Leading contemporary painter George Shaw grew up in the 1970s and 1980s on the Tile Hill “council estate,” a government-developed suburban community for the working-class Briton — not unlike American urban housing projects of the mid-century. When Shaw left Tile Hill to attend the Royal College of Art in London, he took his impressions of his hometown with him.
“George began this kind of novel, interesting, and innovative project at Royal College,” said Mark Hallett, curator of “A Corner of a Foreign Field,” the current retrospective of Shaw’s paintings on the third floor of the Yale Center for British Art, on view Oct. 4 through Dec. 30.
“George said, ‘The landmarks of my childhood, the icons of my teenage imagination are going to be the things that I focus on in my art,’” said Hallett, who is also the director of studies at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art in London, which partnered with the center to mount the exhibition. “‘It’s going to be nostalgic, but it’s also going to be exploratory. It’s going explore the world of my youth and the world of Britain and British culture during the period of the 70s and 80s.’” Indeed, Shaw’s hometown has been his muse for his entire career thus far and so is also the setting of every work in “A Corner of a Foreign Field,” his first solo show this side of the Atlantic.
Appropriately, one of the first paintings in the show — which Hallett said “inaugurates” the rest of the exhibition — is called “No. 57” and features the terrace houses in which Shaw grew up and where his mother still lives. His, number 57, is the one with the green door.
On the opposite wall, Hallett and Matthew Hargraves, organizing curator of the exhibition and chief curator of art collections at the YCBA, selected a parallel painting, made 20 years later, called “Mum’s,” depicting the very same terrace houses, the same childhood home. Hallett said they hope it lends a “lovely symmetry to the whole show.”
The labels of both bookend paintings note that the materials for these paintings are also identical — “Humbrol enamel on board.” Humbrol enamel is actually a brand-name modeling paint, the kind, Shaw said, “an amateur Sunday painter might use to decorate their airplane or little model boat.” Just as all the works in the exhibition share a setting, so they share a medium: With the exception of some charcoal and pencil drawings, every painting in the exhibition, every painting across his two decades’ project, is done in Humbrol.
“I’m very fond of its association with the word humble,” said Shaw about his chosen material. “I wanted to be able to make paintings that in some way introduced the concept of humility and grace in the late ’90s when the art scene was swamped with, shall we call it, the ‘sensation generation.’” These artists — christened by the media as the Young British Artists — includes Damien Hirst, who gained fame for preserving dead animals in his sculptures.
Also, Shaw added, he chose Humbrol as the tool for this project of portraying ordinary scenes from his working-class hometown because the paint “wasn’t serious.” “It wasn’t the material, like oil paint, that was made to paint Christ or the great myths of Ovid,” he said. “So, I thought, ‘Well, let’s have a go with that.’”
“Ash Wednesday” is a series of seven paintings, six of which are arranged in the second bay of the exhibition, that documents the morning of Ash Wednesday, the observed Catholic holiday that marks the beginning of Lent, from 6 to 9 a.m. at half-hour intervals. (Curators were unable to secure the fourth painting of the series, “Ash Wednesday: 7:30am,” on loan from a private collector.) Shaw worked on all seven paintings simultaneously and had originally planned to document the whole day at half-hour intervals.
After the morning images alone took him an entire year to complete, Shaw said he decided he had “other things to do with my time rather than just record my time.” Hallett said that’s how Shaw came to close the series at 9 a.m., the hour of the Ash Wednesday church service — “when the priest would mark you with ashes and remind you that you’re dust and would return to dust.”
The Humbrol enamel lends a luminous quality to the morning that Shaw captured growing and changing across the suburb that Wednesday in February 2004. The subjects of these half-hour snapshots include three trees in the yards of row houses, a quiet intersection, two dirt roads along wooded paths, and a parking lot with a brilliant yellow sky behind. Like the rest of Shaw’s work, not one features a person.
“One of the really compelling things about George’s work is the way that he takes these otherwise mundane corners of this working-class council estate and turns them into places of profound meaning and significance,” said Hallett. “They have a quality that raises them to the epic.”
