If You Go Back to the Woods Today

My Back to the Woods (National Gallery, 11 May-30 October 2016)

George Shaw is that rare beast, a painter who has been nominated for the Turner Prize. I was enough lucky to see the exhibition at the BALTIC, Gateshead, and to my mind it was the best work.

It couldn’t possibly win.

I don’t mean that in a modern art is crap way. I like contemporary art. I just haven’t found myself agreeing with the winners that often.

Shaw was born in Coventry.

Hold that thought. West Midlands, former centre of car and motorcycle manufacture, best known residents Lady Godiva and Peeping Tom. Bombed to buggery in World War Two, with Basil Spence cathedral next to the ruins and Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem premiered. Birthplace of Philip Larkin — google “I Remember, I Remember”. Nothing, like something…

Circumscribed by a ring road that cuts the city centre off from the station. And the patchy housing estates, surrounded by green and patches of woodland.


Shaw focuses on these estates — the roads, the miniroundabouts, the phone boxes, the rows of garages, the street lamps. His schtick is that he paints using Humbrol enamel paints, the sort of paints you might use on an Airfix model or D&D figures. And yet he achieves a kind of photorealism, painting from photographs rather than in the open air. The titles often point to religious themes — The Passion, say — which might be sincere or ironic. He is a lapsed Catholic.

So Shaw got to be Roostein Hopkins Associate artist in residence at the National Gallery 2014-16, a gallery he had visited since his teens (along with Coventry’s The Herbert). He was given the freedom of the gallery, to prowl around after hours or before opening time, or to mingle with the tourists. He was drawn to a few paintings by Titian and Nicholas Poussin, although I think this exhibition made have made the connecting works more evident.

The title is typically multi-layered. He is going back to nature — the nature of his childhood, a weird brew of bitterness and misplaced nostalgia, but also the nature in the paintings. He sees the woods in the paintings, he sees the paintings in the wood, he sees the gallery as a wood. And nature is the binary of culture, so art is hardly nature. His back to nature is not just returning to nature, but turning his back on nature, standing with his back to it.

A key work seems to be Titian’s The Death of Actaeon (1556-9), in which the latter has been chased through the woods by Diana with her bow and her dogs. Actaeon, a huntsman and grandson of Cadmus, has his arms up in the air and his clothes are being torn off him and his head is turning into a stag. Shaw notes Diana’s exposed nipple, which Actaeon has presumably seen when he caught her bathing; painful near a bow string I’d think. He also points to two works by Nicholas Poussin: The Triumph of Pan (1636) and Nymphs with Satyrs (c. 1627). The former is a depiction of frolics in the woods — masks and cloaks and jugs and panpipes abandoned, kissing and touching and more, the odd goat and a dog (perhaps? A greyhound?) being person handled. For Shaw there is the threat of violence. And the latter painting he sees as “a dirty little panting of some dirty little shenanigans going on in a wood under the disguise of some vague classical allusion.” (35) The woods are a carnival space of sexual and physical excess, with the ever present danger of violence.

Outside art (and for him one model of the artist is Tony Hancock in Galton and Simpson’s The Rebel (Robert Day, 1961)), Shaw’s influences include the Hammer horror films and Dennis Wheatley, alongside the 1970s version of Diana and Actaeon, Confessions of a Window Cleaner (Val Guest, 1974). Shaw’s childhood woods — presumably more copses — were filled with beer cans, porn mags, used condoms and Hammer-esquire shenanigans.

Among the first pictures you see in the National Gallery exhibition are the fourteen self portraits in charcoal — The Loneliness of the Middle-Aged Life Model (2015) — showing Shaw reaching, stretching, kneeling down or getting up, even crucified. The last position is the key — the fourteen poses echo the fourteen stations of the cross, although I don’t think there’s a one to one match. The religious theme is visible in his four drawings, Frilly Knickers and a See-Through Bra (2015), a very Window Cleaner-esque title.

Opposite are pinned sheets of paper, from memory three, of the ink drawing Study for Hanging Around (Landscape without Figures) (2014). At first, I looked for a completed painting, presumably of something called Hanging Around, but that’s not on show. Is that something he is still working on? But typing the title gives a new sense of it, as I slow down over the keyboard. “Study” need not be an art term — it could be the act of studying being referred to, a much more industrious activity than “hanging around” would suggest. It could also be the okace where you work or study, the study, an interior space again at odds with “landscape”, with or without figures. Shaw paints indoors — usually from photographs. Here we have a group of trees, three in the foreground, one for each cross at That Crucifixion, with further trees obscure in a background that could be read as misty. Lines of ink run down the paper, the ink being too wet or too extensive, but it looks like rope dangling from the branches.

