George Shaw: Ash Wednesday

Wilkinson Gallery, London, 2005

Sometimes you find yourself longing for an escape from the stresses and strains of inner-city life, wishing there was a door through which you could simply step and leave that life behind. Wilkinson Gallery, famously located next door to a kebab shop on a busy road in Hackney, can always be relied upon to provide exactly that kind of haven. As you walk in, and close the heavy door behind you, it really does seem as if you are in some way shutting the real world out. But George Shaw, who is currently showing a new series of paintings here entitled Ash Wednesday, seems intent on inviting the real world back inside.

As with much of his previous work, the seven paintings on display here are based on photographs and sketches of the housing estate where Shaw grew up. They form a chronological sequence of images: each one portraying a particular scene at a particular time, starting at 6am, then every half hour till 9am. The sequence, which is not hung in order, starts with Ash Wednesday: 8.30am. The painting depicts a fence running along a roadside, with a tree, but it is mostly the huge area of yellow-orange sky that dominates. The tree and fence are silhouetted against this glowing mass of colour, and speckled light splays across the road in the foreground. It’s picturesque up to a point, but there’s something not quite right about the paint itself. There’s an inconsistency, which somehow jars with the splendour of the scene. Whilst the sky is so overwhelmingly yellow and its surface so uniformly reflective and flat, the dark areas below are distinctly muddy, lifeless, and matt.

This is of course deliberate, or at least is a consequence of Shaw’s deliberate strategy of abandoning “proper” paint, and using Humbrol enamel paints instead. After all, those little pots of gloss are for finishing off the wings of model aircraft, not for giving painterly definition to the foliage visible through the gaps in a wooden fence. Ash Wednesday: 6.00am does not even claim to be offering any scenic pleasure. Given the time of day, the view is unsurprisingly murky, and the choice of subject matter hardly shines through: a tree in the foreground, behind that a brick wall, and the side of house surrounded by the dark blue of the barely-light sky. This is in many ways the most difficult painting in the show – it seems utterly uninspiring, hardly worthy of any attention – but give it time, and a quiet dignified beauty emerges. The way every brick has been painstakingly painted so clearly and crisply with these inadequate pigments, and the loving attention given to a manhole cover almost hidden amongst the bare earth – the overall impression is that someone is letting us in on a secret, a secret which we’ll never fully understand, but to them seems like the most important thing in the world.

Shaw began making these paintings when he looked back through his early work and realised what it was that interested him most, and what he knew most about – his home town. He is fond of the Camus quote that says that all art is a slow trek back to the two images in the presence of which your heart first opened. Indeed there is a palpable sense of familiarity and affection present in the paintings: a sense that these few unremarkable sites, no doubt all within a short walk of each other, contain within them a world of possibility. As a boy Shaw must have felt, as we all did as children, that nothing really existed beyond those streets, fields and woodlands in which he played. And by revisiting these sites, he re-ignites this innocent world-view, and shares it with us. In Ash Wednesday: 9.00am the day has finally fully begun. And yet, as with all these paintings, there is still nobody about. Again there is a tree in front of a wall, this time it’s a wall between two houses. The view is flat, straight-on, deadpan. The black drainpipe, the pale blue council house door, the letterbox, the half-dead ivy on the wall, the cheap curtains visible in the window – these are all given equal attention as constituent parts of this scene of normality. Shaw is giving a voice to a world which all too rarely gets a voice: the ordinary world.

These paintings aren’t social-commenting portrayals of the ills of working class council estate life – their true subject is not their “realism”. For despite their apparent naturalism these scenes do not really exist in any specific time or place. Their titles might well refer to the day on which Shaw happened to revisit the estate, but that day for him was one already loaded with memories from a catholic childhood. The power of the work is such that it retains an ambiguity as to which Ash Wednesday it depicts. Are these the views on the particular day the adult Shaw took his photographs? Or are they imagined views, seen through the eyes of his past self? What this work does so beautifully is to take a specific place – and a very ordinary place at that – and present it in such a way that it becomes reminiscent of that mini-world in which we all lived as children. We are reminded that it is from this world that all our experiences are ultimately sculpted.

Review published in Dogmanet magazine, Jun 2005.