11 November 2018 § Leave a comment
Mid century modern is one of today’s most prominent design trends – especially in California. Cruise around say, Los Angeles or Palm Springs and you will find no end of shops and businesses offering original, reproduction or imitation mid century furnishing. Around the world decor, design and architecture reflect a renewed interest in the period.
With this significant revival comes a desire to look in more detail at this era and perhaps re-assess the major figures. Phaidon’s latest publication, California Captured is therefore a very welcome look at the pioneering architectural photography of Marvin Rand.
His stylish and precise photography perfectly captured the aesthetic of the era but Rand was much more than simply an observer – an intrinsic part of the movement he worked hand in glove with some of the period’s major movers and shakers.
Helping to shape developments in architecture from within his imagery was vital in a period where Angelenos sought a new and modern style within an optimistic and expanding city. A circle of photographers, magazines and architects brought the latest designs, themselves enabled by the latest technologies, to an eager public. The new architecture boomed and along with Rand the associated trades flourished.
Born in downtown LA he enrolled at Art Center College of Design joining a circle of avant-garde artists and designers, including Saul Bass, Lou Danziger and Charles and Ray Eames. Through this he met Esther McCoy, an influential LA architectural historian, who would help launch his career.
Rand worked with many of today’s cutting-edge architects through the key decades of the fifties and sixties, his client list a who’s who of architects past and present, including the likes of Eames, Louis I. Kahn, Craig Ellwood and Frank Gehry.
But not only was Rand active in photographing the new but he eagerly recorded the rapidly disappearing architecture of LA. He helped in restoration and preservation, spending time photographing distinguished buildings threatened with destruction.
Rand always insisted that the architecture spoke for itself. He photographed with a light hand eschewing artifice and unnatural lighting. His skill lay in spotting unseen angles and capturing the essence of any building. Unlike most of his peers he often worked alone whilst insisting on doing all of his own darkroom work which he considered of equal importance to the quality of the original image.
Remarkably it was only as recently as 2012 that his archive of some 50,000 images was ‘re-discovered’. Having been carefully organised by Rand before his death in 2009 it had remained stored away within family possessions.
Rand was amongst a small group of photographers who worked to record and promote the architecture of the period. Julius Shulman is usually the pre-eminent name but this book elevates Marvin Rand to a significant position within the group and is an essential addition to any collection of architectural photography.
California Captured by Marvin Rand is available via this link at www.phaidon.com
This post was also published at CELLOPHANELAND*
240 colour illustrations
290 x 250mm
ISBN 97807 1487 6115
4 March 2017 § Leave a comment
This review also appears on CELLOPHANELAND* along with many other interesting Arts, Culture and Travel features.
This is photography Jim, but not as we know it. Visiting the latest Tate exhibition Wolfgang Tillmans 2017 many unfamiliar with his work are likely to come away with a whole new feelings about contemporary photography, how it is presented and what it means. They may also question the nature of photography.
Although we may consider Tillmans a photographer – indeed the first one to win the Turner Prize, in 2000, his practice has steadily expanded from images of everyday life and contemporary culture and in this exhibition we see that his broad range of activity now includes installation, music, sculpture, video and performance.
Despite all this variety photography still lies at the core of his practice. The images however may be analogue, digital or even cameraless – Tillmans restlessly experimenting with every aspect of the photographic process. Once the images are produced, he then plays with their presentation. Prints will never be evenly sized, neatly framed and lined up around the walls but are wilfully distributed in almost every available space – small monochrome images high on walls almost impossible to view, giant colour prints that dominate a room, others assembled in groups or single works hung alone in a corner.
They may be framed or mounted on aluminium, pinned up, hung on bulldog clips, taped to the wall or laid flat in cabinets. For Tillmans every rule of production and presentation is is there to be broken, played with or experimented upon.
This attack of the traditions of the genre are strongly hinted at right at the start of the exhibition where we see photographs of his messy working space – few would recognise it as anything close to a conventional photographic studio. Nearby is an image of his office photocopier that has been carefully dismantled and spread over the floor – dissected in to its constituent parts. Tillman perhaps signals that he is breaking conventional image making in to its constituent parts to be re-examined and questioned.
