MY BACK TO NATURE (1)






It was three years ago that I went to George Shaw's show: 'My Back to Nature'. Seems like yesterday. Why so? Because on the day I was 'in the moment' and 'in the space' and find I still have good access to those co-ordinates. Plus it helps that the show has been so well documented with catalogue essays and video tours.

Shall we go round the show together, gentle browser? Yeah, let's go. From Trafalgar Square to Tile Hill, we'll put a girdle round the world in forty minutes.

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As Shaw's liked to do in recent years, there is a separate section of drawings on display. These are on a wall that you can see to the right of the information panel in the above photo.

Here, the dominant motif is the crucifixion. Fourteen Stations of the Passion, with Shaw posing naked as Christ. All figure and no wood, you'll notice. The cross is only implied in the set of 14 charcoal drawings. A reversal of what we'll find in the painting part of the show.

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Apparently, the poses are not based on paintings to be found in the National Gallery, but the version of the Stations to be found in a church in Tile Hill. Clearly, in the image below, the stage in question is having been nailed to the cross. Not before being nailed. Nor after being taken down. But actually fucking well up there. Being crucified.

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George Shaw. The Sadness of the Middle-Aged Life Model (12), 2015. Charcoal on paper. 61 x 46cm

Shaw has titled these drawings ironically: The Sadness of the Middle-Aged Life Model. The above being number 12 of 14. Shaw's back to wood.

But let's get to the paintings which hang in the Sunley Room. As you can see, a large painting dominates the wall at the end of a long, wooden-floored corridor, beckoning us in.

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Still from. Waldemar Januszczak meets: George Shaw, Artist in Residence at the National Gallery. ZCZ films

Does it feel like we are walking into a dark place? Yes. Are we in Tile Hill Wood or the National Gallery? Both, is surely the intention. So let's see how that works out.

Getting closer to that first big picture. The three smaller ones feature empty bottles of cheap wine in the undergrowth (the small painting on the left of the three) and pages torn from porn mags scattered on the ground (the two pink paintings on the right). Material that adolescent boys and men used to wank to pre-internet. Why did the pages end up scattered on the ground in woods? I'll explain soon enough.

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Still from. Waldemar Januszczak meets: George Shaw, Artist in Residence at the National Gallery. ZCZ films

I'd show you a proper reproduction of the large image at this point, and tell you its title, but it's not reproduced in The National Gallery's fairly comprehensive My Back to Nature catalogue. Nor is it included in the Yale retrospective catalogue. However, it's seen in passing in a four-minute film in which Waldemar Januszack interviews George Shaw. Let me continue to use images from that:

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Still from. Waldemar Januszczak meets: George Shaw, Artist in Residence at the National Gallery. ZCZ films

A log to sit on. A log on which people have sat, drinking cans of beer. A good place to sit and consider those three smaller pictures. I can see Waldemar and George sitting on the log, chatting about the show. Or I can envisage myself sitting there mulling things over with the help of a can of lager. Let's go with the latter for the moment. From where I stand in front of the log at the end of the corridor in the Sunley Room - or from where I sit on the log in a Tile Hill wood - I have a good view of the following:

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Still from. Waldemar Januszczak meets: George Shaw, Artist in Residence at the National Gallery. ZCZ films

Cheap wine, right? Again this painting is not reproduced in either of the two aforementioned catalogues, but I've found it on the web and its called Three Afternoons (Study for Drunken Silliness).

Just as I'm tempted to conclude that the official photographer must have missed this whole corner of the show, I find a picture of one of its four paintings in the National Gallery catalogue. Here it is. The Tossed, like Three Afternoons, is a small picture.

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George Shaw. The Tossed, 2015-2016. Humbrol enamel on canvas. 33 x 36cm

So what's going on? Well, it might be tempting to conclude that a couple of lads were in the habit of coming here, drinking together and tossing off to porn mags. But that is not how I interpret the scene. The drinkers and the tossers would not be the same people. The drinkers are encouraging blood to the brain, all the better to think with. The tossers are encouraging blood to flow elsewhere. The drinkers may be solitary or sociable. The tossers would have been on their own in the wood.

Let's not be too dismissive of the tossers. The houses of Tile Hill are not that big and it may not have been easy for adolescents in particular to find the privacy in which to achieve their daily orgasm. (I'm using the past tense, because as I've already mentioned this would have happened in pre-internet times.) Locking the bathroom door was one option. But locking bathroom doors in busy households soon attracts attention. As does carrying glossy magazines from bedroom to bathroom. Hence, slipping out to the woods. And then, with orgasm achieved, with the sex drive gone without trace and a consciousness of the sordid nature of the whole messy business suddenly uppermost in the male mind, guilt even, the urge was to get rid of the evidence. Hence the dumping of what were expensive magazines.

