George Shaw and painting the everyday

I've just seen the Turner Prize exhibition at the Baltic, Gateshead. One of the contenders is George Shaw, the Coventry painter. I suspect he won't win, because he is painter in a traditional sense of brush and canvas. I've been an admirer of his work for a while now, and, as is the case with most of my interests, it's because of his representation of place.

A sense of place is the key to his work. Shaw is a Coventry painter, rather than a painter who happens to come from Coventry. His subject matter is generally the urban and semi-urban landscapes of Coventry that he knew as a teenager. Yet the Coventry he depicts is also an everywhere: the concrete buildings, the rusty fences, the littered paths, the wet tarmac, is noman's land and every man's land.

These landscapes draw the viewer in because they are so familiar. It is distinctively Coventry for Shaw, with the sites filled with his own experience and memories. But the sites could also be anywhere in suburban, post-industrial, Britain.

I've never been to Coventry. Yet as I look through his back catalogue, I see scenes that seem so familiar. A painting of a new build estate of bright red brick houses in the middle ground, separated from the viewer by a muddy field, could be anywhere and everywhere; a sense of an artificial place with no past, and no centre or trees.

'Dead End' (2008), an expanse of tarmac by a row of green-doored garages looks like the garages by Southfield flats in east Oxford. 'Lowlife' (2009), with an algae-stained outflow in an underpass or roadbridge could be any non-space under any road. But it is also a space under a road that we all recognise.

Edward Relph theorised about place and belonging in his Place and Placelessness (1976). A key idea was that a sense of 'drudgery' was essential to people's experience of place. Repeated contact with places fosters in the individual not topophilia (as Yi Fu-Tuan argued) but rather a sense of drudgery, and, especially among teenagers, a desire to escape. Historical autobiographies and diaries often express this feeling: youths in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries seemed keen to leave their apprenticeships and travel the world with the navy. Samuel Bamford, for example, escaped his Middleton industrial life to go to London on a boat, and then made a tortuous journey back up North. Relph then argues that after the initial excitement of escape, a sense of belonging returns. Once away from a place, the individual feels a stronger sense of attachment to it, as Bamford did, and wants to return. Bamford's relief on returning to Middleton was a formative moment in his deep attachment to the place.

Within Relph's schema are existential places, which are taken-for-granted environmental and spatial constructions of the everyday world, shaped by cultural and social norms. A deeper sense of belonging is fostered by tacit, unselfconscious daily contact with the spaces of these places. (Hubbard, Key Texts in Human Geography, 44)

Shaw's paintings seem to fit this idea of drudgery and belonging: these sites of mainly 1960s and 1970s architecture are on the surface sites of drudgery. There are no people in the scenes; the weather is generally grey, neither rainy nor sunny, a perpetual twilight.

Yet they are not unloved; Shaw would surely not have devoted his artistic career to portraying such sites if he did not experience an emotional connection with them. By doing so, he presents the weathered concrete and graffitied bikeshed alongside more traditional street scenes in art, and making us question what is beautiful. Does the artist or the viewer see say Venice as beautiful because its streets and canals fit a culturally shaped idea of beauty? Perhaps we need an emotional attachment to a place, whatever its architecture, to appreciate its own beauty?

Shaw's work also fits in with wider interest in the everyday: Joe Moran's work on roads, the annual Boring conference, even John Shuttleworth's celebration of suburbia. In a way it also mirrors the parodying shots by Welsh rappers Goldie Lookin' Chain, who gently made fun of the environment of their upbringing with photos of graffitied walls, dumped shopping trolleys and mattresses in their hometown of Newport. Yet both Shaw and the GLC recognise the importance of such sites for people's lives: the mattress as a venue for courting or early sexual experiences, or a wall outside a cab rank as a place for testing and asserting young men's place within the social community or gang groups. In this sense, these noman's or conventionally unbeautiful places are as important as the gothic arches of Venice or the Georgian Palladian terraces of London, as they convey meaning, memory, and connection.

His paintings also mirror photographs taken by urban explorers of derelict buildings. The series about an old pub, including 'Age of Bullshit' (2010), feels very much like the outside shots of an urbex report. There is a story: a pub that Shaw remembers from childhood, in the second painting derelict with no roof, surrounded by metal barriers and cracking tarmac. In the final piece, all that is left of the pub is rubble. The latter two paintings were featured in the exhibition, and in a video interview accompanying the exhibition, Shaw expressed how the bricks held the remnants of a long history of people's lifecycles: their christening parties, wedding receptions, funeral wakes. That sense of a lost memory is something that urban explorers (and people like me interested in their reports) try to capture before they are lost forever.

'The Age of Bullshit' is in some senses an anti-Edward Hopper. Hopper's classic portrayal of the bar in 'Nighthawks' (1942) is peopled; it is in the shadows but also spotlit. Yet in another sense Shaw parallels Hopper, in a sense of melancholy and emptiness that both the bar and the pub evoke in the viewer.


Popular posts from this blog

Spatial theory, cultural geography, and the 'spatial turn'

Effigies in protest