This Tate exhibition presents works since 2003, when he had a solo show at Tate Britain, with unconventional presentation in rooms that are configured by Tillmans as ‘a personal response to the present moment.’ You will see no chronology or overriding theme, works from different periods are often juxtaposed. Social comment may move quickly in to formal comparison.
We know Tillmans has a great eye for colour and style – he was after all a fashion photographer – but he also is a great editor of images. We see works from the Neue Welt series, where he travelled to five continents and impulsively recorded his immediate feelings with a slice of a car headlight, a waterfall and a the remnants of a lobster meal – a fat fly included.
In two rooms of he returns to a favourite theme of abstract images. Enjoying the addition of the element of chance he creates beautiful works by manipulation of the chemical process in his ongoing Blushes series. By apparently removing the artists hand the resulting images seem more magical and perhaps record some scientific process rather than the work of a person.
Other abstractions are simply pictures of folded or crumpled paper. One can only admire the simple beauty of the Paper Drop images created from a folded sheet of photographic paper – in the end the very material upon which the images are to be eventually printed.
The variety and virtuosity on display is breathtaking. We move from experiencing the emotional impact of a documentary image to the virtuosity of a colour print or the beauty of an abstraction. We are caught off guard by imaginative presentation, arresting images or thought provoking juxtapositions.
Its not all totally positive – the ‘Truth Study Center’ installations – glazed table-top presentations of photographs, newspaper clippings and objects are rather obvious and uninteresting and some works with political comment miss the mark. A sound room presenting recordings looks to make us question how music is presented and received, but is rather banal. Nevertheless this is a show that anyone with any interest in photography would be foolish to miss.
Wolfgang Tillmans 2017 runs until 11 June 2017
For more information visit Tate Modern
See also our review of his 2016 exhibition at Maureen Paley
14 November 2016 § Leave a comment
Any passing thought that David Bowie was a casual or poorly informed collector of art disappears within moments of viewing his remarkable collection, shortly to be sold at a special three-part sale in Sotheby’s London.
In his own words David Bowie was an an ‘addictive and obsessive’ collector observing that it can “change the way I feel in the morning.” It inspired him and influenced his work, about Frank Auerbach’s Head of Gerda Boehm he for example commented “I can look at it and say: My God, yeah! I want to sound like that looks.”
The Sotheby’s sale consists of some 350 lots which, we are told, represents about half of his collection. Unfortunately we don’t know what has been saved – presumably the most personal and best pieces – but this is a tantalising look at the taste of one of the most remarkably creative artists of our times.
What is missing tells us almost as much as what is there. There is almost no photography or American art, no installations or performance artworks and little after the 1990’s
What we mostly find is a truly varied and comprehensive roll call of Modernist British art from the likes of influential painters like David Bomberg, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossof and Peter Lanyon. Alongside are modernist sculptors like Kenneth Armitage, Henry Moore and William Turnbull.
Bowie was also happy to put his time and money in to the lesser known – if he liked them – British artists like Alexander Mackenzie and Maurice Cockerell. He also bought outsider artists and invested in South African art.
There are other gems too. A pretty good Basquiat or Damien Hirst spin painting? A Tintoretto anyone? German expressionist etchings? There is also a small, but important selection of early conceptual and surrealist artists like Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Francis Picabia and Meret Oppenheim.
And then there is the furniture and design. Memphis burst out of Milan in the 1980’s with Ettore Sottsass revolutionised cutting-edge design, introducing fun, humour and strikingly bold colour combinations into functional pieces. The ‘Casablanca’ Sideboard, from 1981, is considered a defining work of postmodern design as was the Olivetti Typewriter upon which Bowie typed his lyrics and that directly led him on to a love of Memphis and this broad and impressive collection.
Estimates are often very reasonable and at first glance it looks like it is possible to pick up some small works in the mid hundreds. There are other items like the 1966 Castiglione radio-phonograph at £800-1200 and a Brionvega cube radio estimated at £150-250, both tantalisingly priced. Sadly however these are all at fantasy prices to draw in the eager; you can probably add a nought to each before you even start. Good luck!
