“My Back to Nature” by George Shaw,
most recently hosted at the the De La Warr Pavilion on England’s south coast offered another opportunity to see George Shaw’s reboot of the paintings in the National Gallery’s collection.
The paintings and drawings in this new body of work are the result of Shaw’s time as the National’s latest artist in residence, but his relationship with the gallery goes back much further, and it shows . . .
He has engaged more directly with the gallery’s collection than many of his predecessors; a courageous thing to do: Going up against the old masters leaves nowhere to hide.
To those familiar with Shaw’s pictures of empty back streets, forgotten areas of housing estates and peripheral city locations, the emptiness of the scenes in ‘My Back to Nature’ will come as no surprise. It’s the same haunting emptiness you can see in Stubbs’ paintings of deserted racecourses: abandoned landscapes marked by human activity. A constant thread that runs through his work is the depiction of locations that exist on the periphery of our vision: the fringes of life where humanity’s detritus washes up — clues to our true nature which Shaw scrutinizes.
In this spirit, the included sketches offer us little hints; ideas to hold onto as we walk around the exhibition. A sketch of Poussin’s ‘The Triumph of Pan’ is displayed next to a photograph of a revolver warning us that, in Shaw-World, the gay abandon of Poussin’s scene is a façade: a crime has been committed, or will be if we dare to glance away.
‘A Revel before Half Term’, one of the key paintings in the exhibition, takes its idea and title from Poussin’s ‘A Bacchanalian Revel Before a Term’ — but it’s title also suggests that Shaw is recording his childhood experiences in a similar landscape. His work gives the illusion of autobiography, like a novel written in the first person. It is filled with the stuff many of us will remember from childhood and soaked in its emotional associations.
The pastoral glades of classical landscapes where god’s and goddesses frolic become be-grotted forest dens. The gallery’s nudes become porn actresses spread across the damp pages of abandoned magazines. The electric blue of the Virgin’s robes, that runs like a ribbon through the National’s collection, becomes a plastic tarpaulin.
The empty beer tins and the remains of burned-out fires in the woodland clearings of Shaw’s childhood have been left like a message in a bottle from the mysterious world inhabited by adults. ‘A Revel before Half Term’ is an appropriate starting point for the themes that run through the exhibition, a pointer that leads us into the woods, and as we move further in, things get darker.
There’s a lot of darkness (literally as well as metaphorically) in these pictures, but there is depth in the darkness, drawing you in and repelling you at the same time. The faded browns and greens of woodland could be the murky backdrop to any number of mythological and religious scenes in the gallery’s collection, but there are seductive flashes of colour too: blood-like paint splashed over tree bark or bright blue tarpaulins, and Shaw’s trademark use of enamels gives his woods alluring brilliance.
Shaw’s woodland is far from the sylvan otherworld depicted in many of the National’s paintings. It is the place just out of site, where things happen in secret. Most importantly, it’s an extension of the urban environment — a desolation rather than a wilderness — and the scenes he dwells on are filled with both a grubby eroticism and a lingering threat of violence. Behind the scarred trees and piled rubbish you sense a drama that you’ve just missed.
In the absence of human figures, the trees become substitutes for people. In the series of paintings, ‘You’ve Changed’, the trees are marked and wounded. Does the title refer to the injuries that have been done to them, or are the trees making an observation of the adult viewer returning to the site of a childhood memory? The trees, humanised by Shaw have become silent witnesses to the incidents that have taken place in his woodland clearings.
The seriousness of Shaw’s vision is often tempered by gallows humour. In this exhibition he uses it to distance himself from the potential pomposity and grandeur of the Gallery’s collection. A drawing of the sculpture from Tony Hancock’s film ‘The Rebel’ has crept into the show as though he wants to tell us he isn’t really ‘one of them’ and that we shouldn’t take any of it too seriously. Maybe it’s just been included to see if we get the joke?
Occasionally the humour does the work a disservice. It diminishes the courage he showed by engaging with the paintings that surrounded him during his tenure at the gallery.
Although it does sometimes hit the wrong note, the humour in Shaw’s choice of titles does strip away of the romance surrounding his subject matter and this re-evaluation of the National’s collection is a valuable part of the residency programme. He describes Poussin’s ‘Nymph with Satyrs’ as
“Dirty little shenanigans going on in the wood under the disguise of some vague classical allusion.”
After spending some time in this exhibition, it’s difficult to see the Poussin painting as anything other than a scene of masturbation and voyeurism in a wood. ‘The Triumph of Pan’, also by Poussin, begins to look like a scene of crime. The bundle of cloth in the painting’s foreground becomes a wrapped body. This motif is reflected in Shaw’s ‘The Uncovered Cover’ where something lies covered, buried, forgotten — more ‘True Detective’ than ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’.
The climax of the exhibition, is a triptych of paintings that re-visit the myth of Acteon, memorably depicted by Titian in his paintings ‘Diana and Actaeon’ and ‘The Death of Actaeon’, both in the National’s collection. They show Actaeon drawing aside a curtain to catch a peep at the goddess Dianna as she bathes. As a punishment for his intrusion he is turned into a stag and hunted to death by his own hounds.
In Shaw’s triptych of pictures, the veil that Actaeon draws aside becomes a tarpaulin hanging from a tree. In the second panel a pile of torn pornographic magazines are fanned in an arc before the dark entrance to a woodland den: the naked goddess reprinted a hundred times, legs spread. In the third panel Shaw evokes Actaeon’s bloody demise with red paint splashed on a tree. Some of these interpretations may seem overly blunt attempts to find a modern equivalence but, as with much of Shaw’s work, it is the atmosphere with which he imbues his subjects that gives it poetry. He reshapes the myth into a modern-day woodland transgression.
Shaw seems to be an artist who is haunted by memory and by the atmosphere that we sense in those rare, quiet moments when we find ourselves alone, in a place just beyond our familiar environment. His work is ominous and compelling. Its melancholia is best summed up by the words that Shaw used to describe John Constable’s cloud studies:
“They are an attempt to hold onto each fragile minute as it passes into darkness.”
Artist George Shaw in his studio. Courtesy of National Gallery London
George Shaw in front of Cenotaph to the Memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds, featuring busts of Raphael and Michelangelo(1833 -6) by John Constable. Courtesy of The National Gallery.
Artwork images © Courtesy : George Shaw and Wilkinson Gallery, London