Edgelands - Prints by George Shaw and Michael Landy, review by Phoebe Dickerson
The writer Robert Macfarlane defines the ‘Edgeland’ as that ‘debatable space where city and countryside fray into one another’: it is a neglected, nameless landscape where ivy strangles graffiti-clad brickwork and knotted fists of weeds rear up through concrete and tarmac. Physically derelict and bypassed maybe, this realm beyond the high street and the retail park has, since the nineties, been subject to considerable attention. So-called psychogeographers such as Iain Sinclair and Will Self have been traipsing the margins of our ‘rureal’ world, writing its edges - perhaps somewhat perversely - into the centre of their literary productions.
To some extent, Michael Landy and George Shaw can be seen to be doing the same: in this quiet exhibition of etchings - in depths and shadows and the puzzling of greys and blacks - they give us weeds, broken walls, alleys, junctions; each image a rendering of a half-familiar zone where a jagged nature exists untamed by brick and concrete. Nonetheless, this is not a show that determinedly declares its timeliness: in their treatment of an often un-seen landscape (or details of it, in Landy’s case), these artists affirm an affinity with traditional printing techniques and figurative methods. As the Fitzwilliam Museum’s Director, Timothy Potts writes, ‘although this is a contemporary look at things, both artists are making very carefully observed drawings with long-established methods’.
Shaw’s series, ‘Twelve Short Walks’ (2005) depicts, with nuanced academic proficiency, the dilapidated overgrown surroundings of the Tile Hill council estate in suburban Coventry where he grew up. Texturally, somewhere between charcoal drawing and watercolour, the surface quality left by his chosen etching method - dust grain gravure, printing onto 279gm handmade magnani ivory woven paper - evokes damp afternoons where leaves turn mulchy underfoot and slack skies drain colour from trees and buildings. Shaw talks of his feeling of being ‘out of place’ in the landscape of his childhood and certainly these images speak of a prevailing sense of alienation in his paradoxically precise and expressive style.
Michael Landy’s ‘Nourishment’ (2002), features life-sized images of weeds, or ‘street-flowers’, the overlooked and neglected vegetation of edgelands. Collecting weeds in South London parks, around Tower Bridge and Mill Wall, he uprooted them, bandaged their roots in damp cloths, fed and watered them, and then subjected them to his meticulous study. Drawing them first on paper, then on copper, he is scrupulous in his attention to detail: wiry tickles of black lend leaves and stems the soft pricklishness of common groundsel and herb-robert. Compositionally, they are beautiful in their simplicity: its roots exposed, one image of a creeping buttercup shows stems and roots reaching out like a fan in near symmetry. Landy sees weeds as positive things: survivors: immigrants who put down their roots and thrive.
Each image on show here deserves and - in turn - calls attention to the at once desolate and frantic beauty of things and places that we have, perhaps, been programmed to ignore.