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George Shaw: The Sly and Unseen Day

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George Shaw’s paintings show the gloominess and beauty of Tile Hill, an unspectacular Coventry suburb, writes Andrew Mead

George Shaw: The Sly and Unseen Day is showing at Baltic, Gateshead, from 18 February to 15 May 2011

ALL IMAGES courtesy the artist and WILKINSON GALLERY, london

One of the first things you find on entering George Shaw’s exhibition at the Baltic in Gateshead is a small painting of a 1950s house. With a tiled pitched roof, it’s seen flat-on across a wet, gleaming minor road beneath a monochrome grey sky. The pavement in the foreground has been crudely repaired with asphalt, while behind the house and its neighbours there are some unkempt trees, suggesting this might be the edge of town. There’s not a soul in sight.

The scene could be anywhere in the UK but it has an exact location – the Coventry suburb of Tile Hill, developed after the Second World War, where Shaw spent his childhood. He has painted it obsessively since the 1990s and this show at the Baltic presents almost 50 works.

For a brief time in the 1950s, Tile Hill featured in the architectural press. Its Basil Spence church was one attraction, while both the AR and the AJ (21.02.57) devoted several pages to the suburb’s new centre, with its shops and three 11-storey blocks of maisonettes. The AJ thought these point blocks were ‘elegant’ and praised the planners for retaining numerous young trees. It also approved the ‘complete isolation’ of the fish-and- >> chip shop ‘to overcome the problem of smell invariably associated with this local institution’.

Because architecture magazines seem so reluctant to revisit buildings or developments and explore them in use, it’s no surprise that 1957 was Tile Hill’s one moment of glory, but in Shaw’s work we get to see what happened later.

The car park behind the social club in an empty field of tarmac, a pub lies abandoned, and graffiti proliferate: these paintings are a catalogue of slow deterioration through neglect or abuse.

Some of Shaw’s sites are quite sinister, as if he was a location scout for a Midlands film noir. All that’s missing from some paintings is the crime scene barrier tape and a cluster of police cars. His use of Humbrol enamel paint adds to the brooding atmosphere. Sealed beneath its sheen these images are static and airless – an impression reinforced by all the cloudless grey skies.

There’s certainly a melancholy strain to this work. Shaw takes issue with Le Corbusier’s vision of the house as a machine for living in – ‘It’s much more accurate to see it as a machine for dying in.’ Since childhood, the world for him has been ‘a puzzle in need of decoding’. But he adds: ‘I quite enjoyed where I was from. I never thought it was a particularly horrible place. And the earlier paintings were, I suppose, a romanticism for times gone by – a childhood spent, misspent or unspent.’

If you take all those statements together, you don’t expect a simple critique but something more equivocal, which is what you get at the Baltic.

So it’s apt that in their new book, Edgelands(Jonathan Cape, £12.99), the poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts twice mention Shaw. They see him as a fellow connoisseur of those marginal zones, neither city nor country, where streets peter out in scrubland or woods and which most people just ignore on the way to somewhere else. ‘Places of possibility, mystery and beauty,’ they call them.

Shaw’s remark about ‘romanticism’ suggests we might look to artists of the Romantic era for his possible precursors, and one could well be Samuel Palmer, who paid the same detailed attention to a specific place in the late 1820s when he lived near the River Darent at Shoreham in Kent. Shaw paints a tree trunk or a patch of moss with the same diligence as Palmer and in the woods that he keeps returning to he picks out the individual leaves – whether freshly green on the trees or autumnal on the ground.

While the sun seldom shines in Shaw’s world, there’s an extraordinary amber sky in one work, which Palmer would have loved. And although it’s not in the current show, a Shaw painting owned by the British Council makes the connection even clearer. As its title The Blossomiest Blossom implies, it is dominated by a blossoming tree – one of Palmer’s Shoreham subjects – that transfigures a humdrum scene. But with his eye for stained concrete and demolition sites, Shaw’s romanticism is decidedly more latent and occasional than Palmer’s.

The Baltic is this splendid show’s only venue but if you can’t visit, there is an excellent catalogue (£20). It includes good reproductions of all the paintings and an astute essay by critic Michael Bracewell that captures the essence of Shaw’s troubled but luminous art.

Andrew Mead is a writer and former reviews editor of the AJ

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