My Back To Nature
In 2014 the National Gallery took George Shaw on as an Artist in Residence for two years and in a wonderful 15 minute documentary accompanying this show, he is shown as an everyman coming to work on a daily basis. Unlike the commute most of us take, Shaw reached his studio after walking past paintings by Titian, Turner, Caravaggio and Poussin. The works on display by Shaw, numbering at least a couple of dozen paintings, are the artist's response to the unequaled hangings across the other galleries.
The foyer to the exhibition proper contains a number of sketch books, pages held open at drawings made at the National over various visits - though not recorded, some of those earliest visits mark Shaw's first exposure to art as a child and young man. There is also a vast preliminary black and white study of three trees.
The collection at the National Gallery is largely Western and by extension, Christian. For someone to have seen three trees in a picture would be to reference the three crosses and Christ's crucifixion - this has become somewhat of a recurring theme for Shaw and the entire series and response to the works at the National are set in the woods.
For Shaw the woods are an obvious extension to his work, the downtrodden Coventry estates, graffitied walls and broken fences familiar from his former practice. They are also, he points out in the video, the setting of many of the paintings in the gallery. Poussin in particular has a couple of works on display with a shocking sexuality - transposed to the late twentieth century and these scenes are paralleled in pornography littered in the forest.
Shaw speaks of the woods as a place of transference, a no mans land ripe for exploration and exploitation. A world away from the world that invariably sees the illicit maturing of so many teenagers across the country. It might be where a first cigarette is smoked, or alcohol is consumed without the prying eyes of parents and authority figures. The woods may even be where virginity is lost. Captured here, all of the works are where people have been or will return - they remain empty of figures, this is not where people are.
Amongst the trees and roots, leaves and branches are plastic sheets, litter and detritus of irresponsible activity and a modern day Bacchanalia. These humble scenes have been rendered meticulously in the artist's famed enamel paints and sit in the shadow of the masters they hope to emulate, to his great credit it is a highly measured reaction.
Where initially the artist was intimidated by the works surrounding him, ultimately over this residence he has risen to the challenge. He has created a body of work with subject matter entirely comparable with the myths and fables chosen by the artists of old. Should these contemporary works be hung alongside the centuries old masterpieces next door? No, perhaps not. But do they work? Infallibly yes.
Over the period Shaw has worked at the National his practice has advanced significantly. There is no doubt of the artist's hand and these new works are clearly from the same brush as the Turner Prize nominee (2011) but what has grown out of his daily audience with the National Gallery collection is a more nuanced and skilled painter. These are the best pieces Shaw has ever produced.
https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/George-shaw-my-back-to-nature-11-may-2016-1000 until October 30th