For more information visit www.sothebys.com
Part I: Modern & Contemporary Art, Evening Auction, 10 November 2016
Part II: Modern & Contemporary Art, Day Auction, 11 November 2016
Part III: Design: Ettore Sottsass and the Memphis Group, 11 November 2016
Postscript: I should have said ‘add two noughts’. The Valentine typewriter sold at £45,000, The Castiglione Radio-Phonograph £257,000, the Brionvega Radio £30,000 amongst many other items that sailed way above estimate. All the low lots estimated in the tens & hundreds went for £4k upwards as everyone wanted a small piece of Bowie memorabilia and the overall estimates on all sales were at least doubled. Basquiat ‘Air Power’ went for a record £7.1m. See BBC feature here.
This post also featured on CELLOPHANELAND*
6 October 2016 § Leave a comment
Nature transformed through industry is a predominant theme in the work of Edward Burtynsky. He searches for subjects that are rich in detail and scale yet open in their meaning: recycling yards, mine tailings, quarries and refineries. These are all places that outside of our normal experience and are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence; they search for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear.
Essential Elements comprises of a selection of photographs weaving an evocative journey through Burtynsky’s past projects, China, Manufactured Landscapes, Quarries, Oil and Water, drawing together the visual and thematic threads that connect throughout his oeuvre.
Burtynsky revealed in his recent conversation with us (The Edward Burtynsky Conversation) that William Ewing spent months assiduously sifting through Burtynsky’s whole back catalogue. He has wisely avoided publishing an obvious chronological trawl through the seemingly discrete projects that comprise Burtynsky’s past works and instead has got with an approach that looked at the juxtapositions as they made sense conceptually, aesthetically or visually.
This absence of chronology allowed him to juxtapose images that were unrelated by subject or era – the deep quarrying of Highland Valley #8 2008 faces Oxford Tire Pile #4 1999 and China Recycling #10 2004 sits opposite Car Terminal 2011.
We see plenty of iconic works but remarkably over 50% have never been published before and many never seen before.
Taking a free-flowing approach across geographical borders and over an extended period of time, the exhibition reveals the development of an expansive formal language, from early examples of his disorienting manipulation of perspective and scale in Railcuts (1985), to the rich organic patterns of Burtynsky’s first major aerial photography project, Silver Lake Operations in Australia (2007).
Mapping the human transformation of the landscape, and documenting the residual destruction stemming from industrial processes and manufacturing, Burtynsky’s photographs present a contradiction of aesthetic seduction and ecological concerns, functioning, as he sees it, as “reflecting pools of our times”.
Amongst the photographs Ewing has selected clips of text from multiple sources, including the artist that provide further insight. This is an excellent book, visually gripping and nicely insightful providing a useful additional angle on the work of an important contemporary photographer.
This feature is also posted in CELLOPHANELAND arts & culture magazine
All images are © Edward Burtynsky 2016. Courtesy Flowers Gallery, London / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto.
Edward Burtynsky: Essential Elements, edited and curated by William A. Ewing is published by Thames & Hudson, 15 September 2016, £45.00 hardback (www.thamesandhudson.com)
12 July 2016 § Leave a comment
‘… fictions, stories and histories taking viewers on a series of voyages through time and space, drawing on Liverpool’s past, present and future’ – Liverpool Biennial Guide
If this summary makes this years Liverpool Biennial sound rather complicated, well, actually it is. And that is not all. When you add on exhibitions at the Tate, the John Moores Prize exhibition, Bloomberg Contemporaries and a whole series of fringe events that run alongside then it all becomes rather bewildering.
The aforementioned Biennial ‘voyages’ actually take the form of six ‘episodes’ namely: Ancient Greece, Chinatown, Children’s Episode, Monuments from the Future and Flashback.
The Tate is a good starting point for all this with a new vision of Ancient Greece. Reflecting on the neoclassical architecture throughout the city contemporary artists have been invited to exhibit alongside exhibits largely taken from the famous Blundell collection of Greek artefacts.
