George Shaw: My Back to Nature, The National Gallery
Coventry-born painter George Shaw immortalises his most vivid childhood memories in paint, raising wretched 60s school playgrounds, council estate garages and desolate suburban bus stops to epic proportions.
In My Back to Nature, an exhibition at the National Gallery, the Turner Prize-nominated painter moves away from snapshots of the unremarkable Midlands concrete jungle and makes a dash for the woods.
Two years in the making, and the result of a residency inside the National Gallery itself, Shaw’s exhibition focusses on clumsy human interventions in nature. He is interested in the seediness of suburban woodlands, and the various clues to impropriety – condoms, vodka bottles, mattresses, graffiti – one can discover on venturing in. The artist also sees the woods as contradictory spaces, where you may accidentally stumble across something disconcerting, where teenagers and vagrants hang out at night, and where kids are desperate to frolic and explore.
Shaw rarely includes figures in his work, yet each of his realistic scenes hold an eerie human aura. In several paintings in the exhibition he dwells on crumpled masses of porno magazines. Extreme close-ups and bright flesh tones appear on paper leaves strewn amongst grass and muddy tree roots.
In a film accompanying the exhibition Shaw recalls walking in the woods as a child with his father and being entranced by a page of Penthouse Magazine blowing by, rather than the squirrels. He also excitedly talks about about his early obsession with the Renaissance masters. Walking around the National Gallery’s collection with childlike glee, he picks his favourite outdoor scenes, always the work depicting some kind of raucous behaviour. He likes to imagine a work such as Poussin’s The Triumph of Pan (1636) after the party has moved on, and the various bits of rubbish – a goblet of wine here, a misplaced toga there – that would be left over.
Next he asks: how can my life and my experiences relate to this masterpiece by Titian? As a painter interested in a similar environment almost 400 years later, what would that look like today?
Shaw decides to dedicate huge canvases to a hollowed tree trunk overflowing with empty cans of Fosters, and a clearing with blue tarpaulin tacked to a branch. His approach works so well in part because his show takes over two large rooms adjacent to the priceless masterpieces he admired as a young student.
The wonderful thing about Shaw’s mundane subjects is that they are instantly familiar – whether a prefab community centre with a pot-holed tarmac carpark, or a well-worn muddy path to the fields leading to nowhere. In this exhibition, he delights in inviting us to step into his memories of the woods and conjure our own, but not without with a grinning nod back to the Old Masters.