George Shaw: My Back to Nature, National Gallery 2016


Last year during the Foundations Drawing course I declared my crush on George Shaw, having fallen in love with his painting The Time Machine, 2010, spotted in a newspaper.

Each time I looked at Shaw’s work online or in catalogues, it inspired a crescendoing ‘yes! yes! yes!’. Here was someone exploring the past, nostalgia, melancholia, youth, time passing, someone who took note of places so familiar they are imprinted on our retina and yet we forget them and we forget to love them. And here he was – loving them.

When my tutor on the Foundations course suggested I take a look at Shaw’s Payne’s Grey series, I got hold of a catalogue and while I was again entranced by his ability (and desire) to capture the damp wallpaper of english life, the trees disturbed me for their slightly theatrical quality. Finding myself with a very rare morning alone in London (I live in France) it made sense to spend it seeing my first work by George Shaw in the flesh.


Study for Hanging Around (Landscape without Figures), 2014, George Shaw

Something from the National Gallery’s introductory video really jumped out at me – Shaw’s explanation of the exhibition title. “I have my back to nature all the time. I’m looking at books, films, paintings, my back is to the natural world all the time….a gallery has its back to the natural world…you don’t go to a gallery to see the world…you step out of the world in a gallery….I find replication of nature much more exciting. I find the painting of a tree more exciting than a tree.”

I’m currently in the process of untangling the knotty mess of looking and seeing, Freud and Fenichel, scoptophilia and fetishism that the OCA’s Visual Studies course has handed my plodding brain so this was fascinating. That an artist would admit to this, and an artist that paints trees! It seems peculiar. Would a writer rather read about a tree than look at a tree? A musician listen to music inspired by woodland than sit in the woodland itself? Shaw must have spent time in these hidden wooded spaces to want to capture them. So this says something to me about the ritualistic looking referred to in the course material. Does the excitement Shaw gets from seeing a painted tree do with another artists’s viewpoint – he gets to see through another’s eyes? Or is it simply about the set up? The permission we give ourselves to truly look in a gallery. The express use of space for just that – looking. And borrowing someone else’s eyes to do the looking.

Notes I took while I was at the exhibition:

Like those hologram bookmarks sold at the cash desk in bookshops. I wasn’t expecting them to be so unreal, dreamlike. The greenery of the woodland glows. The blue tarpaulin becomes silk that glows.

There are 3 large paintings – red paint, tarpaulin, porn mags – it’s as if these objects have been superimposed, as if they have been deposited in an alien landing, Very other-worldly. Paint glistens. In all paintings there is an almost hyper-real foreground object in a surreal surrounding.


The Living and the Dead, 2015-2016, George Shaw


Only part of the foreground is properly in focus, the rest is blurred, giving the feeling that we are really staring at the object. And yet the object isn’t always depicted with realism, creating an unsettling contradiction. Though the blue silk is painted as hyper real, it isn’t really ‘hanging’ off the branch it has been draped on. It is hovering, ready for a ghostly dance. The porn mags, while they show more detail than normal eyesight would pick up on from the distance supposed, don’t look like paper, but something softer and more living –  perhaps leaves – like those they lie on. The graffiti doesn’t ‘sit’ on the tree – but I could believe my son has come along and added it by felt-tip  to the post card I bought in the gallery shop.


Mocht ich zurucke wieder wanken, 2015-2016, George Shaw

Despite the other-worldly blue of the silk, two colours dominate – muddy red brown and emerald green.  The light works its way through the thick green foliage and as it does becomes a lurid emerald. The same green carpets the trees in moss. Shaw seems to use a limited range of colours and I’m not sure how I feel about this – it feels partly as though he couldn’t be bothered to get out another pot of green and partly that it is this that creates the dream-like state of these places. However I find the sheer square footage of brown in the room oppressive. The ground seems a uniform muddy red brown clay carpeted in the leaves of just one tree that have fallen all on the same day. The trees take on that same spooky theatrical quality that I felt in the Payne’s Grey series.

The whole had the feeling of creeping into a woodland den. It was earthy and dank. But I didn’t get the sense that stuff had happened here, that people were missing – something that I felt with his earlier works (that I’ve not seen in person). This felt dream-like, hallucinatory. These are scenes of real-life but they have something of a virtual reality tour about them – smooth and dusted off.


The Foot of a Tree, 2016-2016, George Shaw

I’m not absolutely sure how I feel about this group of paintings. I expected a kind of ecstasy on finally viewing this artist’s works in person. Poor George Shaw! What pressure, how unfair. I wonder if part of the problem isn’t the subject – it’s something I am interested in. I really enjoyed reading Edgelands, also the photographs of Mark Edwards, and I cover many miles of motorway very much aware of these forgotten spaces. I’m just not sure I got anything new from these paintings. I enjoyed seeing them, was fascinated. But I didn’t leave feeling elated, inspired, intrigued or full of wonder. I would really really like to see other works in person – from Payne’s Grey and The Sly and Unseen Day.

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