‘The Sly and Unseen Day’ was shown at the BALTIC, Centre for Contemporary Art, Newcastle, from18 February until 15 May, 2011. A full-blown retrospective for George Shaw.

I wasn’t looking forward to writing this page. Purely because - as a retrospective, including no less than 48 of the Tile Hill Humbrols - I’ve discussed many of the paintings already, and at what I think is the optimal time: in the context of their production and first exhibiting. But now that George Shaw and I are communicating, I see the path in. Well, two paths in. The visual one being via a
film by Jared Schiller that was originally commissioned by the Guardian and made use of by Baltic in their exhibition space and online.

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Still from George Shaw. a film by Jared Schiller. Baltic Bites, 2011.

As I mention in ‘Days of the Comet’, I’d written to the artist early in January of this year, explaining what I was up to, and enclosing the pages of this website that I’d written up to that point. George’s response on Feb 4th suggested he was basically on board with my approach, which was fabulous news. And now I see how I can profitably handle ‘The Sly and Unseen Day’. That is, by wandering through it with the artist himself, chatting frankly as we go along.

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Still from George Shaw, a film by Jared Schiller. Baltic Bites, 2011.

In George’s present email, he reminds me that we had a short email exchange in 2005. I’d forgotten about this and so have looked it up. In July of that year, I wrote to congratulate him on Ash Wednesday, though the mail’s subject was ‘Golden lads and years all must’, which is an obscure - indeed, botched - reference to ‘Golden Years’ by David Bowie:

‘Hi George, Don’t get to see many shows in London now I’ve moved to Scotland, but caught yours the other week. Really loved it from press release to book. But especially the paintings. You’re mixing sweat and tears with that Humbrol paint these days, admit it!

8.30am Can still see the children skipping to school. Or at least the yellow zig-zag lines they skip along...

9.00am Can still see those verticals (porch pole, silver birch trunk and black rhone) becoming three-dimensional as the sun - the wonderful sun - continues to move up through the gears...’

Hmm. I may have loved the show from press release to book, but I must have just flicked through the latter, as I don’t seem to have it around. That would have been a wise investment, as the book is rare and expensive now and I haven’t been able to dip into it while putting together this site. Anyway, back in 2005, George replied under the subject ‘Golden fags and mags’:

‘Perhaps the child skipping along the zig-zags was mown down in the in-between place where abstract pattern meets physical death and like all the people in my work has left this mortal coil and sits in the great waiting room in the sky (where you take your place on the ripped vinyl settee to be called forward to be forgotten).’

Thanking me for my interest in his work, he put it this way. ‘Art is a forensic activity. The more fingers poking around the open wound the better. And if you don’t like it wear an Elastoplast.’

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Still from George Shaw, a film by Jared Schiller. Baltic Bites, 2011.

OK, so what about the present email, George’s reply to my mail whose subject was ‘Where have we got to?’, which is another obscure Bowie reference. Well, for a start there’s more about the pointing finger that I discuss right at the start of this site. George writes:

The pointing poking finger is a motif I thought I'd hidden. For me it has its origins in my middle name, Thomas and all the doubting it brings with it. The image of Thomas with his finger in Christ's wound is one that lingers with me. Tender, curious and strangely erotic. I called the initial paintings Scenes from the Passion to summon up thoughts and pictures from the life of Christ as I read it at school. And as you point out in your text, my age at my first solo exhibit of these works was thirty-three, the age of Christ’s crucifixion.’

Which brings back to mind that in a press release for a group show recently, the artist referenced the DH Lawrence story ‘The Man Who Died’, an odd tale which follows Christ after he’s risen from the dead, stumbling into a sexual relationship with a woman on the coast near Jerusalem. In the artist’s statement, Shaw quotes the story as follows:
‘It was the life of the little day, the life of the little people. And the man who had died said to himself: ‘Unless we encompass it in the greater day, and set the little life in the circle of the greater life, all is disaster.’

So that’s me on the trail of George Shaw, who is on the trail of DH Lawrence, who is on the trail of Jesus Christ Almighty. Where does the little life end and the big life begin? “Right here,” says doubting Thomas, sticking his finger into Christ’s wound and letting it pulse there.