It is fine, but better is to visit the Tate’s other current exhibitions: the excellent Francis Bacon: Invisible Rooms which has been cleverly placed alongside Maria Lassnig – both using the body, often distorted, deformed, ageing or fragile.
Across town at the impressive redbrick Victorian Cains Brewery is a selection of episodes arranged around the hall and in to Andrea Angelidakis’ spiral Collider installation. In the centre is the film Dogsy Ma Bone from Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, made with local children over recent months and inspired by Betty Boop’s A Song A Day and Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. The whole looks rather like a student degree show although there are excellent individual works.
Around the corner at the Blade Factory is a highlight, a ‘Flashback’ from Mark Leckey. His film Dream English Kid draws on scraps of film, TV archive and ephemera, recreating events from his life between the seventies and nineties in a compelling dream-like sequence.
Another highlight was Lara Favaretto’s Momentary Monument: The Stone (2016) in Rhiwlas Street, Toxteth – a monument to destroyed community.
Two more ‘ Flashback’ artists are being exhibited at FACT. Lucy Beech’s new film Pharmakon shows downstairs whilst upstairs there are a series of interesting films and installations from Krzysztof Wodiczko, who has been working with the homeless and marginalised.
The Open Eye Gallery at Mann Island has devoted the downstairs gallery to Koki Tanaka’s ‘flashback’ revisiting of an 1985 protest march. It was not particularly gripping, but upstairs were a series of clever, witty and thought-provoking videos by Ramin Heirzadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh & Hesam Rehmanian.
Up at the historic and important ABC (scandalously being allowed to fall derelict) is a ‘Flashback’ – a rather ponderous film from Giraud & Siboni and a selection of sculptures. Better, and out of the biennial at the adjacent Walker, is the 2016 John Moores Painting Prize exhibition. Won by the likes of Peter Doig, Rose Wylie, Sir Peter Blake and John Hoyland the quality is, as expected, exceptional. Michael Simpson was this years winner of the £25,000 cheque.
Bloomberg’s New Contemporaries at the Bluecoat was rather disappointing, but at least the courtyard is a great place to relax with a coffee away from the hustle and bustle. Of the associate artists we particularly loved Lindsey Bull at the India Buildings.
Outside the biennial, as well as the Tate, Walker & Bluecoat why not try going a little farther? There are Sir Peter Blake’s Dazzle Ferry, Crosby Beach for Antony Gormley’s Another Place or the Lady Lever Art Gallery at Port Sunlight
Whilst the actual biennial ends up as rather a curatorial mess, it really does not matter that much. Ignore the rather muddled theme, just get out and about, explore the city and some great venues – in and out of the biennial. You are sure to find some surprising gems along the way.
Liverpool Biennial is at various venues until 16 October 2016
6 July 2016 § Leave a comment
This post also appears in the lifestyle & culture magazine www.cellophaneland.com
Wolfgang Tillmans’ approach to image-making is fascinating in its non-hierarchical approach to both subject and theme. This, along with his constant desire to push the boundaries of photography as an artistic medium, makes him one of the most interesting and innovative artists working today.
A solo show at the Serpentine Galleries in 2010 reinforced his respected position in the field, he has recently held solo exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2015); and the Beyeler Foundation, Basel (2014) whilst a major solo show at the Tate is upcoming in 2017.
He is most definitely therefore well worth catching over in Bethnal Green where Tillmans is having his eighth exhibition at the Maureen Paley Gallery. Featuring new and previously unseen work the show focuses on the visible and invisible borders that define and sometimes control us.
Central to the downstairs gallery is a large and impressive unframed print of The State We’re In, A (2015) that documents the open water of the Atlantic Ocean where international time lines and borders intersect.
This is displayed alongside images made at the Northern and Southern European Observatories that look beyond our national boundaries. Also on show are photographs that study the visual effects of the Sun’s light entering our planet’s atmosphere and an image of human blood flowing through plastic tubes, contained outside of the body during surgery.
