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
15 March 2014 § Leave a comment
“I want to be as though new born, knowing nothing about Europe, nothing, no pictures, entirely without impulses, almost in an original state”. Paul Klee 1902.
Klee was one of the last century’s deepest thinkers about artistic theory, the above early diary entry perhaps presenting his initial starting point. Anybody who has tried to read – or rather ‘plough through’ – any of his writings will know how much complex thought he has invested in to his art.
I here say ‘plough through’ advisedly since his writings are more like complex scientific text books that essays on art thinking. Illustrated with innumerable diagrams, sketches and graphs they present new ways of thinking about the creation of art, largely developed during his periods of Bauhaus teaching.
His Pedagogical Sketchbook for example begins with thirty pages of closely reasoned text on the significance of ‘the dot’ before apologising for brevity and moving on to ‘the line’. The published ‘notebooks’ of his thoughts and writings whilst at the Bauhaus exceed a thousand pages and feature headings like ‘The concept of analysis’ and ‘Corporeo-spatial tensions’. Every aspect of image making is pored over, analysed and scientifically dissected.
One might think that somebody who analyses art so deeply would be far too ‘bogged down’ in theory that they would find it all but impossible to produce any appealing art. Surprisingly though this show at the Tate proves the opposite. This deep thinking stimulated him into production of a wide variety of interesting work within relatively short time bands.
The Tate’s chronological approach successfully shows the twists and turns of his style as well as his great early confidence. From the start, despite unfavourable reviews from his first solo show, he was already precisely numbering and cataloguing each work. A Constructivist period leads in to his time with the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) group, where the influence of Kandinsky is strongly visible. Cezanne, Bracque, Picasso, Matisse and especially Delaunay were further influences before Klee threw himself in to a decade of teaching at the Bauhaus.
The exhibition repeatedly surprises as successive rooms show the depth of his talent. Oil, watercolour or oil-transfer are given equal prominence and plenty of space to shine. An early realisation that there is much more to Klee than you thought you knew leads to an acceptance that this really is a master of modern art. Repeated innovation, prodigious in production and immensely talented a relatively early death in 1940 surely deprived the world of much, much more.
Paul Klee Making Visible is at Tate Modern until 9 March 2014