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Still from George Shaw, a film by Jared Schiller. Baltic Bites, 2011.

As we stand looking at one of Tile Hill’s ex-pubs, George tells me that the line that I quote from his pamphlet, ‘Hold Your Hour’, is a reference to the pubs that Samuel Beckett drank in while living in Paris. Those lines are: ‘Rosebud. Falstaff. How do you make autobiography work for a living?’ So Beckett drank in pubs called Falstaff and Rosebud? Well, I’ll be looking out for them when I next have time on my hands in Paris. I would like to stick a finger in Sam’s wound and feel it pulse there.

In the meantime, I’m following George around the streets of Tile Hill. Indeed I’d rather be here than in Paris because it’s closer to where my heart lies: suburban Britain. We’re on Brazil Street looking at the little shop that George has painted a few times.

George Shaw, The First Day of the Holidays, 2003: Humbrol enamel on board. 43x53cm

George: “In the page on Ash Wednesday, you make mention of Brazil Street which is appropriate because the street was named after the Coventry author of teenage girl stories, Angela Brazil. She was much admired by Philip Larkin (and much parodied by Larkin, though for different out cums no doubt!) and who originally came from Preston like my dad.”

I ask about the Home series of pictures done in 2004. Because, although the retrospective contains at least four paintings of the street George was brought up in, there are none present from that particular series. I imagine that the Home page of my site might make George uncomfortable as it is in some ways more personal than the rest. Too close to the bone, perhaps?

“You are quite right to guess that the Home section of your site made me feel uncomfortable.”

“Oh, dear.”

“But the series of paintings makes me feel uncomfortable too. If you are not made embarrassed and uncomfortable by your own work then you're obviously either lying or doing it all wrong.”

“My own work makes me feel uncomfortable at times. Of course, it does. Because one is always pushing at the boundaries of taste and knowledge, style and content, and sometimes pushing too hard.”

“Some of the Home paintings are made from black and white photographs I took when I was a teenager and living at home still. When I made those paintings I had two of Larkin's poems in mind,
The Building and Home is so Sad and recall wanting the paintings to be 'shaped to the comfort of the last to go as if to win them back'. They are also a prelude to a year of hospital visiting culminating in the death of my dad.”

George’s father died in 2006. Or was it 2005? I don’t like to ask. We walk on in what I interpret to be a respectful silence. Until George says: “I like the
Maudlin Street references, by the way. It is one of my favourite Morrissey efforts. I was a witness to him performing it at the Albert Hall a million years ago.”

George Shaw, Lowlife, 2009: Humbrol enamel on board. 147x198cm

George points out the above painting in passing. What is it? It’s an underground space. Light is coming in through some kind of window in the ‘roof’. The concrete slope is what one might expect under a flyover. Steps lead up to a wall under the roof which is covered in faded graffitti. Is that solidified tar that’s once oozed from the pipe in the middle of the concrete slope? It’s a difficult image this. It’s obviously an important one to the artist, as it’s of a size with the four large paintings in ‘Woodsman’ and the three of ‘In the Days of the Comet’. I wonder if it was intended for either of these shows, and then felt not quite right for either. I don’t think it’s fair to simply ask George about it. I don’t mind asking him questions after I’ve thought about a painting for a while. But not ten seconds after first seeing the image. I feel I must live awhile with Lowlife.

Lowlife reminds me of The Opening, which is also in the show. In particular, the tar emerging from the paving stones is a similar shape to the hole in the hedge.

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George Shaw. The Opening (detail), 2001: Humbrol enamel on board. 92x121cm

Just a coincidence, no doubt. But now that we’re standing in front of The Opening it gives me a chance to ask George about Berkswell Church. Did he just charge through Tile Hill Wood and head off to the church and cemetery as I facetiously suggested in my page called ‘This Summer’?

George: “Berkswell was part of a walk we did as kids on Sundays or holidays, usually with my dad. Dad's first instinct was to leave the estate at the first opportunity. I think it was a retreat into the countryside which, to be honest, was a stone’s throw away from rows of shitty garages and wankers. The road we walked on can be seen in a selection of watercolours in the book
What I Did This Summer called ‘Sunday’.

