George Shaw: The Sly and Unseen Day
Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead
18 February–15 May 2011
By MICHAEL SPENS
George Shaw has been working away since 1996 at least, and this new show brings his paintings in particular into sharper focus, with some 40 works on display. Shaw, now 45 years old, has not been widely known and perhaps to the London art world seems too different from prevailing metropolitan trends to disrupt that hegemony. His choice of medium has also alienated the high priestdom, selecting watercolour, and also Humbrol Enamel (familiar to Airfix enthusiasts) with its slightly translucent sheen, rather than conventional oils or acrylic. A typical (yet iconoclastic) enthusiasm is for the watercolour Payne’s grey, a subtle yet very English tone, somehow relevant to the weather (as so evident in William Payne’s own landscape views made in the late 18th century).
The locations range from Tile Hill (Coventry), views of a seemingly incidental character (a row of garage doors in a verdant leftover scrap of land), to a cut of a suburban house adjacent to a blossoming tree. As with most of the paintings the places are seemingly uninhabited; it is as if it is the embedded place itself, that figures, which carries on the memory of those who passed through. It is perhaps ironic, that the Baltic is showing George Shaw’s work at the same time as Tate Britain’s Watercolour exhibition – for one of his understated images (he also works in watercolour) would enhance the Tate show. Perhaps it is the apparent mundanity of Shaw’s subject matter that might have disappointed a metropolitan eye. Yet it is the very perspicacity of Shaw’s focus on the “edge” condition that makes his work so relevant today. Painters as distinguished as Gerhard Richter have recently been drawn to such preoccupations, as indeed has Peter Doig.
Today the notion of “edge” has been asserted in the hinterland of London’s Olympic megastructure, close to abandoned allotment sites. Long ago the “edge” had made a dramatic impact in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker (1979), capturing the essence of seemingly empty spaces. A more benign vacuousness however constitutes these English semi-rural, urban-remnant spaces. Just as there was an eerie sense of embedded human presence in absence in the remains of second world war airfield buildings (I remember combing these long after for souvenirs on a bicycle as a child), so George Shaw is able to capture the wasting essence of outer urban groundscape in the city edge where he grew up. The Tile Hill area of Coventry, where he spent his childhood, has provided a ready source of locations, or non-places. Yet it is their creation in passing by recent inhabitants that will remain transient, until the next wave of urban development makes for new cul-de-sac.
The Baltic are to be congratulated for mounting this new exhibition. After seeing it, it is worth crossing the new pedestrian bridge across the Tyne and trekking a short way up to the 1960s/70s Byker Housing Estate (designed with a rare modernist flourish by the Swedish/English architect Ralph Erskine). There, unselfconsciously, some such left over incidental spaces have emerged to suit today’s recasting of the sublime. It is in good hands with George Shaw.