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January 27th, 2012

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05:23 pm - George Shaw
I recommend anyone who can get to The Herbert art gallery in Coventry to try to see the exhibition of paintings by George Shaw, which is there until the 11th March. Shaw was tipped for the Turner prize this year, and I think he should have got it. The paintings are photo-realist pictures of Tile Hill, which is a working class estate in South Coventry, not far from where I live now. The images are very like the estates in Birmingham and Darlington where I lived as a child. The pictures are done in the cheap bright enamel paints used to paint model toys. Like Van Gogh I think that the experience of seeing the originals far surpasses seeing a reproduction. Technically there are some errors in the photographic rendition of locations. But the light and luminosity makes the pictures full of life and intensity. I felt stunned by them.

In my poems Back Alleyways of the West Midlands and The Secret Commonwealth I was trying to convey the same quality which Shaw manages to get across in these paintings. Or as Shaw says in his commentary on the exhibition:
All these things that had been familiar to me gradually became strange and part of another world and yet still so ordinary.

That's how I felt a few years ago when I went back to the estate I lived in as a child, or back to my grandmother's house. These paintings show the intense presence of litter strewn areas and working class buildings, and wet sky glowing full of dense clouds. They are somewhat like pre-Raphaelite paintings, in their overwrought colour and thickness. Shaw has shown the places without people, and with all signage and text removed, apart from graffiti.

Here is an article in the Guardian arguing that Shaw should have won. I didn't have strong feelings about this until I saw the actual paintings. Now I agree.

The secret commonwealth

How shall I define the secret commonwealth?
By black eel-lightning
stabd my path
striving for that damp ditch to take a breath
so furtive ugly and surpassing strong.

A teenage girl, barely awake, too drunk to feel the cold
listening, in the freezing dark, on Newton Lane
to an old woman's cough, cough from a bedroom window.

Apron of pale gravel
in front of garage doors
innocent of human act.

Those features of the land that are not mapped -
Pornography that has been thrown away -
Rope swings across the overspilling beck -
Pink jays and rhododendrons that nobody loves -
Carers in washed-out overalls await the early bus.

What is it, by these indices demarked?
A commonwealth of that which is not named,
not lovely, and not bound to time and space.

(This poem was not written about the pictures. I wrote it several years ago, but I was trying to write about the same subject as the pictures.)

(10 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:January 27th, 2012 09:10 pm (UTC)
Thak you very much for the pictures and the link. Reading the poem, I can absolutely see how you and Shaw are on the same wavelength.
[User Picture]
Date:January 27th, 2012 09:58 pm (UTC)
The effect of the enamel paint is very striking, a gloomy luminescence, amazing.
[User Picture]
Date:January 27th, 2012 10:32 pm (UTC)
"commonwealth" is such a scary word, here. It is very effective.

Here in Australia, we're the "Commonwealth" of Australia, and the federal government is usually referred to as "the Commonwealth", so I may be getting more resonances from that than were vibrating in your head; but also, having been aware of the history and etymology of the word from a young age (child of a history teacher and an editor), I often find its use here a little tense, too.

The equivalent towers to the one in the painting are usually where new migrants end up, here in my town; I often wonder what sort of - well, commonwealth is the perfect word there, though I had never thought of it before - forms, as communities develop.

And I now want to see the painitngs in real life. I can imagine what the model paint must look like, but I can't see it in the photos.
[User Picture]
Date:January 27th, 2012 11:56 pm (UTC)
Shaw was at school with my friend Janet's children. It's a Catholic school and he has some images with church exteriors and shrines, all in a sort of brutalist style. The texture of the paint is kind of metallic and dense. Really unusual.
[User Picture]
Date:January 27th, 2012 11:54 pm (UTC)
Oh, I want to see those!
[User Picture]
Date:January 28th, 2012 05:03 pm (UTC)
I went to see them again today, and it was interesting to hear the curators speak about them. I don't think they quite understood them. They were saying they were 'depicting a very English type of despair'. But I don't think they do at all.
[User Picture]
Date:January 29th, 2012 12:13 am (UTC)
No, I don't see that myself. It seems to me that by removing text and human figures from the landscape he's almost deliberately avoiding the images that are usually used to signify 'despair' in representations of working-class space. They seem sort of expectant to me - maybe I'm thinking of a passage in de Certeau's The Practice of Everyday Life which I read recently, about the way that people practice space, and make it hospitable to them - here are the notes I made on it:

Distinction between tactics and strategies on the basis of 'the types of operations and the role of spaces: strategies are able to produce, tabulate and impose these spaces, when those operations take place, whereas tactics can only use, manipulate and divert these spaces'. Example of 'a North African living in Paris or Roubaix (France) [who] insinuates into the system imposed on him by the construction of a low-income housing development or of the French langauge the ways of "dwelling" (in a house or a language) of his native Kabylia... Without leaving the place where he has no choice but to live and which lays down its law for him, he establishes within it a degree of plurality and creativity. By an art of being in between, he draws unexpected results from his situation', p.108.

Somehow the absence of official signage and human use makes this, for me, into a picture of 'the art of being in between' itself.

But there's also something very moving about the sheer photorealism of it: this exists and is worthy of being recorded, attended to, considered as (if) beautiful, not simply because it is a metaphor for POVERTY or DESPAIR or CRIME or (all the ways that housing estates usually get signified in visual culture).
[User Picture]
Date:January 31st, 2012 09:36 am (UTC)
When I started reading that quoted text I was thinking 'I am not going to understand this', but I really agree with what he says: 'Without leaving the place where he has no choice but to live ... he establishes within it a degree of plurality and creativity.' Absolutely right. And living in working class spaces is not a pitiful act, it transforms the spaces. Perfect quote.
[User Picture]
Date:February 1st, 2012 01:13 am (UTC)
When I started reading that quoted text I was thinking 'I am not going to understand this'

Ha, yes! The distinction between strategies and tactics is a famous thing in de Certeau, so when I read this for the first time last week I was looking out for it, but then the abstract definition didn't make sense at all till the examples came in. But I think you need the whole quote, the idea of strategies/tactics explains why he uses the examples he does and the examples clarify what the strategies/tactics thing means. Glad it worked for you with the pictures, too.
[User Picture]
Date:January 29th, 2012 09:39 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the tip - it's a very tempting trip.

I can't see the "despair" element at all in your images. For a start, if you want to show despair on that sort of estate, doesn't the conventional language involve not clear bright colours under gorgeous skies, but grey cloud and grey buildings falling apart.

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