We need a break from this. And the artist provides a break when we emerge into the main space of the show. First, three large paintings of single trees. Taken together the three represent a Calvary. This is certainly what Shaw is getting at, titling the triptych
Hanging Around. The crucifixion of Jesus and the two thieves.

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Funnily enough this view has David Bowie associations. That haunting video he made featuring a Calvary set-up just before he died in January, 2016. That's a few months before this show opened and probably irrelevant to its inspiration.

So let's get back on track. The two thieves. What was their crime? To have stolen glossy magazines from back street newsagents in Jerusalem? And Jesus's crime? He was dying to save other people's sins. If Jesus had never existed, men would have had invent him. To deal with socially induced shame over the sex act. Do I mean the sex act or the sex drive? Comes to the same thing.

That's us gone through A, B and C in the diagram of the show that I've placed below.

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Next up are ten paintings, all the same size, effectively the size that Shaw used for his 1999 show 'Scenes from the Passion', nine of which stretch across the wall adjoining the tree triptych. First, a photo of seven of them, before I approach each one. Again this is a still from a video and I couldn't get a view of the pictures without including the sub-title.

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Still from George Shaw: My Back to Nature, directed by Jared Schiller, National Gallery, 2016,

Don't be sad, George, three years on I'm doing my best to put the show up again. Though I'm not going to talk about these ten pictures in the order they were hung. Instead, in an order that works for me writing about them.

One introduces a new motif, the blue cloth, which plays an important part in the culmination of the show. Mark Hallett tells the story in his 'Dark Pastoral' chapter in GS:ACoaFF. Shaw was walking in the woods near Tile Hill when he encountered a half-submerged piece of material, a tarpaulin, actually green-brown in colour. He photographed it where it lay, the basis for the painting below. The blue is a colour that crops up in many classical paintings, particularly on women's dresses, especially wrapped around the Madonna.

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George Shaw. The Uncovered Cover, 2015-2016. Humbrol enamel on canvas. 46x55cm

Shaw picked up the green-brown tarpaulin and draped it over a nearby tree, taking another picture, which was made into the painting below. One notes in passing that this kind of interference is not what Shaw usually indulges in when making pictures of Tile Hill. In documenting the changes in Tile Hill, and the changes in the Tile Hill that exists within himself, the painter doesn't usually need to have recourse to 'making it up' in this way. He has enough room for manoeuvre without that, in that he has thousands of photographs to choose from. Moreover, he can always take more, from whatever angle he likes, framing a scene to suit his purposes. Which is not to say he doesn't make some changes. There are occasions when he does, adding graffiti onto existing graffiti. God, Im going around in circles here.

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George Shaw, The Living and the Dead, 2015-16,Humbrol enamel on canvas. 46x55cm

Anyway, Shaw then draped the cloth over another tree. It didn't look so good like that, he felt, but when he returned the next day it had slipped down the branch somewhat, and, to his eyes, it seemed perfect. Really? Can we see this aesthetically satisfying result? Of course. That's one of the things we're leading up to. It's just that we're getting there one step at a time, as I imagine George Shaw did. Here's a triptych of N.G. Madonnas to be going on with:

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Titian, The Aldobrandini Madonna, 1533, Oil on canvas. Raphael, The Garvagh Madonna, 1510. Bellini, Madonna of the Meadow, About 1500-1505.

Why the different colours of blue for the Madonna's robe? Perhaps Matthew, Mark, Luke and John used words like 'cerulean', 'cobalt' etc fairly indiscriminately. After all, they were never quite singing from the same hymn sheet in their accounts of other aspects of Christ's life and death. Maybe blue - any blue - is the best colour to complement any baby's skin tones.

Next, here's
The Foot of a Tree. Cute isn't he? At first I read the 'head' of this tree creature as a Pope's head, Francis Bacon-style, with elongated hat. But it's possible to see the 'eyes' as sitting quite high in the 'face', above a long 'nose'. In any case, it's a feisty creature with its pointed 'breasts' and its bold 'cock'. Actually, I see the creature doing a little dance, his left 'leg' becomes his right 'leg', the 'breasts' become 'arms' and another spur of wood takes over in the 'cock' department. Can you see?

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George Shaw. The Foot of a Tree: Humbrol enamel on canvas. 46x55cm

Shaw is animating and anthropomorphising the wood. In particular with sexually active men, with their objects of desire, and with the crucified.

"
No show without Punch." Who said that? "Putcha, putcha, putcha."

