For the artist George Shaw, one Coventry housing estate contains endless grace and transcendence
In the course of doing arts-reviewing duties for BBC Radio Four, A/UK co-initiator Pat Kane came upon - belatedly but amazedly - the work of painter George Shaw. Shaw’s 20 year focus on meticulously painting the buildings of Tile Hill, the housing estate just outside Coventry where he grew up (and his mother remains), is being currently curated at the Holburne Museum in Bath. Pat’s responses, alongside the pictures, are below.
* * *
On these islands of the UK, and particularly post the Brexit vote, we live in divided circumstances - and the divide is almost a basic question of experience. A significant section of the population believes that another section simply doesn’t understand, value or appreciate the conditions in which they live, the challenging and often brutal history that brought them there, the everyday grain and texture of life that is meaningful to them.
And as soon as I walked into a room of George Shaw’s paintings for the first time, it struck me forcibly that he answers, “yes I do understand, value and appreciate you”.
Shaw does so by coming back to the Midlands housing estate of Tile Hill where he was brought up in the 80s and 90s, and steadily painting scenes from its buildings and environs. What immediately moved me were the paintings in which his extravagant and classical landscape technique was applied to scenes I recognised from my own working-class background in Coatbridge - but seeking the same kind of grace, transcendence and epiphany as might come from more exalted or exotic locales.
Take these two from his “Ash Wednesday” sequences (the Catholic references themselves are an unusual link, to older and deeper loyalties than a consumer/producer society). The time of their painting could both be both the hour of devotion, but also (perhaps just after?) a morning commute to work or school. The golden glow in one illuminates what looks like an industrial park; the tree against the gable end of the terraced houses in the other is wild and organic against their pre-fabrication.
Shaw also shows the passage of time in ordinary, everyday places. Both in the way that structures (not that well made to begin with) flake and decay; and in the way that forces of economy and politics make them more (and usually in this area, less) viable. Places of entertainment and leisure - like this building below - seem to move on a short spectrum from quietly grim, to quietly ruinous.
This row of garages is already dilapidated, some working and used, some already falling apart. Yet the next painting of the same place shows the garages obliterated, entirely consumed by the forest that surrounds this estate (classically plonked into rural and farmlands, as many workers’ estates were). This signifies ambivalence, to me: the contraction of economic activity, but also the way that natural forces will burgeon when industrial and consumer modernity recedes. But there’s the bright red dogshit bin, a sign that human communities are still around, adapting to circumstances.
Shaw’s beatification of the everyday, as shown in this exhibition, can take many forms - and as the catalogue shows (PDF here), he is extremely literate in many painting traditions and canons, which can be read into all of his work. But it’s not necessary to know these references to feel the power of his technique and vision.
Shaw’s presumption is that the daily experience of what political commentators might call the “left-behind” of Brexit (or of Trumpland, or of European populism) brims with wonder and natural energy. His work expresses a beautiful tension between buildings as “machines for living” (as the modernist architects would put it), and the yearning hopes and dreams invested in the places that the majority of Britons live.
We won’t get to a common ground on a better society in post-Brexit UK if we don’t dignify how people have lived and do live, as a platform for a new kind of social life together. George Shaw’s artwork, contemplated with enough commitment, may help this happen.
Here’s some final images, which speak for themselves.
For more on the Shaw exhibition, see here.