BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead Quays, South Shore Road, Gateshead, NE8 3BA

  • WG GSHA 00169
    Title : WG GSHA 00169
  • WG GSHA 00185
    Title : WG GSHA 00185
  • WG GSHA 00281.cropped
    Title : WG GSHA 00281.cropped
  • WG GSHA 00345
    Title : WG GSHA 00345
  • WG GSHA 00364 300
    Title : WG GSHA 00364 300
  • WG GSHA 00544
    Title : WG GSHA 00544

Review by Rebecca Morrill and Guy Tindale

Forty paintings by George Shaw produced since 1996 are brought together for his biggest exhibition to date. Having seen his work in many group presentations, most recently ‘The Witching Hour’ at Pitzhanger Manor House and Gallery (2011), it was a revelation to discover that Shaw conceives his prolific output as a single project rather than individual pieces and a delight to see so much of it reunited in Gateshead.

Born in 1966, Shaw grew up in Tile Hill, near Coventry, an unremarkable post-war social housing estate, and witnessed its waning fortunes as the local car industry went into decline. Using photographs he took on his return as a young adult, Shaw set about selecting scenes to immortalise this overlooked world: orderly houses, derelict pubs, locked garages and the ‘cop shop’ alongside dead-end backstreets, pedestrian subways, battered fences, abandoned playgrounds and leaf-strewn paths into the surrounding woodlands.

While the location depicted is personal to the artist, there is also a familiarity to it, typifying a certain strand of English suburbia. Yet the number of international collectors who have lent works for this exhibition indicts a more universal appeal. On the surface the scenes are mundane but there is an underlying frisson of potential danger and mystery lurking in the shadows. This unease is heightened by Shaw’s scenes being entirely unpeopled, with many traces of human activity (eg. cars or street signs) having been removed. However the hand of the graffiti artist is habitually present, not least in ‘Poets Day’ where splatters of red paint on a boarded window resemble streaks of blood after a violent incident.

The distinctive colour palette (in which the vibrant red stands out from more muted tones, as in ‘Landscape with Dog Shit Bin’) and glossy finish is the result of Shaw’s chosen medium. Humbrol enamel is usually used for painting Airfix models kits with tiny pots of paint and minute brushes. The idea of the artist as hobbyist chimes with his subject matter, which suggests an age when model-making offered relief from the boredom of a wet Sunday afternoon.

The artist’s technical skill is undeniable and this survey offers the opportunity to witness his growing mastery over his sticky medium, from the wobbly lines in his earliest painting (‘No.57’) to the precision of the most recent works. Of particular note is his ability to paint light, capturing fleeting twilight or vivid sky just before a storm. In a curatorial coup de théâtre, the visitor turns a blind corner halfway around the gallery to be confronted with the lurid yellow sky of ‘Ash Wednesday: 8.30am’, which is more dazzling in the flesh than any reproduction reveals.

In contrast, ‘Paynes’ Grey’, the companion exhibition by Shaw on another level of BALTIC, shows fourteen previously unseen works painted, most unexpectedly, in watercolour. Here Shaw uses just one shade, which he describes as “the colour of English rain”. Reduced to monochrome, Tile Hill becomes less threatening but rather more drab. It feels like the perfect exhibition for these recession-hit times.

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