As I walked home in the twilight the other night the dark form of a black tree against the leaden sky caught my eye and put my thoughts back to an exhibition of George Shaw’s paintings that I had seen the previous weekend at the Herbert Museum and Art Gallery in Coventry. Normally a big fan of Shaw’s work, on this occasion I had found myself coming away disappointed and questioning the work and it’s intentions.
The exhibition itself was a well put together and extensive collection of his humbrol enamel paintings from the very first one he did of the Tile Hill estate he grew up on in Coventry itself, to his most recent ones of the same location. If you are unfamiliar with the work it is well worth a visit. As ever, the paintings were powerful, but what I found problematic was a collection of notes about each piece in the exhibition guide written by the artist himself, in which the ideas and motivations were laid bare. They seemed to take away much of the power of the images and replace them with a series of sentimental reminiscences of events such as ‘my mom coming back from the pub…with crisps and lemonade for me and my brother late at night’….or ‘the goalposts reminding me of the football match in ‘Kes’’….that I found increasingly irritating. Maybe because I am of a similar age and background to Shaw I found these references all too familiar, which is why I found them irritating in their obviousness. Yes, I know these things are there in the work, and yes, I make the connections too because of my own background, but I don’t want it to be so spelt out to me. I’m always wary of exhibition guides and this is the reason why- it can take away the mystery. It’s like when a singer reveals the meaning behind the song you love so much and you are so disappointed because it doesn’t tally with the version of what it is about that you have held in your own head all this time. Suddenly, there is just one reading of it and it becomes very one-dimensional. Shaw’s sentimental lamenting for past times really got to me after a while. The title, ‘I Woz Ere’ even grated with me. It made me reflect on my own lack of sentimentality and my belief that we can only ultimately live in the here and now. I'm not sure what I thought of these feelings, but I just couldn't imagine myself in his shoes, forever looking back.
In an adjoining gallery there was a collection of Shaw’s drawings and paintings that he had made as an idealistic and passionate student at the local Art College studying for his A levels and Foundation Course. These were really interesting, and very proficient, with Shaw himself appearing in numerous self-portraits looking like a young Morrissey. The passion and skill behind them, the passion of youth admittedly, leapt off the walls and as I returned to ‘I Woz Ere’, I was struck this time by the seemingly pathetic nature of the work now; the sentimental attachment to this period of time, and even the paintings themselves with their over reliance on static photographs compared to the student’s skills and powers of observation as a young man.
George Shaw is an artist I admire, with great depth and honesty to be found in his work, as the paintings of his on this post demonstrate. This exhibition perhaps presented to me an alternative reading. One I wasn’t expecting, or one I enjoyed…