THE NAKED TRUTH
George Shaw’s latest exhibition, My Back To Nature, explores cheap thrills, coming-of-age and the call of the urban wild.
A painter of parentheses, George Shaw is most well-known for his pictures of the Coventry garageland of Tile Hill estate in which he grew up. I have always thought of him as a recorder of anti-landscapes, the unacknowledged hinterland between suburban spaces, that for all there absence of people, mark stages of transition, like an empty room with a door left ajar.
His new show that has been displayed all summer at the National Gallery is an un-pretentious and clear-sighted exploration of the areas behind the houses, flats and garages of residential settings, re-framing the hidden territories where young people enjoy off-the-map first-time of sex/drink/pornography.
A sizeable woodland set alongside the Tile Hill estate, George has recorded the leavings and detritus of these landmark events in everyone’s adolescence: torn magazines showing fragments of naked flesh, used condoms and broken bottles; sometimes casually strewn around the collective gathering point of a fire.
Beginning with raw, exposed study sketches of his naked body in a number of poses, George highlights the historic connection in his new work by going back to the classics of early Titian’s dancing satyr’s post-decadence of illuminated coitus and intoxication. While Titian’s painting are tidied-up and almost vulgarly romaniticised, there are hints of sincerity in the broken wine urns and casually tossed-off garments left behind.
The most striking thing about the new exhibition are the trees; the framing reference for the entire show. The muddied background of green leaves and the brown dead leaves of the woodland floor are purposefully blurred, like the Vaseline lens of a camera, to bring the writhing, bulbous and provocative trees to the fore. They evoke the missing limbs of the now absent bodies that have abandoned the litter and marks of their leaving post-good times; crouching round a fire, swinging from branches, embracing and forming new conjunctive shapes. This echoes George’s initial sketches that show him upheld Christ-like as well as bending, scraping, reaching; contorted into twisted fashions of flesh.
By contrast to Titian, Shaw gives you all the grit and gloss that everyone knows lurks behind every scene, as once sordid and salutary. The hearthy eye-like womb of gorged trunks and knobbly, distended stumps all jut offensively, daringly – as excessive and invasive as nature finds a way through the cracks. Other details also strike you, the lurid, pseudo-censorship of torn and vaguely figurative porn mags and the persistent blue of the draped tarpaulin from a tree branch stay with you, like Chatterton’s burning, bright britches; luxurious folds sheathed in squalor a form of potential destitution – outside of the normal scheme of bourgeouis life.
What the exhibition tells us (?) the modern conception of man/nature is often one of harmony/aggression (via the Sublime), but like an un-loving God, nature is vengeful, its edges are rough multitudes, roots splinter concrete, it outdoes us, but in George Shaw’s pictures, nature is humanised, that is to say softened by the aftermath of innocence worn into experience
In the same way George’s earlier work showed us coming and going – he has now set actions, motives and personal expression in-situ – these are sites after the event, the narratives are thrown open for our (dirty) minds to imagine – he only shows us the way – we are to make our own conclusions that they posit someone sleeping rough, adolescent first sex or even a crime scene. For me, this makes George Shaw a contemporary archeaographer, sketching multiple lines of possibility through past and future, showing time and transience in context.
The exhibition has now finished – here’s hoping the paintings are returned home to be shown in Coventry in the near future.