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Man Out of Time

PUBLISHED: 17:36 29 September 2011 | UPDATED: 20:04 20 February 2013

Man Out of Time

Man Out of Time

Turner Prize nominee, George Shaw lives on the North Devon Coast yet paints life in a Coventry council estate. Stuart Crewes speaks to him about Humbrol paints, loss and gentle acts of anarchy

Turner Prize nominee, George Shaw lives on the North Devon Coast yet paints life in a Coventry council estate. Stuart Crewes speaks to him about Humbrol paints, loss and gentle acts of anarchy


It is from the seaside town of Ilfracombe that Turner Prize nominee, George Shaw paints aspects of life in a Coventry council estate. Stuart Crewes


Its like sitting on a sofa with a couple of drawing pins hidden underneath the cushion; you investigate what it is youre sitting on


Theres always the promise that something will be revealed just in that repetitive act of digging or sifting through


Turner Prize nominee George Shaw is a man of contrast. His studio may be ensconced in the curious coastal charm of north Devons Ilfracombe, but rather than depicting the swirling seas and rugged coastline, the work that has brought him to the forefront of the nations contemporary art scene concerns two square miles of gritty council estate in Coventry.


The neglected and overlooked aspects of Tile Hill, where George grew up, have provided him with 15 years worth of material and continue to engage him now. The telephone box and the half-derelict row of garages are a part of the urban environment that George captures in photographs and then celebrates through his paintings. [Theyre] a reflection on what we might consider to be a mundane, daily, everyday life Anybody can make a great painting of a sunset over the Himalayas, but to be able to take a great photograph of your own front lawn is another thing entirely.


The paintings have polarized opinion in that they present a tension between traditional painting and modern rules of engagement, the main point of contention being the material of their construction enamel paints. George chose this utilitarian medium in order to escape the myriad associations that come with oils or acrylics, despite the practical difficulties it presents.


[The paints] are quite awful like painting with Uhu glue! I like the perversity of making a picture that aspires to be something like a Constable but using the same type of paints that someone would be using in their garden shed to paint everything from Airfix Spitfires to touching up bits of bike.


The resulting finish of his work a high sheen destabilizes the viewers perception. George believes that people are drawn to the paintings because they look quite friendly and look like art, but upon closer inspection reveal themselves to be something other. Some of the shinier areas actually prevent you from looking at the picture, so you can see people having to move their own head out of the way.


This barrier to viewing unsettles his audience and causes them to actively engage with the work. Its like sitting on a sofa with a couple of drawing pins hidden underneath the cushion; you investigate what it is youre sitting on.


He admits that this is a deliberate act of subversion, but in a Sunday evening television kind of way! Im not going out into the streets and setting fire to JD Sports. Its a very gentle act of anarchy.


George had a politicized upbringing, courtesy of his hard-line socialist Dad the television tuned into Play for Today and Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads; The Jam and The Specials on the stereo but there were also trips to The National Gallery and the theatre, and an appreciation of Shakespeare and 17th-century poetry, combining a kind of very urban experience and a gritty outlook with quite a romantic, artistic, poetic outlook as well, he says. This fusion of interests comes through in the titles of his work, which mix literary references and religious allusions that can be read in both high and lowbrow contexts, and which evoke everyday experiences, such as in Scenes from the passion: the first day of the holidays.


I quite like that one minute referring to the salvation of your soul and the next minute looking at a rainy street outside during the holidays.


Although settled in North Devon, where his girlfriend grew up and has family connections, George regularly returns to Tile Hill to visit his Mum, who still lives there. And despite rationalizing that he must surely have exhausted his muse by now, he continues to find the picturesque in the urban landscape.


I was back only a couple of weekends ago. We drove through and I thought, theres nothing for me here now. But early one morning I went for a walk and came back with a couple of drawings, my notebooks crammed with stuff and 300-400 photographs.


While the process of creating the paintings inevitably involves mining his past and he admits that, initially, he may have been driven by an element of nostalgic sentiment he is now more alert to the way in which things have changed or become ruined or altered, or just developed. In revisiting the same sites, he finds that time has transformed them into somewhere else.


Theres an element of psychogeography that I like, which is the digging down, whether in terms of time or actually unearthing things like an archaeologist. Theres always the promise that something will be revealed just in that repetitive act of digging or sifting through. In some way there is reassurance in the fact that Im looking for something rather than just living my life as though Im losing things all the time.


This notion of loss, of being in the present while having an acute awareness of the past, is eloquently portrayed in the work that is travelling with the British Art Show. George summed it up in his honest Midlands drawl: Its a painting of the pub, but theyve knocked the pub down, so its just a pile of bricks. And that brings on a kind of melancholy because youre reflecting on not how things were but on a loss of things.


But rather than wallowing in this sadness, George uses his work to gain a greater insight into himself and his culture. I think its about seeing things and experiencing things that we take for granted and not taking them for granted the clich is that we only know what weve got when its been taken away. I suppose, in a sense, its trying to hold on to things just a little bit longer so that I can understand them a little bit better.


George Shaws work will be on display at Plymouth City Museum & Art Gallery until 4 December, as part of the British Art Show. Visit britishartshow.co.uk for more details. The winner of the Turner Prize 2011 will be announced on 5 December.


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