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Untitled (5) is a small watercolour on thick wove paper by the British artist George Shaw. The left side of the painting is dominated by a tall brick wall that runs towards the middle of the scene, diminishing into the distance. A cement path runs alongside the brick wall, starting at the bottom centre of the picture and extending towards the middle until it curves to the left and disappears behind the wall. To the right is a much smaller wall that runs a short way along the path and then stops. The right-hand side of the watercolour features an area of earth and grass and, behind it, a cluster of green bushes and trees with brown, autumnal leaves. In the top right quarter of the image the windows and balconies of a block of flats are partly visible through the gaps in the trees. The central position of the path, as well as the picture’s vantage point, gives the impression that the viewer is standing on or walking along the path. The lines of perspective outlined by the two walls and the path give a sense of depth, accentuated by the increasing transparency of the watercolour in the most distant parts of the scene, lending the image a hazy quality.
Shaw made Untitled (5) in his studio in North Devon in 2004. The work is part of Shaw’s ongoing project, begun in 1996, in which he revisits, documents and makes paintings of Tile Hill, the post-war council estate in west Coventry where he grew up between 1976 and 1985. To make works such as Untitled (5), Shaw went back to the estate and took hundreds of snapshots before returning to his studio to paint from them. The act of painting these scenes involved a meticulous editing process: as he worked, Shaw retained only the elements of the scenes that were present when he was living in Tile Hill, removing any new structures and signs and editing out people and vehicles.
Although Shaw is best known for his large-scale scenes of Tile Hill painted on board using Humbrol enamel paint, he has also made many watercolours of the area throughout his career. His paintings often have explanatory titles, but many of his watercolours are named Untitled, sometimes accompanied by a number, as in the case of this work. The small scale and pale tones of this watercolour give it a more intimate, sentimental appearance than the larger pieces, yet it still bears the predominantly photorealist style of Shaw’s other works, such as Scenes from the Passion: Late 2002 (Tate T07945).
Despite his photorealist style, Shaw’s act of editing the original scenes and reimagining them according to his own memories means that the final images are as much invented or reconstructed as they are ‘real’. In 1998 Shaw identified his practice of painting as a means of recalling the parts of Tile Hill he could not remember, as well as those he could:
They are as much about what has been forgotten, lost, swept away as much as they are about what is remembered. They are illustrations to and signposts on a journey. But I am unsure whether the journey is in or out, backwards or forwards.
(Quoted in Nesbitt and Watkins 2003, p.138.)
Untitled (5) is at once devoid of a human presence and suggestive of human activity through the vantage point and the path’s offer of a direction or escape. The curator Katharine Stout has argued that Shaw’s combination of documentary-style representation with nostalgia and sentimentality situate the artist in ‘a tradition of English landscape painting, found in Thomas Gainsborough, John Constable and Stanley Spencer’, one that is ‘dedicated to recording a way of life. These are realistic paintings, not just in style, but in their truthfulness to the reality of the experience of this place. This is not rose-tinted nostalgia, but it is nevertheless sentimental’ (Katharine Stout in Nesbitt and Watkins 2003, p.138).
Judith Nesbitt and Jonathan Watkins, Days Like These: Tate Triennial Exhibition of Contemporary British Art 2003, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2003.
Laurence Sillars (ed.), George Shaw: The Sly and Unseen Day, exhibition catalogue, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead 2011.
Turner Prize 2011: Karla Black, Martin Boyce, Hilary Lloyd, George Shaw, exhibition catalogue, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead 2011.
Supported by Christie’s.