Getting Sentimental

Midland-born artist George Shaw has attracted much critical acclaim for his brooding depictions of scenes from the Coventry council estate where he grew up, saturated with memory and intrigue. He talks to Nick Carson about nostalgia, profundity and an innovative use for Humbrol enamel paint.

James Joyce, George reminds me, once said that even in the most mundane, commonplace existence it’s possible to have the true nature of a thing revealed to you. A similar sense of gritty epiphany resonates from the otherwise mundane scenes from Tile Hill council estate that make up his latest collection, ‘What I Did Last Summer’. Painstakingly depicted using Humbrol paint – tiny tins normally associated with boyhood modelling kits – he describes his work simply as “thoughtful, quite naïve paintings of where I grew up.”

Re-living the boyhood dream

Modelling enamel is an unusual medium for a professional artist, but the childhood memories it evokes all add to the effect of Shaw’s work. “I have an affinity with it, and can control it,” he explains. “It’s shiny and quite seductive: it gets shinier and shinier as you build up the layers, like
a glossy magazine or a pebble underneath water. When you remove it from the water it’s just a pebble. And you’re always aware of the glossy surface even though there’s the illusion of 3D space, which appeals to me.”

Coming in such small containers, can the paint be economically viable for large-scale work? “It’s cheaper than the extraordinarily expensive oil paint you get from art shops, but it’s not rock bottom,” he admits. “But it’s important to me: the name ‘Humbrol’ sets off triggers that ‘enamel paint’ alone doesn’t.” In fact the brand has come to define him: searching for George Shaw on the Internet returns, unsurprisingly, reams of pages on George Bernard Shaw – but simply adding the word ‘Humbrol’ to the query makes all the difference.

Taking your time

The sheer amount of work that goes into a painting, George proposes, can help to encourage people’s appreciation of it. “When I started off all my work was extremely detailed, down to individual blades of grass and leaves on trees: I thought that was the best way to do it,” he reveals. “It always took a long time to paint – it took time and was about time. As with pre-Raphaelite paintings, if a lot of work has gone into it then it’s intriguing for people to think about what was going through the painter’s head for all that time.”

“Now I’m better at handling materials, and have learned to create the impression that I’ve painted every single detail, without actually doing it,” he continues. “I’m getting good at making the paint do what I want it to do, so my work is getting freer and bigger. But I don’t want to be too ambitious – you have to be in control of the materials and not let them control you,” he advises.

Describing the indescribable

Despite the meticulous levels of detail that characterise his paintings, George insists that in essence it’s the deeper, conceptual meaning that’s important. “For me, it’s more about conveying feelings than scenes: I would love to be abstract and avoid making pictures altogether,” he admits. “My work is realistic while conveying experiences that have nothing to do with the solidity of the object – evocative, poetic images. I try to use the visual world to describe something indescribable, when I haven’t the language to do it justice.”

He draws attention to the hauntingly beautiful landscapes of Casper David Freidrich, and insists that a picture of a council bus shelter can instil an emotional response as powerful as a view of the Austrian Alps – it’s all about the memories associated with it. “You can be hoodwinked into thinking you’re experiencing something profound just because you’re looking at something beautiful, but you need the power of insight,” he argues. “I rarely draw anything without an emotional involvement with it. Sometimes I see something beautiful, like mist covering a mountain or light reflecting off a lake, and I make a sketch – but to me this is little more than an exercise. It passes the time, but there isn’t the same depth of meaning.”

Sharing literary sentiments

Much of George’s inspiration comes from literature, including Joyce and writers as diverse as Samuel Beckett and DH Lawrence who, he suggests, share a common thread: “They all deal with early sensations in their work: the desire to be an artist or a writer when young,” he observes. “I want my paintings to tell the stories I haven’t the skill to tell through writing.”

“Beckett’s prose prompts you to leave the text – it triggers an emotive, sensory response, recalling memories in a dreamlike state,” he enthuses. “I rarely get this from paintings, only books.” Keen to provoke a similar effect with his art, Shaw self-consciously echoes literary techniques. “Part of the nature of a book is dealing with things in isolation; moving through time in pages and chapters,” he explains. “I try to make my paintings work like this – in series, like chapters in a book. Hopefully I’ll get to the end at some point, and look back on it as a journey; a pilgrimage.”

Doing it for yourself

After graduating from Sheffield Polytechnic in 1989, George immediately gave up trying to paint for a living and went into teaching. But, seven years later, a childhood urge to be an artist was reawakened and he took two years out to study for an MA at the Royal College in London. “It’s my personal project; I couldn’t care less about recognition,” he admits. “It’s lovely to make a living from it, but you have to be self-motivated by things close to you.”

“If it’s not coming from inside you it’s not art – it’s more like graphic design, and you’re working to a brief imposed on you by an outside culture,” he argues. “The most exciting art counters that: true artists have no choice, and the work is essential for them. For me, it would have been the same achievement if no one else had noticed: it’s a question of being honest with yourself about what you’re thinking and doing. Sometimes you’ll be in step with the world; sometimes not.”

Accessible nostalgia

The major problem to avoid when dredging up deeply personal imagery is the risk of isolating your audience – a concern of which George is only too aware. “If you’re too nostalgic you become like a bore in a pub talking about what chocolate bars used to be like,” he groans. And yet, paradoxically, a striking feature of his paintings is their generic appeal: although focussing almost exclusively on the council estate where the artist was raised, the distinct lack of any identifiable feature helps to ensure that the work remains accessible.

“I paint bits of rubbish, but I don’t hark back to things like old designs for Coke or Fanta cans,” George points out. “My paintings are evocative of mood, sensation and a general notion of time – the distance between yourself and your childhood. It’s not important to me how packaging design has changed: people want to be able to connect with things, and if you’re too personal then you can lock people out,” he warns. “You don’t have to know my story to step into the nature of my work: it’s not too parochial. Although it depicts the English working class, it’s a human reading of it. The most successful paintings look out, not in: these are like me, as a kid, looking out at the world.”

© Nick Carson 2004. First published on Channel 4’s IDEASFACTORY West Midlands

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