Shaw often uses visual allusion in his paintings to bring in not only the original epic narrative but also its representation in earlier art historical works, said Hallett.
“Ash Wednesday: 8:00am” features the trunk of a gnarled tree, its anthropomorphic limbs outstretched and shadow cast against the gable end of a row house. “But look more closely,” said Hallett. “And it’s referencing the William Holman Hunt painting in which Christ’s passion is prefigured. In this case, the tree casts its shadow on the gable behind, reminding us of the crucifixion. The great themes of the Lenten season — death, suffering but also leading towards resurrection — are layered behind these paintings.”
When Shaw isn’t painting the Tile Hill of his youth, he’s capturing contemporary scenes from his declining hometown to comment on the shifting political present of England. In one of the final bays, the curators have staged pairs of paintings that function as the before/after of the same subjects in Tile Hill, not more than a decade apart.
“We deliberately chose these pictures to dramatize that change,” said Hallett. “George actually saw this change happening, this decline happening, pretty speedily over that period,” the early 2000s to the early 2010s. During that period, Hallett and Shaw explained, the effects of the council estate being abandoned by successive governments, much like American urban housing projects were in 1970s, became rapidly visible. This deterioration is visible in the paired paintings of a popular local pub: “Scenes from the Passion: The Hawthorne Tree” (2001) and “The Age of Bullshit” (2010).
While making these paintings, Shaw said, he had become quite interested in “the image of somebody returning to a place of familiarity after they’ve been away for a while.” He mentioned the 1968 film “Planet of the Apes” and the scene where the protagonist returns to Earth and finds New York City devoid of life, an utter wasteland.
“I imagined an apocalyptic return, like I was almost the last person on Earth,” said Shaw. “That’s the reason why there’s an increasing sense of nobody else around.”
After decline came demolition, giving Shaw reason to embark on a recent series from the early 2010s featured in the penultimate bay of the exhibition under the theme “The End of …”
The phrase completes itself with different nouns, depending on the subject of the painting: “Care” for the ruins of an elderly home; “Work” for the rubble of Massey Ferguson, a major factory in Tile Hill, which had employed thousands of its residents; “Time” for the emptiness left in place of a levelled pub, The Woodsman. Shaw himself said that the works in this bay represent “reaching the crisis of my own bleakness.”
“Even I find it quite bleak,” said the artist.
Due to the themes of his paintings, Shaw is often accused of being a pessimist. The painter conceded that that’s probably true but added that, nevertheless, he believes “deep in the heart of every pessimist is a sunrise.” In the final bay, the curators have showcased this emblem of hope as Shaw captured it in one of his recent paintings, “Sunrise over the Care Home” (2018). A cantaloupe orange sky meets blue-green soccer fields in the middle of the canvas. In the background, off to the right, the new care home — a replacement for the one demolished in “The End of Care” (2013) — peeks through stands of silhouetted trees. Centered and rising over the Tile Hill of 2018 is a perfect coin of sun.
Curating the contemporary artist
For the Yale Center for British Art, retrospective exhibitions of a living artist are rather uncommon, noted Amy Meyers, director of the center. “We all have enjoyed working closely with George … while maintaining the necessary critical distance to make all components of the project truly meaningful.”
“Striking that balance between intimacy and independence is what makes the most valuable appraisals of the work of a contemporary artist, and George has respected and encouraged our need to stand back whenever necessary,” emphasized Meyers. “The entire project has been enormously gratifying…”
“A Corner of a Foreign Field” is on view through Dec. 30, after which it will travel to the Holburne Museum in Bath, U.K., in the new year. This exhibition contains occasional images of a sexual nature that may be inappropriate for children. Parental discretion is advised. The four supplemental short films produced in support of the exhibition are available to view online.
The Yale Center for British Art (1080 Chapel St.) is free and open to the public Tuesday – Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. It is closed Mondays and major holidays. For more information, visit the center’s website or call (203) 432-2800.