Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Back to Nature

There are just a couple more weeks to see George Shaw: My Back to Nature at the National Gallery.  The title comes from Shaw's observation that he has his back to nature most of the time, something that's true for myself as well: this blog is written with its back to nature, looking instead at what artists have made out of the landscape.  Underlying the paintings Shaw has conceived in response to the National Gallery collection is a nice idea, that what we don't see in the Bacchanalian revelries and triumphs of Pan, painted by artists like Poussin, is their aftermath... when the woods are quiet again and the floor is littered with bottles and discarded clothes.  In real life such remnants may be the only signs of life we encounter in the woods.  In a video to accompany the exhibition Shaw remembers finding a page from Penthouse once, only to be told by his father that he ought to be focusing his attention on the foxgloves. 

Years now after rising to prominence with scenes of the edgelands round Tile Hill, his childhood home, Shaw is still using the same humble Humbrol enamel paints.  Humbrol has nostalgic associations for many of us, although Shaw says he was never really an Airfix enthusiast - he was too busy doing art.  My own son wouldn't recognise the smell of a tin of Humbrol but I can see him one day painting sylvan landscapes in the Citadel paints he uses for Warhammer - Dryad Bark, Elysian Green, Ratskin Flesh, Troll Slayer Orange...  George Shaw's handling of Humbrol is praised by Laura Cumming in her review of the exhibition.  'Occasionally, the gallery lighting catches the glint of the Humbrol paint and the picture suddenly looks like an object as much as an image. ... Though he has remained faithful to this tough and lowly medium, despite the lure of the oil paint all around him, he takes it in new directions, achieving  the blue of a Titian sky or a Madonna’s cloak, turning a Tile Hill tarpaulin into something like silk.  The thinness is still there; these surfaces are hard-won. But the images have become deeper, more elegiac and literary.'

When I first looked round this small exhibition in May I found the contrast with the beautiful old paintings on display nearby a bit hard to take, but I now feel Jonathan Jones is right when he says 'it is not that Shaw has poisoned a once-pure landscape tradition: rather his paintings modernise the erotic myths that artists have always imagined in the woods.'  Jones thinks that 'an artist pissing against a tree is exactly what the National Gallery needs – and a painter who can hack it in the National Gallery is just what British art needs.'  To end this post I was tempted to embed Magazine's song 'Back to Nature', which Shaw mentions in the catalogue, but instead here is the artist again, poking around in some woods this time.  He points out an old tarpaulin, tin cans, packet of condoms etc., and finds a tangle of branches that would be an ideal refuge for kids, if kids still venture into such woods.  He admits he finds a painting of a tree much more exciting than a tree, "but I might change as I get older.  Maybe I just need to spend less time with paintings and more time with trees."

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