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George Shaw – My Back to Nature

A trip to the National Gallery (NG) yesterday to see the work of one of my favorite artists…

In a show entitled “My Back to Nature”, George Shaw’s new work has moved on from the seemingly humdrum Coventry urban scenes that earned him the Turner Prize nomination, and he now seems to be using his trademark Humbrol enamels to paint trees…

Lots and lots and lots of trees.

George Shaw

After his two year studio residency at the NG as an Associate Artist supported by the Rootstein Hopkins Foundation, Shaw has produced a series of paintings, sketches and studies that take inspiration from other works held within the collection.

As he walked through the galleries every day on his way to the studio, Shaw noticed that trees and woodland played a large part in many of the pieces that he liked, echoing his own fascination with those often forgotten, neglected and sometimes dodgy places he remembered from his youth.


Nicolas Poussin especially seemed to include trees in many of his paintings either as allegory (three trees in a painting will ALWAYS refer to the crosses at Calvary) or simply as a backdrop. There’s a very enlightenin video that accompanies the show in which Shaw refers to the painting below in particular, as embodying the essence of what he was trying to capture.


Poussin’s The Triumph of Pan from 1636 depicts satyrs, nymphs and animals indulging in all sorts of debauchery and naughtiness. Shaw suggests imagining the scene once all the action has finished and the characters have all shuffled out of view… What remains would be all the rubbish and detritus, the left over stuff that no one wanted, but that at some point in the earlier proceedings had seemed important enough to bring along.

Shaw felt that this resonated with his own idea that “something out of the ordinary could happen there at any time away from the supervision of adults”…

The Uncovered Cover

I have to admit that at first pass, the work on show didn’t grab me in the same way that his Coventry landscapes had. Being an architect, I don’t know whether it was a subliminal preference for buildings over trees, the urban over the rural, but the pictures were all a bit samey and the style of this new work seemed less focused, the lines less crisp and defined, more an impression of things found, rather than a visual record of them.

The School of Love


But after spending time in the exhibition, watching the accompanying film and then revisiting the work, I left with a feeling of great satisfaction., the work is accomplished, playful and thought provoking all at once. The three large paintings at the end are especially excellent and beautifully made, full of what I imagine are intentionally dark and deliberately ambiguous iconography including rood/ rude screens, porn mags littered in front of dark mysterious openings and red paint/ blood spattered trees…


Whether this work represents a maturing of style or simply a measured response to the NG collection, time will tell, but I like it very much… Fingers crossed George brings this new found confidence to his next series of urban landscapes…

Talking of confidence, Shaw has taken the decision to populate his works, as this self portrait of the artist doing what we’ve all done in the woods at one time or another attests..


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