I'm interrupting my thread of posts about the possible analogy between paintings and music to record visits to a few recent shows.
The Holburne Museum, Bath, February to May 2019
I want to like George Shaw's work more than I do.
Given that I want to record places close to home - and that I want to do it in paint - makes me think that I ought to warm to his depictions of ordinary places. Given I'm of a similar age and background to Shaw, so instantly recognise the suburban Britain and 1970's imagery that he includes, makes me feel I should find him effortlessly accessible. Given that I too experienced a boyhood steeped in Christianity (low church protestant for me, Catholic for him) suggests I ought to intuitively appreciate the religious references in his paintings' titles. Even the fact that my teenage hobby of making plastic models meant I spent years enveloped in the smell of Humbrol paints (his chosen medium) suggests I might feel an affinity.
But in the flesh the works were less than the sum of all these parts. I was disappointed how photographic the paintings were, how smooth and glossy (for some reason I supposed he'd use matt Humbrol paints). The pencil images copied from films, television and porn looked like drawings torn from the sketchbook of an accomplished 'A'-level student, assembled for no good reason... perhaps to allude to a specific time, but to what end? I guess the religious links, specifically to the Passion, underline the misery, or at least mortality, contained in much that Shaw depicts, but I think they're in danger of being gratuitous.
Jonathan Jones in his five-star Guardian review of the show (07/02/19) suggests that there's 'hope in Shaw's vision,' that 'moments of redemptive promise' appear. He asks of a picture of a tree casting a shadow on a wall (above), 'Is that the shadow of Christ cast against a wall by a gnarled tree?' I'm tempted to say the answer is 'No. Why ever should I think it is?' But in this case I'm emphatically mistaken. A splendid little film ('George Shaw: An Introduction' by Jonathan Law, on YouTube) demonstrates a direct link between 'Ash Wednesday 8 a.m.' and William Holman Hunt's 'The Shadow of Death' (below). But (perhaps with a distinct lack of imagination on my part) I'm still left asking, 'So what?' In the film Shaw himself says the painting was 'a fairly literal translation of the (source) photograph in many ways,' before adding, 'I suppose I wanted it to move off from the Biblical narrative into a narrative which was much more general, not so much related to a kind of Christian thing but it was something to do with mortality and the trees though they look quite totemic and quite symbolic. I think they're quite apocalyptic in some senses.' 'He's utterly sincere,' says Jones, and this shines through in the unaffected delivery contained in Law's film . But I'm still left feeling mystified, and not in a good way.
I didn't buy the book of this show. Instead I got a catalogue from the National Gallery's earlier exhibition 'My Back to Nature'. This contains interesting essays about Shaw's past and about his techniques (I love the idea of him soaking everything up as a boy as he repeatedly visited the National Gallery sketchbook in hand, and envy him for it). The essays state, like Jonathan Jones, that the works are somehow freighted with great meaning: '(Shaw) does not make his landscapes on the spot... but prefers to select his subjects from photographs he takes, which he then copies in an apparently mechanical way. He never alters an image, keeping as close to the photograph as possible, but it is here that the transformation from fairly uninteresting and routine photographs to mysterious paintings loaded with unspoken symbolism happens' (p.11). I guess I just don't yet recognise the alchemy, the 'transformation', so the 'apparently mechanical' appears just 'mechanical'.
On the Holburne's website it says, 'Don't Miss - George Shaw in Conversation with Mark Hallett'. Having stumped up my £12.50 general admission (online, no concessions) that's exactly what I did do: miss it. In the business of a busy week I simply forgot to roll up. I meant to see if I could appreciate what's going on, but blew the chance. I regret it, especially now that I've seen the little film. Sorry George.