George Shaw, National Gallery: A Study in Unobserved Human Behaviour

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For the past couple of years, George Shaw has been holed up in the National Gallery as its Associate Artist. This means that, in addition to having his own studio in the building, he has also had access to the Gallery’s extraordinary and vast collection out of hours from where he can draw inspiration for his own work.

The result? George Shaw: My Back to Nature – a wistful and emotive collection of new work that examines the effect of solitude on the human condition, what it can reveal and confront, via reimagining and transporting the mythological woodland landscapes of Titian and Poussin to contemporary scenes.

Human behaviour when we are unobserved – that is what George has brilliantly captured in this display of more than 50 new paintings and drawings. These paintings are finely detailed, exquisitely executed, enamel on canvas, rather than oils and acrylics, and the result is an almost hyper-realistic photographic appearance. You can almost feel the roughness of the bark on the trees and the crunch of the fallen leaves underfoot.

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Some of the paintings are witty, their subject almost expected – the red paint bucket needlessly emptied all over an old tree trunk, a penis graffitied onto a tree trunk titled “The Old Master”, and the abandoned (and heavily used) pornography magazines scattered across the forest floor. (The nudes of the magazine making for an interesting evolution from the idealised nudes found wandering through forests of the paintings from the Old Masters that hang on the walls of the many other galleries in the National).

But there are some more tender observations too, such as the discarded stained mattress (“The School of Love”), the blue tarpaulin dangling from bare branches, and the paintings that capture the eerie silence of an empty forest.

All of this may seem, on the surface, to be far removed from the work which first brought George to public attention – his drawings and paintings of the crumbling council estate in Coventry where he grew up, as well as other depictions of urban degeneration. Yet I do feel the connection, I do see the link.

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These are deserted scenes, as were his urban scenes, but, like them, the impact of human behaviour and activity is still visible. The scars are still visible. And they can be felt too. In some scenes, you sense that we’ve just missed something, as if people were here just moments before. In others, it’s been a while since people were near. But either way, what we are witnessing is their footprint, what they’ve left behind. What we leave behind. And how what we leave behind can reveal much about who we are.

National Gallery, London to October 30, 2016
Admission free.

All images © Courtesy : The Artist and Wilkinson Gallery, London

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