In the upstairs gallery a new grouping of tables that follow on from his truth study center series (2005 – ongoing) are installed. Somewhat less impressive is I refuse to be your enemy 2, (2016) which enacts another use of this display format by presenting various sizes of blank office paper from Europe and North America.
Inspired by a workshop that Tillmans gave to students in Iran last year this work examines the similarities in our nationalised forms of printed communication and how these formats can unite rather than divide us. Ummm.
Continuing on this theme of unity over division, examples of Tillmans’ pro-EU poster campaign are presented on the exterior of the gallery. But perhaps we should not talk talk much about those?
Wolfgang Tillmans runs until 31 July 2016.
More information can be found at: www.maureenpaley.com
5 July 2016 § Leave a comment
‘When people read erotic symbols into my paintings, they’re really talking about their own affairs’ – Georgia O’Keefe
This post also appears at www.cellophaneland.com
This is the largest exhibition Georgia O’Keeffe ever to take place outside America and the first retrospective in the UK. Given too that there are no works in any British collection this is a rare opportunity to take a close look at the work of one of the most famous of American artists.
Famed for her close up flowers, New York cityscapes and desert landscapes – with or without bleached animal bones – this is somebody has come to represent the crowning achievements of American modernism.
Her journey was a remarkable one and in the Tate’s largely chronological approach we can see her development, from Wisconsin art student, via New York and a relationship with the leading proponent of European modernism, Alfred Stieglitz, before retiring to a ranch in the arid southwest.
The show opens with an impressive reconstruction of her 1916 show at 291 in New York. A group of charcoal sketches, heavily influenced by tutor Arthur Wesley Dow and Kandinsky’s abstract and spiritual approach, were shown to Alfred Stieglitz, the gallery’s influential owner. He spotted her early promise and put the works on show.
O’Keeffe soon moved to the city, and in to a lengthy relationship with Stieglitz. She adopted the philosophies and scientific ideas of the time: theosophy, synesthesia, with the spiritual underpinning her work. She painted abstracts – one of the first Americans to work this way – with an unmistakeable erotic symbolism that Stieglitz drew on to market her in the gallery.
He added his own nude images of her and stated that as a woman she ‘painted from the womb’. O’Keefe distanced herself from this angle, said the eroticism was in the eye of the beholder and from then veered away from abstracts. Even many years later, when artists like Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro claimed her as an early feminist artist, which she obviously was, she sadly continued to avoid and deny this.
It was in New York too that, bored of the city, she began painting her iconic flowers. Despite stating that ‘I hate flowers—I paint them because they’re cheaper than models and they don’t move’ they are now her most recognisable works. One somehow imagines them to fill the walls, but when seen at the Tate they seem surprisingly small and less impressive than anticipated.
A 1919 trip took her to the desert, which she adored, returning frequently and eventually moving to Santa Fe from New York when Stieglitz died in 1949. There are plenty of these desert landscapes here and the influence of Emily Carr, a Canadian artist that she met, is clear to see. Carr herself was strongly influenced by another Canadian, Lawren Harris and the Group of Seven. All were concerned with the spiritual within the landscape and one wonders how strong this influence was.
In the desert she painted the colourful, arid landscapes. These are often impressive, but also sometimes they miss the bright light and sharpness you would expect – often appearing rather distant and flat. She also painted the weeds and adobe buildings and some of these stand out in the exhibition as more appealing for their simplicity and abstract forms.
She also loved the sun dried animal bones. Perhaps these represented for her the spirituality of the land but these are perhaps the least impressive works. It is all too obvious, especially when skulls are tackily suspended in space within the landscapes.
Fans of O’Keeffe are sure to love this exhibition whilst for others it may show up limitations, but this is still a show to admire. The Tate has put on a wonderful exhibition, which truly does justice to the fascinating works of a remarkable woman and a groundbreaking artist.
For more information visit www.tate.org
4 July 2016 § Leave a comment
“I want there to be a human presence without having to depict it in full” – Cecily Brown
Located mid way on the short stroll between two of St James’ art heavyweights – Christies, King Street and White Cube, Masons Yard – are the two spaces of the Thomas Dane Gallery. It is always well worth dropping by to see the latest exhibition and with artists like Walead Beshty, Michael Landy, Hurvin Anderson and Steve McQueen on the roster there is a good chance you will find something very special.
