On Thursday, the Yale Center for British Art unveiled the first exhibition in the United States dedicated solely to the work of contemporary British painter George Shaw. Shaw, whose exhibited work spans the past two decades, was nominated in 2011 for the Turner Prize, one of the highest honors bestowed on British artists.
The exhibition, titled “George Shaw: A Corner of Foreign Field,” comprises nearly 70 paintings, 60 drawings, numerous prints and sketchbook materials from throughout Shaw’s illustrious career. The vast majority of the painter’s works focuses on depicting the Midlands, an area of central England containing Birmingham, Derby and Coventry. In particular, Shaw’s work portrays Title Hill — the postwar council estate where he spent his adolescence — and its surrounding forests.
“My point of view is very personal and very autobiographical — even though I paint mostly scenes without any people, I see the outside world as a mirror of internal being.” Shaw said. “I also focus a lot on adolescence and youth.”
Shaw quoted 20th-century British poet Philip Larkin’s famous poem “I Remember, I Remember,” which describes Larkin’s own upbringing in Coventry as “where my childhood was unspent.”
In a press release for the exhibition, Matthew Hargraves, chief curator of art collections at the YCBA, said that Shaw’s “realist landscapes of the housing estates and woodlands of his youth pay homage to the old masters who have shaped his vision but simultaneously subvert our ideas about landscape by uncovering realities of postmodern Britain from the 1970s to today.”
According to Mark Hallett, director of studies at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, the YCBA’s sister institution in London, “No one has so systematically painted a place like this eroded postwar utopia as has George Shaw.”
Shaw explained that he wanted both the subject matter and technique of his paintings to stand in contrast with the more sensational, avant-garde work produced by many of his contemporaries.
“My argument was that, in this current era of contemporary art, if you wanted to be conservative, you needed to be sensational,” Shaw said. “But if you really wanted to be sensational, you had to be conservative.”
Shaw also juxtaposed his work to other works of art that recently won or were nominated for the Turner Prize, such as Damien Hirst’s infamous cow suspended in formaldehyde.
Most notable about Shaw’s technique is the kind of paint he uses. Rather than the more conventional oil or acrylic paints, Shaw prefers thick, quick-drying enamel paint — the kind of paint more commonly used on objects like model airplanes.
Hallett noted in the YCBA’s press release that “while Humbrol paint denies an artist some of the painterly fluidity granted by other mediums, it imparts a unique metallic sheen and a hard edge appropriate to Shaw’s subject matter.”
Hallett added that this type of paint “literally gleams off the walls.”
The exhibition was made possible by the generosity of private art collectors willing to temporarily part with Shaw’s work. Hargraves explained that the vast majority of the works viewers see on walls of the exhibition come from private collections.
“The amazing thing was getting so many art collectors to agree to lend their work and let it be here for a period of three months or more,” Hargraves said. “The collectors are really passionate and want his work to be seen and enjoyed by the public: Most of the collectors are in Britain or in Europe and there’s a sense of them wanting audiences in North America to see George’s work for the first time on such a large scale in a really comprehensive show.”
In addition to displaying Shaw’s work, the YCBA also commissioned a series of four short films by the British filmmakers Lily Ford, Jonathan Law and Jared Schiller.
“We thought it would be a wonderful idea to have these filmmakers engage with George’s work, and they’ve given us four different but incredibly valuable takes on his work and life,” Hallett said.
Hargraves explained that the first video focuses on Shaw’s use of materials and the second features a “great montage of images of the industrial and postindustrial midlands.” Other videos include an interview between Shaw and Hallett and footage of Shaw interacting with family members, creating an “intimate portrait of George in the heart of his family.”
Overall, the curators have high hopes for the exhibit.
“People will be amazed by the physical presence of these objects. When you see these enamel paintings in person as opposed to in reproductions, and even smell them too, they have a real material presence to them,” said Hargraves. “I also hope that they will find some spark of familiarity — that they’ll feel some sense of recognition. That’s the kind of effect Shaw’s work evokes.”
On Oct. 9, Shaw will join Hallett in a conversation in the YCBA’s lecture hall.
Jack McCordick | firstname.lastname@example.org