“You don’t find yourself in nature, you lose yourself” – G. Shaw
I am meant to go to a couple of exhibitions on Thursday at the National Gallery and the Tate. We were told to do a bit of research on one of the artists we are going to see: George Shaw, who is the artist in residence at the National Gallery. Of course, being the google search/ wikipedia enthusiast that I am, I went a bit mad with my research. Now don’t expect some sort of ridiculous insight into the George Shaw trivia world (I wasn’t that crazy), but I am basically making a follow up post on the same subject, after my visit, redundant.
To my defense, I couldn’t help it.
One, because I was at work when I googled George Shaw (I really hope my boss is not reading this).
Two, because as soon as I saw the first image come up on the screen, I realised I was familiar with this particular painter. I had already read an article on him a couple of years ago. This is one of those rare instances when I prove myself “aware” of the contemporary art world.
So instead of waiting until my visit on Thursday for a more detailed and insightful report, I decided to write this post now. Why? Because seeing George Shaw’s paintings today brought me close to tears. I know. I am pathetically emotional and I will blame it on my latin blood.
I had to exercise great self control not to fill this whole post with pictures of his paintings. It is well worth a dive into the rabbit hole that is image searching on the internet, and I encourage whoever might be reading this to do so if they are not familiar with this painter.
What impressed me most was the way he captures light- like a modern Turner. But it’s not just that. It’s the light combined with the subject matter, I think. The ordinary, day to day, urban landscape; the kind of images we pass every day, the sort you might actually notice briefly and you’ll say: “oh, that looks nice, even though it’s just a bit of wall and tree, maybe I’ll instagram it”. And you do. Or I do. And then I look at the picture, wriggle my nose in dissatisfaction and then forget to ever look at it again because it just doesn’t capture the same atmosphere I saw with my own two eyes. For me, that’s what Shaw does. He captures the ordinary as we might see it when the light is right and our mood receptive enough. But he doesn’t do it in a glorifying sort of way. He doesn’t go: look at the magic! He represents it quietly and then lets the viewer do the work. We are responsible with the reading of the image. He paints it. But just as the old philosophical debate goes: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”, does a painting speak, if there is no one there to see it? I’m not sure how much sense that makes. It did in my head… at some point anyway.
In his interview for the National Gallery, Shaw also states that you don’t find yourself in nature, you lose yourself. And then he goes and defines the experience of going to a gallery as stepping outside the world. He prefers the painting of a tree, to the actual tree. He also, quite wisely if I may say so myself, concedes that he may change his mind as he grows older.
I am not an art critic. I could try and go on talking about the special and unconventional type of paints he uses, the techniques employed, how he uses pictures as references instead of painting directly from life. But I might do it poorly so I will avoid it. There are plenty of websites out there that do exactly that, only much better than I ever might.
All I want to do is be honest and react to his art. I want to say how seeing the way he depicts light and the ordinary, or the overlooked, makes my eyes go twinkly and a bit watery. In his paintings, I see a purely human representation of the world. It’s a world that is far from perfect, filled with the ugly imprint of human urbanization, mundane and overlooked. But because we are the impossibly romantic creatures that we are, we find even that ugliness beautiful. We can look at what we’ve built, and it might not be a classical Greek statue, or a temple, but it is ours. We made it. We live and we breathe in this world and we made it ours- for better or for worse.
Maybe Shaw is right. Maybe we don’t go back to nature to find ourselves, maybe we do indeed get lost there. But isn’t that the first step to discovery?
I might have completely misread his paintings. But good art is a conversation which employs not only thoughts, but also feelings. That being said, I cannot wait to see his work in person!
(I might edit this afterwards, depending on my reaction to the exhibition.)