Showing for the first time at the gallery, we found the wonderful Cecily Brown. She has recently jumped ship from Gagosian no less, a move that shows the growing power of Thomas Dane. Brown is, and has been throughout her career, one of the most engaged and distinctive painters of our time. Her preoccupation has always been the Body – in all its various guises and narratives, fleshy shapes and forms appearing from her many layered works.
Brown’s paintings are immersive and her passion is contagious. She reminds us how great it is to look at art unhurriedly: the pleasure of contemplation and examination. Her paintings reveal themselves slowly, almost ‘continuously’.
Brown often talks about ‘Sublimation’, paraphrasing Francis Bacon who craved “the grin without the cat”, the “sensation” without the “boredom of its conveyance”. Something she calls a ‘Breaking-down’ process.
Recently we discover that Brown has been (re)looking at a particular painting, and has fallen in love with it all over again: Degas’ Young Spartans, from 1860, at London’s National Gallery. She brings Degas’ very recognisable, cluster of bodies, postures and composition into some of the work here.
Crowds are indeed very present for example – in the enigmatic Madrepora, 2015. The ghoulish assembly of The Smugglers, 2015, too could have sprung out of a James Ensor painting.
A series of ‘Dark’ paintings are reminiscent of the Spanish Masters and brings together Brown’s taste for the slightly macabre, or forbidden, with more risqué reclining male nudes.
Spanning both spaces of the gallery, the exhibition includes some of works from the past. These are cleverly hung alongside her sketches and allows us to add some history and context to her work. Her star must surely continue to rise.
Cecily Brown – Madrepora runs until 23 July 2016
For more information visit www.thomasdanegallery.com
29 June 2016 § Leave a comment
“It’s the instantaneous light. If you get it right then you get it in the total present tense – that’s what you’re going for, that’s eternity.” Alex Katz
The new Alex Katz exhibition at the Serpentine Galleries is a combination of two distinct series of work representing two aspects of his work – portraits and landscapes. Entering the gallery we are met with three walls each with one gigantic orange painting.
These are recent portraits of women – each given the subjects first name – Vivien, Anna and Ada (his wife, a frequent subject). They may be named and are ‘of’ somebody but that is as far as Katz wants to take us. These might just as well be still lifes, we are not invited to learn any more about these ladies and there is no narrative. We are simply encouraged to be ‘in the moment’ and the artists wants to see no more or no less that what is right before us.
The subjects are simply dressed, if indeed we see what they are wearing, almost expressionless, and return our gaze. The backgrounds a pure bright orange – they could be ‘Easy Jet’ adverts and indeed the link with advertising is there, Katz heavily influenced by billboards, his paintings characterised by their flatness of colour and fluidity of line.
The artist, now 88, came of age as an artist in 1950s New York, and developed his unique approach to contemporary representational painting during the height of Abstract Expressionism. His work is reminiscent of artists like Tom Wesselman and Andy Warhol but any association to pop art is to be avoided though as gentle and careful brushstrokes energise the caves and bring life to the faces.
The exhibitions title, Quick Light, comes from Katz’s desire to bring the image to us as quickly as possible – as in adverts – removing superfluous detail in order that our brains absorb the image with minimal delay. Like the almost totally two dimensional figures the paint is flat and he is happy to agree with the term ‘aggressive’ in respect of the quick impact that his images have upon us.
The Serpentine has also taken the clever opportunity to present a number of Katz’s landscape paintings in the leafy surroundings of Hyde Park. The central gallery is occupied by several of these, some almost abstract in appearance exemplify his life-long quest to capture the present tense in paint. The largest fill whole walls of the Serpentines sizeable walls.
Reflection is a rohrsach-style mirrored reflection water in blue and black, West 1 features illuminated windows on a black background whilst Black Brook 18, in green and black we guess must be a stream and grass.