There are three enamel paintings titled Study for Hanging Around (2015-16), which may offer developments of the same three trees, but another meaning presents itself, although it’s more obtuse. Is this a tree that could form a gibbet? There is surely a Hammer film in which someone is being strung up from a tree? It suggests the violence of the wood.

Entering into the main part of the exhibition, A Revel Before Half Term is most prominent.
There are water bottles, porn magazines, a blue plastic sheet, cans. That sheet will recur, in several pictures, or several will be seen. This is the aftermath of the party in the wood, for nymphs and satyrs, that Shaw felt uninvited to, which took place presumably whilst he was at school. “Revels” feels a Shakespearean word, “our revels now are ended”, but annoyingly it is from The Tempest rather than A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

We could pretend.

That blue sheet is seen in The Rude Screen (2015-16), a filmic pun on church architecture, but also a nod back to the curtain that Actaeon disturbs when he comes upon the bathing Diana. (In Titian’s painting it is red rather than blue, and hung differently, but it’s clearly not a concrete copy). It is more crumpled in The Living and the Dead (2015-16), seeming more like a shroud here. Isn’t “the living and the dead” the final line of Joyce’s “The Dead”, when snow is general over Ireland? It is perhaps from a catechism or a prayer. There is another painting, with leaves partially covering the sheet, The Uncovered Cover (2015-16), showing the debris of the wood’s floor.

The rest of the woods includes sheets torn from porn mags — The Tossed and I suspect The Lost, Natural Selection (2015-16; the best porn survives, the rest is left behind to rot?) and Möcht’ Ich Zurüke Wieder Wanken (2015-16), seemingly a line set by Franz Schubert in his Winterreise (Winter Journey, by 1828) from a poem by Wilhelm Müller: “I want to stagger back again”, although I confess that’s not what I guessed Wanken meant. I like to bet Shaw had both meanings in mind. Masturbation is something perhaps most associated with bedrooms or bathrooms and showers; doing it in the woods in a curiously exhibitionist private act, almost wanting to be caught in the act.

That canvas, The Rood Screen and Every Brush Stroke is Torn Out of My Body (2015-16) form a triptych, a term that usually has a Biblical connotation — stages of the crucifixion, stages of the apocalypse — but the violence that is seen in such paintings (flagellation, the death of every one alive) is left to be inferred. The third canvas, like the others the same size of some of Saw’s favourite Titians, is a series of stripes of red paint on the bark of a tree, the red of blood, of blood sacrifice, a contrast with the plastic blue. It could be an act of wanton graffiti, like the littering that is seen elsewhere, but it could also be a mark if the land’s management: this tree is to be felled. (Is it worth noting the title is a quote from The Rebel? Turn the irony dial up a notch.)

A different act is caught in The Call of Nature (2015-16), a man pissing against a tree; a self portrait, judging by the build, and the only live figure seen in the woods. The call of nature is an obvious euphemism for needing to piss, but there is also the wider sense of the call of the wild, the nature that calls to Shaw to paint these woods.

And I’m glad he answered this call — his quiet subversion and response to the woods of Titian, Poussin and John Constable, along the other old masters of the National (Shaw’s Old Master, naturally, is a cock and balls graffitied on a tree). The stripping away of almost all the figures in the landscape forces us to unpick what has gone on before, makes us voyeurs of absent people. He says that “something out of the ordinary could happen at any time there, away from the supervision of adults.”

This reminds me of fellow Coventry artist, the poet Philip Larkin, and a line from his “I Remember, I Remember”, his subversion of autobiography in which he reveals … all the things that didn’t happen: “Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.” Larkin perhaps also had the sense of never quite making it to the party (having turned down the invites), and was not adverse to the odd cock and balls appearing in his poems. I’m not saying that Shaw is the Larkin of painting, but I think there’s something to be unpicked in the provincial artist with an attraction to edgelands and borders. And there is more to him than a gimmick of his choice of paint.

George Shaw (2016) George Shaw: My Back to Nature (London: National Gallery).
I think the quote about things happening in the woods was in there, but I can’t just spot it.

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