We always create meaning from the simplest of things, shape our surroundings according to the story of our life, and observe happenings from a very distinct point of view. It is therefore fascinating how many planet earths there really are, all overlapping and interlinking like those lachrymose films where cool movie stars pass each other by, sometimes talking to one another, sometimes not, but always acutely connected to one another. They may walk similar paths, but each will take it in differently. For example, let’s consider two pictures, one of an image of a broken glass and the other the reassembled version. A stranger can look upon it as an unvarnished shot of two moments and nothing more. Meanwhile the artist who created the piece of art sees it as an illustration of the misfortunes of love, the shattering of glass a metaphor for heartbreak, and the rehabilitated object, which still missing subatomic fragments, can never be whole again. By adding a narrative to a picture they become something entirely different. Hence, what we see and perceive at face value is very subjective – one man’s city is a cluster of buildings, to another the city is a bank of memories of seminal moments in his life. Our readings of the physical world is fascinatingly unique, which, without history’s recording, is effectively lost.
George Shaw, whose exhibition The Sly and Unseen Day is coming to the Baltic, is an artist intrigued by his quondam surroundings, whipped up in the poison of nostalgia, unable to let go even in the face of such transparent change. Shaw has said his work is “an act of holding on” to life in some way. Whether it is the wistfulness of adolescence being explored, or as he gets older and older meditating on the truth that nothing lasts – “[I] cannot come to terms with the simple fact that life slips away and time is called everywhere and everyday.” – there is a uneasy sadness in his paintings that grieves at our inability to physically hold a moment in perpetuity. Thus, it is in his legacy to the world, the work that he bequests to society that he can rebel against finality.
This elegiac quality dominates his work. The collection of paintings showcasing at the Baltic, which runs from 1996 to the present day, are largely brooding depictions of the quotidian city urban landscape we are all used to, symbolic of a general malaise felt by the artist. What Shaw does well is to not only craft significance out of these everyday prosaic settings – pubs, boards sectioning off development areas, a bin for dumping dog shit, and typical fences and gates – but to also capture in some of the paintings an unusual and unthinkable grace.
Ash Wednesday is perfect example of the latter, a painting of a road, a fence, bushes, and a naked tree, set against a sweeping sunset sky, the entire half of the canvas filled in a stunning xanthous light. If you didn’t know otherwise you’d think it was a photograph, such is the heightened detail captured in this piece and others. It astonishes me how something so mundane can look so beautiful.
By using Humbrol enamel paint – usually found in those model making kits – the paintings adopt a glossy look that alludes to hyperrealist ideas, a pastiche of early photorealists like Richard Estes and Ralph Goings. His work is staggering in its accuracy of light, texture and shape, which both attacks the meaninglessness of the mass proliferation of images and critiques the direction of society at large. Let’s take – Scenes from the Passion: The Cop Shop as one example, the shadows, proportions and minuscule accuracy of the piece are haunting and you are forced to ask yourself what understanding we can make from this emptiness. After all, how long will this building last? Does it even matter?
In its ability to be virtually faultless and redefine the arbitrary, Shaw’s paintings reassert the artist’s disquiet with the shifting world, the vulnerability of life and the uncertainty of memory. Although his theme is about preservation, you’re also led to contemplate the virtues of forgetting… it hurts to remember. Let go and be free and rediscover the joy of the unknown.
The Sly and Unseen Day is at the Baltic from 18th February 2011 t0 the 15th May 2011
Published in Narc Magazine