Nervously, I move on, but I've clocked that.

Two paintings, called
Recto and Verso, are hung together as a pair within the set of ten in the Sunley Room. Recto and verso are terms applied to pages in a book. Recto is the right, or front side, and verso the back.

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George Shaw. Verso, 2015-2016, Humbrol enamel on canvas. 46x55cm. George Shaw. Recto, 2015-2016, Humbrol enamel on canvas. 46x55cm

It's the same tree viewed from opposite sides. In Verso, it looks as if a crucified figure is being swallowed by the tree. Or is the figure emerging from the chest of the tree Alien-style?


The picture I need to foreground next is The Heart of the Wood. I've little doubt that the title is, at least in part, a reference to the phrase 'The Hart of the Wood', a term that crops up repeatedly in Russel Hoban's novel, Riddley Walker. Shaw references that novel in a discussion with Jeremy Deller that took place in summer 2017. The action of the novel takes place in a fictional future, after a nuclear holocaust, when scientific knowledge has been lost and language has mutated into something only just recognisable as English, full of mis-spellings, misunderstandings and superstition.

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George Shaw. The Heart of the Wood, 2015-2016, Humbrol enamel on canvas. 46x55cm


What we have here is a fire pit, surrounded by chunks of tree. People must have hunkered down within the orbit of the fire, hunkered down with a tin of beer. Maybe one of them had a copy of Riddley Walker to read aloud from.

''There is the Hart of the Would in the Eusa Story. That wer a stag every 1 knows that. There is the hart of the wood meaning the veryes deap of it that's a nother thing. There is the hart of the wood where they bern the chard coal thats a nother thing agen innit. That's a nother thing. Berning the chard coal in the hart of the wood.'


Which is what might be happening here. Do you begin to feel the power of language as it mutates from one meaning towards another? A group of people sitting around the fire. Remember that funny little wooden guy from a few images back? He might be Punch, part of a puppet show. He says plenty in the book, but I don't think it's him that says:

'Seed of the little
Seed of the wild
Seed of the berning is
Hart of the child.'


And so story-telling fills the vacuum. Soon the forest is full of yearning, gibbering, suffering and sacrifice. It's only a matter of time before someone is nailed to a tree. Again.

'The fires col
My story tol.'


I doubt that. Having introduced Riddley Walker into the mix, it's not going to be easy to abandon the book or him.

'When the yeller boy
Fynds the pig shit
In the Hart of the wood.'

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George Shaw. Natural Selection, 2015-2016, Humbrol enamel on canvas. 46x55cm

Of course, Shaw didn't stumble across freshly torn pages from porn mags in the woods around Tile Hill. He has set up the picture himself. Again, he wouldn't have done that for the main stream of his Tile Hill work, I don't think. But this National Gallery project is different. George feels the desire to change the rules of the game - his game - in order to respond to the Old Masters he's coming across. By half-way through his residency, he was painting onto canvas rather than wooden boards. Though, as we'll see, he stuck to humble Humbrol throughout his time here.

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George Shaw. The Old Master, 2015-2016, Humbrol enamel on canvas. 46x55cm

So the question is, did Shaw come across this coarse symbol drawn on a tree, or did he put it there? If The Old Master had been pre-My Back to Nature, I'd have been fairly confident that it was something he came across. But in this context it could well be by George's hand.

That picture is paired with the following one. It's called
The Old Country, so again I suspect there is punning going on.

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George Shaw. The Old Country,, 2015-2016, Humbrol enamel on canvas. 46x55cm

Let's bring the old master together with the old other, courtesy of a quote from Riddley Walker.

'Erny says, "I were hoaping for a look at Pooty. Just a littl glimpo you know."

Punch says, "No, I don't know. You don't need no look nor you don't need no glimpo you can see her by her pongo. All you nead to do is breave deap and youwl get the woal picter of Pooty right a nuff. Youwl see the 3s and the Ds of her so sharp youwl think you can grab a hanful."'

What a literary achievement Riddley Walker remains. Cult reading from the day it came out in 1982. George Shaw would only have been 16 then, so presumably he didn't read it until a few years later. On the other hand, Riddley was only 12 when he killed 'parbly the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs', so you never know.

This final painting in what I'm calling a sub-set of ten is placed round the corner from the other nine.

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George Shaw. The School of Love, 2015-2016, Humbrol enamel on canvas. 46x55cm

Perhaps the man who has become the tree shown in The Old Master and the woman who has become the tree in The Old Country once bounced around purposefully on this mattress. Down to earth or what? Which may be why Shaw has given this painting the title. The School of Love, referencing as it does that most romantic of paintings by Corregio, housed here in the National Gallery, in which the handsome Mercury and the winsome Venus, both naked in their bodily perfection, are playing with Cupid, a golden-curled cherub.

