Go and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are
Or who cleft the devil’s foot.
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy’s stinging
Serves to advance an honest mind.
Song: Go and Catch a Falling Star
George Shaw began making the paintings of the landscape of his childhood in the mid 1990s. What is often mistaken for a nostalgic or sentimental reverie was in fact less a looking back as a holding on, a fear of the inevitable working of time. He was interested in routing this vagueness, this amnesia within the traditions of social realism with nods towards Mass Observation, Free Cinema and the Kitchen Sink drama as well as the paintings of the British neo romantic movement in the first half of the twentieth century. His paintings often show the council housing, municipal playing fields, shops and bus stops dwelling on the unseen and unrepresented. Shaw has spoken of the contrast between the legacy of modernist dreaming and the reality of living within such a dream, of the misrepresentation of contemporary working class experience and the mythology of regeneration. In his most recent work Shaw observes the landscape so familiar to him as an archaeological site rich with untold stories, human remains and the left overs of unknown rituals. Mounds of rubble that were once pubs or factories become earthworks, vandalized walls and signposts and unreadable graffiti are transformed into acts of devotion, and bonfires and burnt trees suggest some sacrificial ceremony. We are a witness to what the past chooses to return to us. For the most part these painted sites remain dark and the intentions of their creators obscure. He began using the Humbrol Enamel paints after discovering that they were used in the murder of a child by children. Shaw visits the same sites over and over. His earlier work used many of the Christian festivals as titles to suggest the marking of time. The Last Days of Belief is an exhibition of fourteen paintings making an allusion to both the Stations of the Cross and his first paintings in this body of work, Scenes from the Passion. In each painting the artist depicts man-made and natural objects or events in the landscape that may be interpreted as having a greater significance than was otherwise intended. Thus a mound of concrete and tarmac in a suburban street may be seen as a tongue-in-cheek monument that conjures up the spirit of Silbury Hill, the covered-up tagging on a gable-end assumes mystical unintelligible gravitas and just why are tree stumps in the woods arranged in circles? It is not too far fetched to think of the act of making the paintings themselves as having some ritual significance for each painting is curiously subtitled with a lyric from a song from 1980.
‘My world is missing the old world monuments to birth, death, the bits in-between and the bigger bit afterwards. Such things were not woven into the landscape of my youth. Stonehenge or Avebury, impressive as they are, remain second hand goods worn down by time and worn out by use, symbolic of what is no longer there. They are monuments to amnesia. I’m burying the bodies as always and piling up the shit and unanswered questions against my own disappearance.’ George Shaw.
Life should be full of strangeness like a rich painting
But it gets worse day by day
How I Wrote Elastic Man, The Fall
An attempted interview with the artist
So, we ask, what are these last days of belief? Are they days that have passed or are they days to come? The artist replies to our question with
They are always in the present (and laughs in such a way that we don’t believe a word he is saying).
What is this belief that will come to an end? In God or gods? In the commonplace or the supernatural? In others or himself? In art, perhaps?
The art I do, perhaps (but he refuses to elaborate for fear, we suspect, that it will make him look foolish).
Does he worry about being laughed at?
Of course, don’t we all? Except when we tell a joke and then we fear not being laughed at.
(And then quite unexpectedly he pipes up with)
For ages I referred to this series of works, or rather this period of working as the last days of witchcraft. Then it became the last days of magic. But I thought it read like an epitaph to light entertainment. I had thoughts of Ali Bongo or more tragically Paul Daniels with the final sentence ‘You’ll like this; not a lot, but you’ll like it’ ringing in my ears.
So, we ask, you’ve substituted magic for belief?
