In home, we find the meaning of our lives. The Yale Center for British Art’s luminous exhibition, “George Shaw: A Corner of a Foreign Field,” traces the titular contemporary British artist’s three-decade exploration of this very proposition. On view through December 30, the exhibition consists of almost 70 paintings and 60 drawings, among other artistic paraphernalia. These poignant, understated works create a kaleidoscope of Tile Hill, the council estate Shaw grew up in. Given that all of his work relates to this locale with which he is intimately familiar, the exhibition title’s use of the adjective “foreign” seems baffling. But Shaw, by returning again and again to the same place, finds his home is not the same place, or even a single place. It is a landscape of memory, of alienation and reconciliation not only with home, but with oneself.
Shaw’s style is fundamentally and masterfully naturalistic. It enriches his quotidian subject matter through a comprehensive limning of all its aspects. He paints the geometry of two-story houses, soccer fields and picket fences with a lucid precision. His preferred medium is Humbrol enamel, commonly used to paint model airplanes. On one level, it is a hat tip to the plebian. But the thickness and opacity of this paint also lends his buildings a solidity and weight which only reinforces how concretely they’ve adhered both to their cracked asphalt foundations and his mind. He treats the natural environment — trees, shrubs, the forest behind his childhood house — with the same attention to detail as the built world. He expertly supplants the rigidity of the buildings with the grace of organic forms. Bare tree branches writhe across his canvases like veins beneath the flesh of a hand. Shaw immerses the viewer in the place he portrays through his sheer affection for its minutiae, a passion he channels in the versatility and consistent rigor of his skill.
While these pieces echo artistic antecedents, Shaw transcends his predecessors through his deeply personal connection with his subject. Like Shaw, Paul Cézanne honed in on a single location as his muse — Mount Sainte-Victoire. But Cezanne’s love was not so much place as technique. His obsessive and repeated reimagining of Mount Sainte-Victoire represents less what the place meant to him than the myriad ways he could paint it. Shaw’s interplay of sunlight, buildings and pathos mimics Edward Hopper’s melancholic scenes of American loneliness. Hopper, however, had no relation to his subjects beyond whatever empathy he felt for their ennui. The blocks of almost solid color which, upon further examination, turn out to be the walls, roof and sky of Shaw’s neighborhood recall the color fields of Mark Rothko. Still, memory is necessarily representational to some extent, something Rothko’s paintings consciously refuse to be. What separates Shaw from these artists is that his paintings are acts of remembering. Except in obvious cases like “Mum’s,” his delicate portrait of his childhood home, these associations are not apparent to the viewer. That this meaning is inaccessible to the viewer only buoys his paintings with the sense that Tile Hill is a cipher capable of decoding life’s secrets if one can only grasp its essence.
Memory transforms Shaw’s naturalism into expressionism, a feat, considering the two do not usually flow into one another. The series “Ash Wednesday” exemplifies this blending of artistic styles. It tracks the morning of the titular day across seven canvases, each depicting a different 30-minute interval between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. Blue predawn snow, golden stripes of sunrise leaking onto the sidewalk through the cracks of a picket fence, the fierce umbra which morning light casts in the corners of a brick house — all of these scenes are rendered with unflinching verisimilitude. Yet they blur with memory’s mysticism. The morning light, grander in each painting, becomes epiphanic, sanctifying this humdrum landscape. Somewhere, somehow, each detail Shaw paints — each curtain; each chimney; each hazy, hilly horizon — becomes a prayer, a recitation of love and hope and praise for a place and its mystery.
But Shaw does not just remember Tile Hill, he revisits it. Many of his paintings track how his home has devolved since his childhood. Some are oppressively bleak. “We Are Making an Old World” depicts a wasteland of asphalt, mudded ditches, and corrugated metal, all beneath a blood red sky. It is not pessimistic; it is apocalyptic. In keeping with its name, Shaw’s series “The End of Time” is a dirge which languishes among ruins. The artist limps through images of disemboweled buildings against steel skies. These pieces are disappointed, isolated, brooding. The absolute absence of people only reemphasizes the art’s sense of abandonment, that Shaw’s formative years have become derelict. At the same time, Shaw intimates a disillusionment with himself, a drifting from his past as well as his present.
Recent works strike a more expansive note, as in the 2017 painting “The Visitor.” This opus encapsulates Shaw’s artistic project. It is a landscape of a long green soccer field. Above, the sky spreads a uniform and immutable blue. At the center of the painting stands a pale and rectangular soccer goal, denuded of its net. On the other end of the field, another soccer goal mirrors the closer one’s form. These twin goals tunnel the viewer’s attention across the field to the lopsided horizon’s downward slope and the brick houses beyond. At the same time, this tunneling gestures in reverse to the painting’s foreground, to its bottom right, where the oblong shadow of the artist lingers. Shaw intrudes into his own painting and acknowledges what he has accomplished in his other pieces. He casts his shadow across his own oeuvre, just as his memory casts its shadow across Tile Hill. The title reminds the viewer that memory is a form of travel, that each memory is a place and that Shaw is a visitor to his own past. This self-reflexivity transforms the field into a visual metaphor for memory. It becomes an open space waiting to be filled with the images, connotations and meanings which the child who once ran across its stretching expanse carries with him forever.
The Australian writer Gerald Murnane, our most original thinker on the concept of place, would appreciate Shaw’s art. In his short story “First Love,” Murnane writes, “What people call time is only place after place. Eternity is here already, and it has no mystery about it; eternity is just another name for this endless scenery where we wander from one place to another.” Murnane recognizes the same things Shaw does — that a single place can be many places, that memory is as much related to geography as it is to time, and that time is just another kind of geography. Every person is composed of the places where they have made meaning. For Shaw, he is dilapidated storage units, chain link fences, latched houses at gloaming. He is dead leaves, mounds of dirt, graffitied tree trunks. He is rope swings, puddles, pornography dumped and scattered in the woods. By painting home and its detritus, George Shaw redefines the self-portrait as a map of leaving, returning, and staying all the while.
Joshua Baize | email@example.com