Hong Kong Museum of Art (Hong Kong, China): British Landscape
This painting depicts a derelict row of garage units in a semi-rural setting. Dense vegetation behind the units shuts out the sunlight pouring through the upper branches of trees standing above tall shrubs. A muddy track in front of the garage doors stretches across the foreground to a vanishing point at the left side of the painting. Patchy grass and weeds growing at the base of the doors suggests that they have not been used for a long time. Piles of copper leaves accumulated against the closed doors and sprinkled over the grass and muddy track indicate that it is late in the year as well as, possibly, late in the day. The vegetation is dense green at the level of the garage units, fading to lighter green where the sunlight penetrates it higher up. In places the leaves have turned to orange and yellow, deepening to a darker reddish brown. Leafless twigs sticking up above the garage roofs and shrubbery form a pale silhouette against the uniformly beige-coloured sky. The grey garage doors are scrawled with graffiti. Several are missing, leaving dark holes in the row of perspectivally diminishing units. In the foreground on the right, a door is raised at half mast, opening up a large black space inside the unit and casting thick shadows extending over the grass on the track. The door of the next unit is missing; a panelled wooden interior gleams dully out of the darkness from between the white-painted posts which separate the units. Like all Shaw’s paintings, Scenes from the Passion: Late was made using Humbrol Airfix enamel paint in a range of seven colours. Manufactured for the use of hobbyists and model-makers, this paint has a glossy, reflective surface. It is suitable for rendering intricate detail and Shaw’s use of it in the ‘realistic’ depiction of nature recalls the work of such pre-Raphaelite painters as John Everett Millais (1829-96).
Shaw grew up in Tile Hill, a post-war housing estate on the south side of Coventry, where his parents still live. He decided to be an artist while he was still at school, but became disillusioned during his BA in fine art at Sheffield Polytechnic (1986-9) and abandoned art for a few years. He returned to it in 1996, completing an MA at the Royal College of Art in London 1998. During this period, he made a trip back to his parents’ house and began photographing the landscape of his teenage years. These pictures became the starting point for the ongoing series of paintings titled Scenes from the Passion. The title is a reference to the biblical series of moments in the suffering and death of Christ, also known as the Stations of the Cross. Shaw’s use of the Christian story provides echoes of the melodrama and self-importance often characteristic of the adolescent, while undercutting them with the quiet, nostalgic and poetic mood of his pictures. He has explained:
I started to make these paintings out of a kind of mourning for the person I used to be: an enthusiastic, passionate teenager who read art books and novels and poems and biographies and watched films and TV and listened to music and dreamed. They are paintings of places that were familiar to me in my childhood and adolescence, places in which I found myself alone and thoughtful. They are places in which I forgot things. ... I paint the paintings of all the times and all the thoughts I lack the language to describe. For the one single moment that I can recall, I feel a dull sadness for the thousands I have forgotten.
(Quoted in artist’s statement, 2002.)
In order to recreate the feelings and atmosphere of his lost youth, c.1976-85, Shaw takes hundreds of snapshots of sites significant to his past in the suburban and forested area around Tile Hill. A careful editing process then takes place before the final image is produced. All people, vehicles and recent additions such as new buildings, signage and other urban furniture, are edited out. Dated objects, like a 1970s telephone booth which once stood outside Shaw’s parents’ house, may need to be found elsewhere in order to be included in the painting. Although closely allied to the 1980s tradition of photo-realism, Shaw’s paintings are careful compositions made up of concrete observation and ambiguous, unreliable memory. As he wrote in his Notes for the New Life (photocopied pamphlet 2001), ‘if I’m honest enough I could say I was suspended between autobiography and fiction’ [p.12].
Judith Nesbitt, Jonathan Watkins, Days Like These: Tate Triennial Exhibition of Contemporary British Art 2003, exhibition catalogue, Tate London 2003, pp.138-43, reproduced p.139 in colour
What I did this Summer: George Shaw, exhibition catalogue, Ikon Gallery, Bermingham, Newlyn Art Gallery, Dundee Contemporary Arts 2003, reproduced p.23 in colour
Micro/macro: British Art 1996-2002, exhibition catalogue, Mücsarnok/Kunsthalle Budapest 2003, pp.94-7 and 144-5
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