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Vice Blog


February 16, 2011, 3:48pm

George Shaw is a British painter who has spent the last 15 years depicting the dullest and most mundane subjects imaginable: bland, un-peopled industrial and suburban landscapes in central England. But somehow George manages to give his images an easy, eerie familiarity. His paintings show the sullen, trivial reality that we escape with daydreams. Their atmosphere is inevitably relatable, dealing with moments and places we don't consciously perceive. George Shaw's work spans drawing, writing, performance, video, and meticulously crafted oil paintings--all of it dealing with his upbringing in the Tile Hill district of suburban Coventry. If you're in the UK, check out the extensive retrospective of Shaw's work opening at the Baltic tomorrow and running through May 15.

Vice: What was it like growing up in Tile Hill?
George Shaw: Growing up on a Council estate in the English midlands in the late 60s and early 70s might not sound like most people's idea of a good beginning but it was actually OK. My family didn't have much, but when I see young people today who have just about everything they want at the tip of their miserable fingers, I feel like giving most of them a good slap. I wouldn't swap what I had for what they've got.

Do you still live there?
No, I moved away in 1986 to go to art school in Sheffield. I certainly didn't feel like I was running away or escaping. I now live in Devon and it's a retirement dream cliche right by the sea.

How come Tile Hill became the main subject for your art?
After being in and out of art school for a few of years, I felt a little lost and thought a picture of the house where I grew up would be a suitable subject for a one-off painting; that it might be allegorical of time passing and a representation of my own journey.The first painting was followed by another and another.

Like mind-maps of your childhood environments?
Yes, something like that. As time goes on, I come to understand that the individual paintings are in fact components of one large work. I'm a great admirer of James Joyce and the ambition of his novels to contain the whole of the world, geographically, mythically, personally. Map makers generally make maps of the paths they have walked, of what they have left behind. I'm aware, though, that there is a rich history of cartographers making things up, of inventing creatures, peoples and places on the edges of the world beyond what was physically visible and possible. In some of my later work, these mysteries exist in the representation of dark corners; paths that lead to unseen destinations, curtained windows, and an atmosphere that something has happened or will happen or is in fact happening quietly and unseen.

There's definitely something creepy about them.
Of course, the real horror and mystery is that nothing is happening. Time is being unspent...

Few things are worse than the feeling of wasting away.
My work is all about the anxiety of time passing and my futile ambition to hold onto things beyond their natural life. It's an attempt to tell a story with no beginning, middle, end, or characters.

Why are there no people in your paintings?
I have no wish to tell the story of the lives of others.

Do you make the tags in your paintings yourself?
I have no understanding of tagging, it's an absolute mystery to me! I see it everywhere. It looks very corporate, like some kind of branding exercise. It's like the way some kids talk, a street talk they've learnt off the telly or from their headphones. The flow of influence looks like it's going the wrong way to me but I'm an old fart so who cares!

But there's quite a lot of graffiti on the walls in your paintings?
I hate the paintings of mine with the tags in them but I don't make the world I paint, so I have to grin and bare it. The only kind of graffiti I have a background in is the names or lyrics of bands on garage doors and the odd obscene scrawl in a toilet or two.

Tile Hill's sceneries, no matter how nostalgic, are still pretty dull. How do you stay interested in the images long enough to actually finalize these massive paintings of them?
It's their very dullness that fascinates me. I have no wish for quick answers. Most things worth having come slowly in the dark. I like being alone in the studio. I'm not in a rush to go anywhere.

You've also made a bunch drawings.
The drawings are the results of trawling through influences and dragging them through my own handy work into this map I am making. I've drawn actors, pop stars, and other mediated figures who have contributed to my journey from and my frequent returns back to my childhood landscapes. They have been guides through the wilderness.

What about the naked girls, where do they come into the equation? Are they a young boy's fantasy?
No. They are an old man's fantasy.