They are enigmatic and again Katz gives no story – these are paintings simply of present ‘moments’. Regardless of their scale, he describes these paintings as ‘environmental’ in the way in which they envelop the viewer. Defined by temporal qualities of light, times of the day and the changing of the seasons.
Everything Katz does looks deceptively easy, and thats how he wants it. Seeing that Henri Matisse’s work seemingly required ’no effort’ he was inspired to paint in a similar way. The inspiration of this Serpentine show is seeing another master at the peak of his powers.
Alex Katz: Quick Light is at the Serpentine Gallery until 11 September.
For more information visit www.serpentinegalleries.org
This feature also appears on www.cellophaneland.com
18 June 2016 § Leave a comment
“The longer I spend here, the earthier and more profane the collection gets. Even the religious paintings eventually get down from their high horse and meet you on your level. It’s all sex, death, bowls of fruit and flowers, and the odd landscape. That may sound somewhat dismissive, but it’s kept artists busy for 700 years and continues to do so.” George Shaw
George Shaw has spent the last two years as the latest Associate Artist at the National Gallery. Provided with a studio at the gallery his brief is to produce work that responds to art in the collection. A Turner Prize nominee in 2011, Shaw is well known for his paintings of the decaying and depressing post-war housing estates of Tile Hill, Coventry, where he grew up, and for his idiosyncratic medium – the sticky Humbrol enamel paint.Famously used for children’s Airfix kits, the use of this unusual paint has led to the assumption that he used to paint these models as a child. Shaw quickly puts us straight telling us that he never would have played with such mundane toys “I was upstairs trying to be a Velasquez or a Goya”.Living on a daily basis with artworks that that has admired throughout his career (“I still have my Thames and Hudson book on the National Gallery that my mum gave me for a birthday present in the early eighties” ) his first response to the residency was a series of charcoal sketches -14 self-portraits in the various poses taken up by Christ in traditional Stations of the Cross compositions, followed by other sketches and watercolours of trees.Positioned as the first thing the visitor encounters on entering the exhibition, Shaw encourages us to read his work as carrying other, deeper ideas, rather than being just a ‘rehash’ of traditional landscape imagery. Even woodland in the National Gallery paintings would be redolent with religious meaning – lone trees for example being instantly recognisable by a contemporary spectator as the crosses of Calvary. Indeed in illustration Shaw provides us with a stark and beautiful monochrome watercolour of three bare trees.Alluding to the theme of woodland in the collection, ‘My Back to Nature’ resonates with Shaw’s own experience of walking in the woods as a teenager, with the feeling that “something out of the ordinary could happen at any time there, away from the supervision of adults”. Looking through the National’s collection many of the paintings feature mythical events involving incidents outside the accepted norms of behaviour, including violence, illicit sex, and drunkenness that are in similar locations – woodlands near a town which we perhaps see, idealised, in a misty or hilly backdrop.Like Cézanne’s Bathers, Velázquez’s Venus, and all the other great nudes in these halls, in the pastoral tradition, woods and fields are places of desire and dalliance – scenes of intense human drama. Perhaps the moment has just passed or is just about to happen. For Shaw it is a mark on the ground, trampling of leaves, the torn pages of an porn magazines. The School of Love by Correggio, is of Venus, Mercury and Cupid in a leafy bower – Shaw’s version is a striped mattress discarded in a clearing. In another a tree trunk drips with red paint: someone’s rage or someone’s private message.A year in to his residence Shaw ordered three large canvases – exactly the size of the Titian Metamorphoses in the gallery. His painted responses to them show firstly a dark and erotic clearing, in another the tree assaulted with red paint and finally a Titian-blue tarpaulin, dangling ghost-like from the arm of a tree. It is easy to see the religious parallels: life, death and the resurrection.A kid from a suburban housing estate gets unlimited access to the National Gallery’s collection. This was George Shaw’s dream come true and through this perhaps unlikely interaction comes an inspirational exhibition of a special quality.George Shaw: My Back to Nature, National Gallery London is on until 30 October 2016
For more information visit www.nationalgallery.org.uk
This post also appears on www.cellophaneland.com