Question. Which is the most 'old school' as far as love is concerned? This painting:


Coreggio, Venus with Mercury and Cupid (The School of Love), 1525. Oil on canvas., 155 x 94cm

Or this unofficial triptych?:

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George Shaw. Titles as above.


The small scale of the latter in repro might tempt you to answer the former. But my question was't the right one, and both the Coreggio painting and these Shaw paintings hit the spot.

Note that the ten Shaw paintings I've been discussing here are dated 2015-2016. The painter told Hallett that he tends to have several pictures on the go in his studio. This stops him getting bogged down in the background, say, of any one image. It keeps him motivated to paint from 6.30am in the morning, until seven or eight in the evening.

Having said that, the 2015-2016 dating is used so widely throughout this exhibition that it's more than a batch of concurrently made paintings. Shaw has clearly decided to date paintings this way even if they were 2015 or 2016. Not for the first time, Shaw emphasises the collection of paintings, not just the individual painting.

The 46 x 55 cm series is brought to an end in the Sunley Room by the placing of a single large painting. Though again the size, 121 x 92 cm, is a familiar one in Shaw's
oeuvre. Behold The Tree of Whatever:

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George Shaw. The Tree of Whatever, 2015-2016, Humbrol enamel on canvas. 121 x 92cm

At first sight it reminds me of a climactic scene in George Orwell's Coming Up For Air, a title that George Shaw used for a 2017 painting. The 46-year-old protagonist of the novel, another George, has gone in search of a deep pond in which large, mysterious fish used to swim during his childhood. He discovers the pond to have been drained and the resultant pit half-filled with empty tin cans. He comments: 'What's the good of trying to revisit the scenes of your boyhood? They don't exist. Coming up for air! But there isn't any air. Th dustbin that we're in reaches up to the stratosphere.'

I don't suppose George was any more responsible for the presence of the cans in the heart of the tree than he was for the bed in
The School of Love. Well, no, I'm not sure of that. He may have gathered cans from the surrounding ground and placed them in the tree. Indeed, for all I know, after finishing work at seven or eight o'clock in the evening, George cracks open a few cans. Perhaps on one occasion, instead of putting the empties in his recycling bin as usual, he put a week's worth in the boot of his car and drove it from his home in Devon to Tile Hill. George knows these woods so well that he'd have been able to select a bit of woodland that he could park close up to. And a few minutes later, voila!: The Tree of Watney's-Whitbread-Whatever.

In Riddley Walker, the eponymous protagonist makes his way to the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral, which has survived the holocaust. He calls it: 'A stoan wood unner the groun the hart of the wood in the hart of the stoan in the woom of her what has her woom in Cambry.'

I've a feeling that these tin cans, with their perfect shine and smoothness, would have struck awe into the breasts of Riddley and his crew. And so the cans might have been placed in the hart of the wood. Anyway, Riddley writes:

'I don't have nothing only words to put down on paper. Its so hard. Some times theres more in the emty paper nor there is when you get the writing down on it. You try to word the big things and they tern ther backs on you. Yet youwl see stannin stones and ther backs wil talk to you. The living stoan will all ways have the living wood in it I know that. With the hart of the chyld in it which that hart of the chyld is in that same and very thing what lives inside us and afeard of being beartht.'

Riddley goes on trying to work things out. Until he comes up with:

'From now on when I write down about the tree in the stoan Iwl write wud not wood. You see what Im saying its the hart of the wud its the hart of the wanting to be.'

It seems that
My Back to Nature tour needs to carry onto a new page. The truth is, this show is less than half way through. So when you're ready for more George Shaw, Tile Hill and sundry (sundry!) National Gallery masters, please follow me onto the next page.

First, I'll show you where we've got to on my diagram. We've done A, B, C (standing for cursorily) and D….


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You'll be thinking that if we cursorily do E then we can have a seat on the bench to take in F (the
pièce de résistance) and even G. Then we'd be finished and could all go home to mull it over. Well, yes, it is tempting to do that. But we've already covered a lot of ground, which needs consolidating overnight, and there is no way I'm going to skim over E. Shaw felt these small pictures were worth painting, and he felt they were worth exhibiting. So we are going to respect his intention.

Me: "Meet me in the wood again tomorrow at 10am."

Riddley: "Trubba not."

Me:
"No trubba."




Acknowledgement The images of George Shaw’s works on this site are copyright the artist. The artist is represented by Anthony Wilkinson.