Probably because I find most contemporary art so yawn-worthy, given that most of it tends to exhibit a lack of any sense of craftsmanship or talent for anything other than pooping on the carpet, I have until now not paid attention to the captivating work of British painter George Shaw. Mr. Shaw is short-listed for the Turner Prize in Contemporary Art this year, the winner of which will be announced on December 5th. Until early January, the work of the four finalists is on display at The Baltic Center for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, a town in NE England. It is a pity Mr. Shaw’s work is not being shown ahead of the prize-giving at Tate Britain in London, where more people could see it, but there you are.
As is apparent, the work of each of the other three finalists is the banal, tired rehashing of the same old accumulations of stuff and nonsense we have seen in contemporary art for decades. We do not need to get into a discussion about whether their work is art or not – for as I have told you before, gentle reader, that is not really the argument to be made. Pretty much anything can be looked at as being art – the real question is whether the art is any good. And as it is very plain that none of this other art is any good, we will move on to continue my unabashed praise for the work of Mr. Shaw.
Having lived in London during two separate stints of graduate school, I will be honest and admit that my first impression upon seeing images of Mr. Shaw himself was that he was not the sort of person you would expect to have any interest in art whatsoever. Rather, he seemed more the sort you would want to make sure you had on your side in a fight down the pub. However, as is often the case, appearances can be deceiving, and the perception that in order to appreciate art and aesthetics one must necessarily be a shoe-gazing sort of person is a false one. Indeed, one could hardly refer to yours truly as a small, unnoticeable sort of fellow.
To get a sense of Mr. Shaw’s abilities as a painter, have a click through this online gallery of some of his work, and you will see why I find it so captivating. Mr. Shaw has a curiosity about forlorn urban spaces and byways that I happen to share. As anyone who has gone for a walk with me in Georgetown, London, or Barcelona knows, they will inevitably be taken down obscure alleys, across tiny yards, through unexpected archways, and down hidden flights of stairs, to get from one place to another.
It is part of being a modern flâneur, I find, to avoid areas choked with traffic both bipedal and otherwise whenever possible, and to explore the hidden corners of where you live, and not because the sights along the way are very glamorous or, at first, glance, photogenic. They are oftentimes quite ordinary, rundown sorts of places, where the dust is thick and the paint is peeling. Yet such corners still indicate the presence of civilization and nature, though with the immediate absence of people, and provide a necessary, temporary respite from the incessant noise which people and their vehicles make.
In his work Mr. Shaw stops to look at some of these types of features, where there are no people to be seen, but we are aware that people are about, somewhere. In one painting we see an iron gate and a hedge, leading into some sort of housing development, where one of the iron bars is slightly bent; we can be reasonably certain that damage was caused by a human being, though no human beings are to be seen in the picture. Another gate, this time made of wood panels, hides what looks like some low industrial or commercial buildings just beyond, and we see a flash of some silvery trees that could have come from the hand of Corot, also just beyond. And in another work the shining lights from inside a pub at the end of the road, shown on a grey, typically English winter day, seem to want to draw us along the steely pavement so we can warm ourselves up a bit and forget that we live in such a bleak climate.
This is not to say that Mr. Shaw’s work is faultless. I do not understand the point of the titles he has chosen for some of his works, which make reference to various aspects of Christian theology such as The Assumption of the Blessed Mother or Ash Wednesday. In others, he uses profanity in his titles, which frankly is rather childish, and completely unnecessary for work that is so beautifully painted. Perhaps he is concerned that work showing such seemingly mundane cityscapes must have some sort of attention-grabbing title in order to be taken seriously as contemporary art.
That concern would be misplaced. While I am sure that Mr. Shaw will go on to do many other types of things, he clearly has a talent for seeing the contemporary world in ways that put him in the company of generations of talented landscape painters, who themselves did not always paint pretty pictures of perfect gardens and magnificent buildings. As I recently pointed out in a piece on American painter George Ault – whose work thematically, if not stylistically, has much in common with Shaw’s – it is the emptiness that, paradoxically, seems to draw us in, when we see these spaces that evidence human habitation, even when no humans are shown in the pictures. They tell a story of life about to happen, at any moment.
In Shaw’s art, as in Ault’s, and indeed as in that of many other examiners of the subtleties of human civilization, he has clearly been able to reflect on how human life goes on and matters as much as it does in the grander places of the world or in the front rooms, as it does in those areas which we do not often think about – the back of the garage, the turn in the road, and so on. He evokes a sense of place independent of the presence of great landmarks or stunning human constructions, which is somehow universally familiar, even if we did not grow up in such an environment ourselves. I look forward to seeing what he will try to tackle next.