They look like photographs. Images of empty streets in the rain, woodlands strewn with broken branches, garage doors daubed with delicate graffiti and postboxes, their scarlet red coats standing out against the flat greys and greens of the West Midlands landscapes they inhabit.
George Shaw’s exhibition, The Sly and Unseen Day, is showing at The Baltic until the 15th of May and it depicts scenes from the artist’s childhood home on the Tile Hill estate, Coventry. The photograph-like appearance of each work, with their intriguing refractive sheen, is a result of Shaw’s choice of medium. Not for him the gloss of the oil paint or the sweep of the watercolour. Shaw paints in Humbrol enamels, that industrial paint used for Airfix models, tanks and the like, the sort of paint that could be found kicking around in the garage on a shelf, its lid rusting, its side covered in dried-on drips.
‘They are humble paints,’ Shaw says, ‘made for painting bits of radiator that you’ve missed out… they’re not made for saying the great things in life like oil paint is made for – flesh and life and death and skulls and Jesus.’
Like snapshots found in an old album or stills from a film from the 1970’s the paintings invite us into a world that Shaw remembers from his teenage years. A world lived on a housing estate that had a school, a library, a social club and five pubs, a recreation ground and woodlands created (according to the literature that accompanies the exhibition) ‘with the ingredients to provide a balanced working and social life’.
In the education room on Level Two of The Baltic a film of Shaw talking about his works plays on a loop. It makes for mesmerising viewing. He has a quiet, unassuming voice that belies the emotions held within his paintings.
‘Scenes from the Passion: The First Day of the Holidays 2003’ which is displayed on the northern external wall of the Baltic, depicts a house in the very middle of the painting. The traditional rule of thirds seemingly has no place in Shaw’s world. The house is a typical example of post-war British Social Housing, all pebble dash and painted wooden panels and yet there is something satisfying, something beautiful about its clean, crisp lines, standing in silence at the junction of a wet tarmaced road, reflecting the heavy clouds in the sky. A red post box on the street gives the yellow, black and grey walls of the house an element of added interest, of contrast and of light. There is a touch of Mondrian about Shaw’s works.
‘Looking back now over this painted ground I find myself wondering what it’s really all about and how my thoughts and feelings about the subject would be if I simply hadn’t bothered at all… If I hadn’t made a painting of a pub or tree or a certain corner in a confused attempt to recall things, recreate things, show things as they are, how they become forgotten and later erased as if they were never there at all, would I look at today in any way other than weary resignation and sarky black humour?’
George Shaw 2010
Humbrol never looked so good.