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George Shaw
Frilly Knickers and a See-Through Bra (4) 2015
Pencil on paper 29.5 x 21 cm

De-Idealising the Masters

George Shaw moves from the sacred to the profane, but not to Robin Richmond’s liking

Like George Shaw, the most recent beneficiary of the National Gallery's Rootstein Hopkins Associate Artist's programme, I have long held the fantasy of holing up in London's National Gallery for a few years. What heaven it must be to roam the corridors freely, camera and/or sketchbook in hand, unfettered by the din and mass of fellow art lovers.

I remember, many years ago, having this privilege, like Cinderella, for one evening. I was accompanied only by the then director, Michael Levey, and it was an experience I shall never forget – not least because he was shockingly candid about certain (mis) attributions.  I was young and impressionable, very like the young boy from a Coventry council estate who visited London and is now in his 40's and the subject of this exhibition.

This display is a testament to Shaw's childhood love of the gallery and he has had the privilege of unlimited access for two and half years. The show’s title makes a play on the pastoral idyll of "back to nature" that we see in Constable and Corot. It also alludes to his own transgressive interpretation of nature painting – a compelling if peculiar reaction to the collection – which illuminates how an artist develops his or her subject matter and then explores this in depth.

On day trips to the capital in the early 80's Shaw made the decision to become an artist, and he still faithfully uses his childhood guide to the gallery, a birthday gift. In his own words; "I think the best person for the job would have been me at 15 or 16. He would have been in the gallery 18 hours a day for two years. I accepted it on his behalf and I did the best job I could". He admits now that it took him six months to "calm down" and come to terms with the project. His description of walking to his gallery studio every day passing by Rembrandts and Titians is simultaneously inspiring, thrilling, and deeply discouraging.

George Shaw
The Sadness of the Middle-Aged Life Model (12) 2015
Charcoal on paper 61 x 46 cm

The residence scheme gives an artist unlimited access to the National's collection, both in and out of hours, and also encourages creative dialogue with its conservators and curators. In addition, a large studio is provided in situ, enabling the chosen artist to engage with the collection all day every day. The programme has invited a spectrum of artists as heterogeneous as Michael Landy, Peter Blake, Hughie O’Donoghue, Ken Kiff and Paula Rego among many others over the years and in each case the artist has produced a show which documents his or her own, often idiosyncratic response to the collection.

Shaw is a Turner prize nominee, best known for his detailed, photo–realist depictions of dingy run–down urban life, often of the council estate of his childhood, with its lock up garages and sad, crumbling tower blocks. His USP is that he rejects the medium of most fine art – oil, acrylic or water colour – for the humble Humbrol enamel paint that we have all used as children to paint our bicycles and airfix kits. He affirms that this is his way of simultaneously invoking the history of art – by using a technique that in its painstaking slowness mimics an old masterly style – but at the same time rejects it.

George Shaw
The Heart of the Wood  2015-2016
Enamel on canvas 46 x 55 cm

Shaw uses his own photographs as source material and as is so often the case with work made from photographs (like Hockney) his work looks great in photographs but less convincing in the original. The Humbrol paint has an inert dullness and uniformity of touch, emitting a disconcertingly plastic gleam. 

In this show he responds to the collection in many ways. A detailed depiction of a large blue tarpaulin found draped mysteriously in the woods The Living and The Dead alludes to the curtain swept aside by Acteon as he unveils the chaste Diana’s nudity in the National's great Titian, Diana and Acteon, based on Ovid, so beloved of Turner and Lucian Freud.  It is the same size as the Titian and is one of a set of three paintings of trees, which consciously evoke the iconography of the crucifixion.  But the trees have no life at all. Shaw says that a painting of a tree is much more exciting than a tree.  To my mind this is what what makes his nature paintings so strangely devoid of life.

George Shaw
The Foot of a Tree 2015-2016
Enamel on canvas 46 x 55 cm

Shaw's work explores human intervention in a nature empty of people. He calls these paintings his "haunted" forests. But they have none of the thrill of hauntings.  Memories of childhood walks in the woods with his dad are not of his father's vaunted foxgloves and birdlife but of the detritus and rubbish left strewn by absent people.  Shaw's woods are very nasty places, full of trash and tin cans. 

He likes puns. Much too much. Allusions to "high " art such as Schubert and Goethe have to endure sophomoric double-entendres such as Möcht' ich zurück wieder wanken. Really?? Condoms, beer cans, girly mags and sexually explicit graffiti spill out of and on the bark of ancient tree trunks. There is a self conscious aim to link the history of art to the imagery of pornography.  Trees have vulvic gashes and penises. Hard core porn litters the ground and sections of writhing bodies allude to the nudes that abound in the gallery's collection. But there is a taint of obviousness and triteness, that makes one long for the sexually explicit but utterly honest depiction of Courbet's infamous The Origin of the World in the Musée D'Orsay.

George Shaw
Sketch 1 for Old Country 2015
Ink on paper 56 x 76 cm

This is a show that comes with a warning about its sexual content. If only it were that exciting.  Perhaps it's the paint, perhaps it's the painter, but this is a show that will – at least to this viewer – neither appeal to admirers of the National Gallery collection nor to an admirer, of which I am one, of Shaw's earlier work. Kudos to the National for inviting him, and he is a serious and very talented painter, but I bet he is glad to be free of the onus of responding to the collection. And someone should talk to him about his titles. He admits he has more titles than paintings. Therein lies the rub. And he would make a horrible punning title of that last sentence.

12 May 2106

George Shaw: My Back to Nature, The National Gallery’s Sunley Room, May 11-30 October
Admission free

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