BY Tom Morton in Features | 05 MAY 02
Featured in
Issue 67


George Shaw

BY Tom Morton in Features | 05 MAY 02

'Long after the judges, marshals and time-keepers had gone home I remained at the finishing line in the descending gloom of the late winter's afternoon to watch the last of the runners crawl across the end marker. Those who fell I helped to their feet, I gave handkerchiefs to bloody noses, I thumped vomiters on the back, I massaged cramped calves and toes - a real Florence Nightingale, in fact, with the difference that I felt an elation, a gay fascination with the triumphant spirit of human losers who had run themselves into the ground for nothing at all. How my mind soared, how my eyes swam, when, after having waited ten, fifteen, even twenty minutes in that vast, dismal field, surrounded on all sides by factories, pylons, dull houses and garages, a cold wind rising, bringing the beginning of a bitter drizzle, waiting there in that heavy gloom - and then suddenly to discern on the far side of the field a limp white blob slowly making its way to the tunnel, slowly measuring out with numb feet on the wet grass its micro density of utter futility. Ian McEwan, Homemade (1975)

No one's playing on the damp suburban football pitch depicted in George Shaw's Scenes from The Passion: The Goal Mouth (1999). No one's warming up, no one's running wheezy laps and no one's snuck over the low wooden fence to drink or fight or fumble, even though there's nowhere else to go. Past the scarred turf of the goalmouth, through the chipped enamel posts, we can see the stained concrete houses of Coventry's Tile Hill council estate. Although their window fittings are a bright zinc white - retouched wooden sills in the rented accommodation, sturdy plastic frames in the owner-occupied homes - the panes themselves are as dark as blackout curtains. Perhaps they're a memory of the Luftwaffe bombing raids that devastated Coventry during the 1940s, lingering in the closed eyes of the city's postwar houses. But if the black windows are a security measure, Shaw's flat beige sky makes them a pretty futile line of defence, the dismal gesture of people accustomed to losing and half-expecting further defeats.

Another possibility is that the inky panes hide dirty little secrets. It's something we've come to expect from suburbia - a sweaty underbelly concealed beneath well-laundered leisurewear. David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986) has become shorthand for this particular trope, although its American brand of picket-fence horror can't be neatly grafted on to England's out-of-town estates. Suburbia is a destination in the USA: a place to go to live well, swim lengths in private pools and rehydrate with freshly squeezed orange juice. Poor English suburbs are somewhere to escape from, to cities where social problems have a sexier edge or to idyllic villages that admit no problems at all. Walking in the fields surrounding Blue Velvet's Lumberton, Kyle MacLachlan discovers a severed ear. The scrubland of Tile Hill doesn't bloom with such visceral nastiness, although if Kyle looked carefully he might come across a few papery scraps of flesh. George Shaw's Souvenirs (1999) shows a dank swatch of saplings, ivy and dead leaves littered with pages torn from a porn mag. Imagining their gradual decomposition into the mulchy ground, we start to think about abandoned desires and guilty stashes of blue movies, about disappointedly exchanging sex for its image and communion for fretful onanism. These are the horrors hidden in Coventry's municipal bushes: melancholy travesties of D. H. Lawrence's sex 'n' shrubberies aesthetic rotting away until they're so much compost. No wonder suburbia is English pornography's preferred setting - it's in the suburbs' very earth.

Compost, though, can make things grow. George Shaw was raised among Tile Hill's shops and streets, its muddy copses and bleak lock-up garages. Like most kids with dreams, he left for the city. During his MA at the Royal College of Art, London, he took a trip back to his parents' house and started photographing the landscape of his adolescence. These shots became the basis for an ongoing series of paintings charting the estate's topography, a concrete litany of nowhere places. Rendered in the glossy gloop of enamel model aircraft paint, Shaw's pictures pick out Tile Hill's tiniest details: the piebald shadows on the back of a police station, the sun beating down on mottled paving slabs, Christmas lights glimmering wetly through a distant pub window. Puddles feature a lot, as do ponds and slick, moist asphalt. Maybe these shiny surfaces are intended as a kind of mirror, reflecting some flicker of recognition in the viewer's face. Most of us remember places like The Forgotten Pond (1999), spots to build dens and bury secrets, to smoke stolen cigarettes and kiss the third prettiest girl in school. As a kid, you never see adults in these locations (though, like low-rent pixies, they leave you gifts of broken mattresses and occasionally, thrillingly, dirty magazines). Childhood's Wild West, these sites are an undiscovered country five minutes' walk from your front door, a new world waiting to push you into a new shape.

