Originally featured on The Upcoming.
By Anna Souter.
George Shaw has been the artist-in-residence at the National Gallery for over two years. A free exhibition of his latest work marks the culmination of his period with the institution. Working from a studio within the museum, Shaw has had a chance to explore the collection’s old masters out of hours, and his resulting paintings offer a fascinating contrast with the other works on show at the National Gallery.
Shaw is known for his preference for Humbrol enamel paint, usually used by hobbyists for painting model cars and aeroplanes. It is typical of Shaw’s democratic practice that he brings a medium with utilitarian and amateur connotations into one of the most famous traditional museums in the world. However, Shaw is far from disrespectful of old master paintings, and if his choice of paint is unconventional, his format is not; he paints on canvas and occasionally wood panels, evoking the artistic traditions of previous centuries.
My Back to Nature is a series of paintings based on Shaw’s exploration of woods and trees, both in real life and in art history. Inspired particularly by Titian’s Death of Actaeon and Diana and Actaeon, Shaw creates a woodland world of trees and fallen leaves.
These idyllic scenes are punctuated by human debris, from rude graffiti to empty beer cans and discarded pages from a pornographic magazine. In two paintings, a grimy tarpaulin glows a luminescent blue, reminiscent of the Virgin Mary’s dress in medieval panel paintings or a reveller’s revealing drapery in Poussin’s Triumph of Pan.
The startling colour feels both out of place and firmly at home in its woodland setting. The mess left behind by human activity seems initially incongruous in Shaw’s paintings, but it also meets our expectations of how humans interact with nature in a strangely satisfying way. Shaw has no overriding ecological message, but instead sees the woods as an important liminal space in which kids can be kids or adolescents can try their first cigarette or alcoholic drink.
Although the paintings contain evidence of human encounters, they are notably devoid of people. Instead, the trees themselves take on unique characters, their parting branches recalling human limbs and echoing the contorted positions of the women in the porn mags. In the only painting depicting a human figure, the artist stands with his back to the viewer, urinating on a tree. It’s a beautifully executed work, and this mixture of reverence and irreverence characterises Shaw’s attitude, providing an insightful commentary on both the natural world and the nature of paintings both old and new.
For more information, visit the National Gallery’s website.
Anna Souter is an arts writer and editor based in London. See her website for more information.