I have a copy of the book to hand. OK, here we are. I picture young George, his brothers and sisters, accompanying George senior in a walk out of Tile Hill and into the surrounding countryside, kissing goodbye to the wankers and their garages, at least for one day:

Page from What I did This Summer, 2004.

George continues: “My dad wasn't a Catholic. Mum was but it was never that strict. Mum was and still is quite sceptical of the church. I'm not sure how much Anglicism isn't Catholic! The point is that Berkswell church was 12th century which Tile Hill was not, at least the one we lived in. It had all the romance one would associate with old churches, graveyards and memorials via art, literature and Hammer Horror.’”

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Still from George Shaw, a film by Jared Schiller. Baltic Bites, 2011.

I get the idea. In stark contrast to what met the gaze of the family at the end of the day, once they’d trudged back to Tile Hill.

George Shaw. The Back that used to be the Front, 2008: Humbrol enamel on board. 92x121cm

After George Shaw and I have been all around the show - including a separate exhibition of recent watercolours by George called ‘Payne’s Grey’, all the work rendered in the single, eponymous shade of grey - the artist takes me to a table where his painting gear is set out. Ah, yes the famous Humbrol tins.

“Possibly the most unsophisticated painting layout you’ve ever witnessed,” says George, laughing. “These are the ingredients of my art! It’s like the painting table of someone from
Last of the Summer Wine.”

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Still from George Shaw, a film by Jared Schiller. Baltic Bites, 2011.

I can’t help smiling too. “Can I have a jelly baby?” I ask, spotting the old-fashioned yellow tin.

“What colour?” comes the reply. “Blue, yellow, red, green, black or white?”

“Payne’s grey... No, sorry, orange.”

“Don’t be soft, Duncan. I get orange by mixing yellow and red.”

If, on one level, the artist seems embarrassed by the abject set-up in front of us, he points out that if he really felt negative about the paints then he wouldn’t exhibit the paintings. Besides, being embarrassed is a sign of life. People should be embarrassed more often. I agree that to blush is to acknowledge that you care what other people think.

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Still from George Shaw, a film by Jared Schiller. 2011.

I want to remind George of something he told me when we met back in the summer of 1999. I’ve forgotten almost everything about that afternoon fourteen years ago, except the things I had the good sense to write down for the magazine piece. But there was one anecdote that George told me that I didn’t write about at the time but which has stayed with me. So here goes...

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Still from George Shaw, a film by Jared Schiller. Baltic Bites, 2011.

“You told me that there was bullying at your school. And that on one occasion a bully told you to give him a particular possession of yours. You had it in your right hand. You demonstrated how you held your hand out to the bully, tight shut in a fist, and said forcefully to me (as if I was the bully):

“You can have this all right. But the only way you’re going to get it is by chopping my hand off.”’

“Of course, the bully backed down. And seeing you from where the bully saw you I quite understood why. You don’t take on absolute determination and courage. Not unless your own life depends on it.”

And what was the object that George refused to give up to the voice of a bogus authority? One answer to that is that I’ve forgotten. A better answer is that it was a pot of Humbrol enamel paint, gloss yellow, the colour that would come into its own the day George Shaw executed Ash Wednesday 8.30am.

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Still from George Shaw, a film by Jared Schiller. Baltic Bites, 2011.

‘The sly and unseen day’ is the term that Tess of the D’Urbevilles, a maiden no more, comes up with to refer to the date of her death. None of us know our deathdays. But all of us know that day will surely come. Might as well behave with strength, kindness and integrity until then, weighing things up from the opening of one day to the closing of the next.

Or, as Francis Bacon once said: ‘
The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.’

The job of the writer, likewise:

‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task has done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages;
Dandy lions and girls all must,
As keyhole-peepers, come to dust.’

Blast, I wish I would stop doing that!

Acknowledgement: The images of George Shaw’s works on this site are copyright the artist. Many of them appear courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery, photography by Peter White.