Shaw's paintings are suffused with an odd light - his skies are blue or yellow or pink-tinged grey, but the sun never makes an appearance and clouds never punctuate the heavens. Childhood memories favour cloudless days, though, so perhaps this makes sense if we think of Shaw's pictures as remembered landscapes. Although they're based on photographs, these images resist the blurring the camera lens imposes on distant objects. The foliage on the furthest trees in The Way Home (1999) is as carefully delineated as the orange leaves dotting the foreground, a stereoscopic vision to rival William Holman Hunt's Our English Coasts (1852). It's as if Shaw has returned to the scene a thousand times, focused intently on every leaf and lesion on the boughs of the skinny silver birches. And, of course, he has. After navigating this path on countless afternoons the details he's picked up have become compressed into a diamond-hard image, twinkling from every facet. Shaw's Humbrol enamels only add to this effect. Brilliant at capturing looking-glass surfaces, they're pretty ineffective if you want to model something as complex as a bushy tree with a handful of brushstrokes. The medium forces Shaw to build up the woodland leaf by leaf, overlaying them one by one like tiny, discrete memories.

The overexposed clarity of Shaw's paintings reflects the miniature world of the adolescent, circumscribed by home, school and the secret spaces snaking off the path between the two. Only someone living a life like this could proclaim The Blossomiest Blossom (2001) the blossomiest blossom. Brushing its patchy pink confetti against the side of a lace-curtained semi, Shaw's tree is like the school football hero or your big brother's girlfriend - the most dazzling thing imaginable until you leave home and see a little of the wider world. The painting elicits a funny mixture of nostalgia and hope (after all, Shaw's long flown the nest), but then you realize there are probably kids who'll never leave Tile Hill, and this is the best blossom they're likely to come across. As with the porn cluttering the woodland of Souvenirs, the tree's a tatty consolation prize for falling at the first post in the race out of the suburbs.

Maybe it's the times, but I can't help thinking something terrible is about to happen in Tile Hill's forgotten places. Something involving children hurting other children, something that'll make the front page of the tabloids and throw police tape up around the busted garage doors of Half Term (2000). Walter Benjamin once asked 'is not every spot of our cities the scene of a crime?' Looking at Shaw's paintings, it's hard not to feel the same way about England's suburbs. The most threatening sites in Tile Hill aren't the lonely ponds and clearings but the areas where the grey estate fades out into scrappy, untamed nature. A black mouth sunk into a roadside hedgerow, The Opening (2001) seems to invite feral kids into its maw. Perhaps these intimations of death are the reason Shaw included a pencil drawing of the serial killer Peter Sutcliffe in the catalogue accompanying his exhibition 'The New Life' (2001). Looking like some late-Victorian paterfamilias, Sutcliffe stares out of the image with a half-smile playing across his thick lips, waiting for his next kill to be discovered in an abandoned allotment or scrubby swatch of wasteland.

Shaw has described how each of his paintings 'almost becomes a headstone marking a memory or perhaps a moment, dead and passed'. What's really interesting, though, is who lies under these slabby monuments. As a teenager, says Shaw, 'I simply couldn't make up my mind whether to be Jimmy from Quadrophenia or Millais, Oscar Wilde or Dennis Potter, Alan Bennett or Samuel Beckett, Morrissey or Francis Bacon.' These are the bodies Shaw's interred in Tile Hill's damp earth, fertilizing the porn-fed soil with the rich blood and bones of his idols. Really leaving the suburbs involves killing off your childhood heroes, those sparkly fictions that gave you your first glimpse of an escape route. This, I guess, was Shaw's mission on that decisive trip home. Coming not to praise Jerry Dammers but to bury him, it was only by returning his gods to Tile Hill that he was able to paint the place with such steady, warm absorption.

Shaw sometimes prefaces his paintings of Tile Hill with the words 'Scenes from The Passion'. As with Christ's slow walk to Calvary, trudging around the suburbs involves stumbles and falls, confusion, sadness, occasional joy and interruptions, with unbearable pain waiting at the end. A lot like the race described in Ian McEwan's Homemade (1975), then, except that Jesus found a new life when he reached his destination. Along the road he left a self-portrait, an image of himself seared into the cloth Veronica used to mop his sweat-soaked face. Even the best of us, it seems, leave something of ourselves behind.

Tom Morton is a writer, curator and contributing editor of frieze, based in Rochester, UK.