularly interested in the reasons for selecting the particular locations he paints.

A key reason why I was intrigued by his work was the fact that his images seem to be lifted directly from the area that I grew up in. His rendering of early seventies pubs, short cuts behind garages and vandalised playgrounds could have easily have been drawn from the estates I used to explore (although I must point out that Kingswinford is hardly a ghetto). I think it’s easy to forget that when you are a child, your geographical boundaries are very restricted – but a by-product of this is that you form an intense memory of the spaces within which you move.

Until I looked at Shaw’s work, I think the nearest cultural touchstone I had to refer to, that reminded my of my environment, was Gavin Watson’s book Skins, which is a photographic book that focuses on the Skinhead movement. With that publication I was perhaps interested in the urban environment depicted in the book as much as the early Eighties movement that it documented.  I was never a skin – more of a Two-Tone/Soulboy during that period (when I was nine-ish), but their influence was huge, threatening but also familiar. 

In Shaw’s  work, the idea that he was rendering such familiar-looking scenes rendered in a painstaking fashion was something that appealed to a feeling that I have always had – that anything has value and that every environment has a meaning, however harsh it may seem.

One of the over the overriding feelings his work creates – particularly when you see them in a gallery setting – is a sense of tension and unease. The lack of human figures in the works could be construed as a device to create a sense of loneliness, as the viewer seems to experience the locations in a solitary way. But fundamentally I feel that people are essential to his work, in that each painting contains human traces – whether it is via graffiti, damage or a path worn by feet.

Another aspect of the work that interests me is the idea of the encroachment of people into nature. The area I grew up is a kind of hinterland between the huge West Midlands conurbation and the countryside – and where the two meet it is not normally attractive. But there are elements of beauty in these urban woods, as well as a sense of danger and secrecy. I’m probably not alone in remembering the kind of characters that are attracted to these areas (such as a man we called The Coat Man. He used to hang his coat on the branch of a tree and then ask us if it was ours. He also brandished a knife at us on one occasion. We thought he was harmless but there you go).

Shaw is interesting as an artist in that he also writes, which is fairly uncommon. I own one of his books, which contains no images and although fairly unstructured (much of it was written in the kind of pubs his work depicts) it forms an ideal companion to his art. He has a strong obsession with cultural iconography, particularly British popular culture and in this respect I think keeps good company with figures such as Morrissey and the filmmaker Shane Meadows.

I’ll say this for him, he has catholic taste. This is Shaw on his youthful aspirations “I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to be Jimmy from Quadrophenia or John Everett Millais … or Francis Bacon … the list was endless and I couldn’t decide which messiah to follow. All I could really do was draw quite well.”

Skins http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/spl/hi/picture_gallery/07/magazine_gavin_watson0s_0skins0/html/1.stm

More on Shaw http://www.channel4.com/culture/microsites/A/art_show/george_shaw/index.html

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3 Responses to “Nothing, like something, happens anywhere”

  1. Chantal Says:

    Really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this artist. He is someone whose work I hadn’t looked at before so I had a browse online after. Very evocative in terms of tapping into a sense of ambiguous nostalgia.

  2. Jo Says:

    I too enjoyed reading this.

    I like Richard Billingham’s photography for much the same reason. He grew up in 70’s Cradley Heath just up the road from my home town. You relate to the images emotionally and psychologically.

    http://www.schaden.com/book/BilRicBla03633.html

    He was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2001.

    http://www.eyestorm.com/artists/profile/Richard_Billingham_biography.html

    I like your blog Tom.

  3. Sarah Says:

    As someone who did grow up just outside Coventry in the 70’s and early 80’s, these images resonate with me. I remember the bleak concrete parks (complete with white dog poo!!) and their associated oddballs with a certain degree of affection!


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