Tuesday, 24 May 2011

George Shaw at the South London Gallery

The Sly And Unseen Day is George Shaw's touring show ahead of the Baltic Turner Prize exhibition, for which he is shortlisted. It's a concentrated exhibition, a collection of eighteen paintings rendered in Humbrol enamel, the paint used by model enthusiasts to paint their miniatures. The paintings themselves are not miniatures but invariably of a medium size (Ash Wednesday at 91cm x 121cm is typical). They are all landscapes centred around the West Midlands Tile Hill estate where Shaw grew up and are empty of figures, deserted but not automatically desolate.

The most striking thing about these pictures is the effect of light - light hitting the surface of the paintings, the light of the scene caught in the painting and the effect of the paint in trying to get that that across. The gloss of the paint doesn't make viewing the pictures hard work. I was reminded of Gary Hume's gloss works although the finish is different for the more familiar Hume who uses blocks of colour where Shaw's brush technique seems more traditional. The low (surprisingly low) lighting of the South London Gallery meant that there was little interference with reflected light, though I found myself squinting quite a bit.

It's the quality of the light that Shaw manages to generate within the pictures that's most remarkable. Almost all of them have the quality of dusk lit up by a distant, bright evening sun - or a sun lighting up a landscape that's still under the cloud of a recent heavy shower. Indeed, Scenes from The Passion: The Library and the Back of the Triple Triangle Club (2000) does show a corner of the estate wet with rain, doubling the palette of dark textures. This effect of the light lends the pictures a subtle, cinematic intensity as if images caught in memory. It would be interesting to know whether or not Shaw paints on location, from one of the many the photographs he has taken of the site or whether the pictures are indeed from memory.

One of the more dramatic is The Time Machine (2010) featuring a Gilbert Scott telephone box whose existence in the scene is not quite so incongruous as the strong red of its body colour. This is perhaps the one thing that Shaw has in common with Edward Hopper, another chronicler of the empty scene, who invested his landscapes with meaning through the palette rather than composition (though Hopper is wistful where Shaw is dramatic, or even portentous).

Even at the other end of the scale, in a picture such as Ash Wednesday, 8.30am (2004-5) whose bright morning light throws the foreground into virtual silhouette, the light is still disturbing. The supernova yellow of sunrise is surreal and absorbs the attentive brushwork meted out to the tree to the right.

Despite their hyper realism and familiar domesticity, the paintings are not especially narrative. Rather their veiled luminescence is the principal point of reflection, drawing the viewer in consider - or rather, reconsider - the prosaic scene. I think the paintings are, technically, exceptional. I found myself tantalised but not sold on the quality of the paint and colouring though, as if the idea has yet to find its final maturity. I do recommend paying the exhibition a visit however. It runs in Camberwell until 3 July.

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