In the perpetual twilight of the woodland world, trees loom like sinister monoliths out of the gloom. Leaf-mould partially obscures a discarded garment, or a glimpse of creamy flesh. But this isn’t the leafy bower of a Dionysian revel, the sylvan setting of some nymphic adventure or even the stag-haunted gloaming of a woodland tomb. The Poussins, Titians and Constables that have surrounded George Shaw during his residency at the National Gallery are, however, all implicitly present in My Back to Nature, which exhibits the fruit of his labours over the last two years.
The young George Shaw reportedly described the contents of the National Gallery as comprising in their totality of ‘naked women and pictures of Jesus’, and this tendency to bring out the profane rather than the sacred aspects of the collection endures in his mature work. The nymphs of Shaw’s woodland realm might reside on page 3, the Madonna-blue draperies be discarded tarpaulin and the ‘School of Love’ be a stained old mattress, but the line of inheritance from the enchanted glades of the Old Masters is direct and strong. Like Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden, or the deep forest from a Grimm fairy tale, Shaw’s scrubby suburban woodlands are marginal sites of liberation, where the ordinary rules and restrictions of society do not hold sway and the unobserved human can answer the call of their more basic instincts. Bottles, cans and crumpled pornography; this is the detritus of the Bacchanal, updated for modern day Britain.
And it is, indeed, the detritus – the things that are left behind – that are key to Shaw’s woodland series. A pervasive sense of la petite mort haunts the paintings: the revel is over, innocence and novelty having been destroyed in the process. There is the perpetually unsettling sense of coming upon a scene where a taboo has been broken, where something secret and sordid and never meant for your eyes has taken place. Under the dim lights and high ceilings of the National Gallery, you are once again a child stumbling across a discarded Sun newspaper in that forgotten scrap of shrubbery between the housing estate and the main road. One of the few paintings which appears to depict the scene in medias res, ‘The Living and The Dead’ is perhaps the most startling as a result of this contrast. A blue tarp, apparently randomly caught and draped on tree branches, is also unmistakably the stalking form of the reaper, come to claim the remnants of human life, as is his custom.
There’s a strange, reverse alchemical process at work in Shaw’s paintings whereby the precious element of ‘high art’ absorbed from the vaulted chambers of the surrounding galleries has been transfigured into something cruder, earthier, but nonetheless enchanting. The familiar, sprawling mess of the urban green belt is transformed into the liminal space of the rite of passage; the scene of the first drink, joint or sexual encounter, of untold horrors or pleasures. The banal trash of human existence is made strange, totemic. An abandoned campfire is a Neolithic monument, a splash of red paint on a tree trunk, the site of ritual sacrifice, a dark tunnel between two saplings fronted by a ring of crumpled girlie mags is a gateway to hell. These images are alienating, disturbing, distressing even.
‘You don’t find yourself in nature, you lose yourself in nature’, says Shaw in the short documentary that can be viewed alongside the collection. It is, perhaps, a fitting comment on the nature of modern British landscape that an encounter with a more primitive human identity is located not in the heart of rural England, or remote forest or valley, but in what Stephen Moss recently referred to as the ‘accidental countryside’, the unloved and unlovely ‘edgelands’ between rural and urban zones. The intensive processes of land management which shapes Britain’s agricultural landscapes and even – though more traditionally thought of as ‘wild’ – our National Parks and AONBs, do not hold sway over the scruffy, forgotten wildernesses that are so often a feature of urban sprawl. These unmediated landscapes thus arguably allow for a more spontaneous meeting and merging of human and non-human, for social identities to be successfully challenged and elided.
A more puzzling counterpoint to Shaw’s sequence of woodland paintings are the self-portrait sketches ranged along one wall near the entrance to the exhibition, which portray the artist in the various tormented poses of the 14 Stations of the Cross. Perhaps a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of his juvenile assessment of the Gallery’s contents, here we see a continuity in the artist’s project of remaking the works that have surrounded him throughout his residency in his own irreverent image. All the same, these studies are less compelling than their sylvan neighbours.
Half homage, half lampoon, ‘My Back to Nature’ is never one thing. Shaw seems caught between self-effacing awe and an inability to resist poking fun at the concept of ‘high art’. The very materials he works with – Humbrol enamel paints, more usually employed by the Air-Fix enthusiast or table-top gamer, applied to cheap MDF board – show a cheeky disregard for traditional techniques. A sequence of wonderfully thoughtful and nuanced tree portraits which bear the contradictorily flippant title ‘You’ve Changed’, most brilliantly exemplifies Shaw’s ability to show us the strangeness in a traditional subject matter, giving each tree a distinct and affecting personality; an almost-human aspect that is uncanny and unsettling. Critically, Shaw’s paintings of the urban-natural wilderness facilitate an apprehension of something within ourselves, holding up a dark mirror which reflects our anti-social selves. In his capacity as an artist who uses the natural world to expose something about the human condition, however, Shaw is in excellent company, and this collection both complements and comments on the artistic traditions of the pastoral and the sublime. In an article in which she coined the term ‘edgelands’, the environmentalist Marion Shoard asked who would be the writers and artists who would do for these urban-rural hinterlands what the Romantic poets had done for mountains. George Shaw may well be the answer to this question.
By Rachel Chanter