Yes. Belief sounds less tricksy than magic, but now I’m not so sure. A priest changing wine into blood has something of the Tommy Cooper about him; wine-blood, blood-wine. Of course he doesn’t change it, does he. The congregation just believe that it is so. Just as an audience doesn’t really believe that a volunteer has been sawn in half. Isn’t this what we call the suspension of disbelief? We call a halt to the real world for an instant. Or rather have it halted for us. Perhaps it’s a kind of contract. I keep circulating around and around certain sensations of my childhood and adolescence. One that has never left me is the etherised vacuum created when I realised Father Christmas didn’t exist. I don’t think anyone cruelly blurted it out. I just came to a conclusion, like everyone else. But I wanted Santa to be real. I wanted the cheerful fat man to come down the chimney we never had, to fill the stockings and leave presents in my corner of the living room. Why wouldn’t you? In those moments belief becomes a yearning and with it the disappointing realism that life was, and would be, overwhelmingly empty of magic, the supernatural, the extraordinary. But every now and then common matter becomes transformed, opens up somehow, allowing glimpses and peeps into another world. At the very least allowing the draught of different air from a door left on the latch.
Is that what belief is? Just a breeze?
Not even that. It’s the promise of a breeze. I live in the last days of promises.
(He sings tunelessly)
all dressed up, somewhere to go, no sign of rain. But something will change. You promised …
There are fourteen paintings in this exhibition. Bearing in mind the title of your earlier series, Scenes from the Passion, this too brings to mind the Stations of the Cross.
I was brought up a Catholic. Not a pagan or a Pentecostal. Not an atheist or a Muslim. The education was rich in imagery and being reasonably good at drawing and interested in art certain stories left deep impressions. You could say it’s all I’ve got. The damage is done. I’m not interested in exorcising it but rather exercising it. I’m drawn to probe the chink and rub the young quat. But we do have choices. Years ago someone asked me about the influence of the Stations of the Cross in my work and I said that it had nothing at all to do with Jesus and that it was all to do with the barren hard edged landscape of Bowie’s ‘Station to Station.’ Or indeed, Barnett Newman’s ‘Stations’ which look strangely like Manhattan’s subway architecture.
(He sings as tunelessly as before)
‘Here are we, one magical moment, such is the stuff from where dreams are woven …’
Santa and Jesus became one for me. I began to dwell in the slipstream of this yearning. And of course, a world of doubt. On any census my religion will appear as doubter. Show me a wound and watch me poke it. The Passion was a story that lingered, as did some other stories from my childhood; Rumpelstiltskin, The Selfish Giant, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Kes. I started making these landscapes nearly twenty years ago, far far longer than I ever lived there. Every now and then it looks like I’m done with it but there always seems to be one more image. These fourteen paintings are an attempt to bury the fucking thing once and for all.
So the last days of belief are really your own declining belief in your work?
Not really. The belief is still there. I’m just trying to bury it. A little lad buries his belief in Santa so that he can grow up once and for all, so that he can hang around with the other boys and smoke fags and buy records. Deep down he still believes in him.
Does this go some way to explain why each painting is subtitled with a lyric from a record from 1980? What’s going on here? You’d have been fourteen years old in 1980 so is that a year for each painting? What’s so important about that year?
Ha ha ha, god knows? You have these ideas and thoughts about what you’re doing, sometimes before, sometimes after and sometimes during. Either way it doesn’t take long for those same ideas to turn round and embarrass you. The saying ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ becomes rewritten in my studio as ‘ashamed if you do, ashamed if you don’t’. Bearing in mind what we were talking about earlier, my belief in what I do does seem to leak out and slowly slowly run away. As a conclusion, there lurks a temptation to destroy everything, erase it, sand it down or cover it up. Oddly this doubt never surfaces enough to put off the doing in the first place. I used to have a romantic notion that working on pictures, leaving them behind you, like so many pebbles in the woods, was some sort of evidence of being here, at least of having been here. I believed they were made out of the fear and anxiety of coming from nothing and returning to nothing. We spent most of our time being nothing don’t we? I’m reminded of the disturbing opening to Nabokov’s ‘Speak memory’. I don’t care so much about that now and wonder if I ever really did. I’m shocked by the amount of things I’ve made up to excuse an impulse. Time spent or unspent is still time. I have a deep and reasonably healthy suspicion of artists who believe in themselves and their art. It sounds like fundamentalism to me and we know where that leads. Recent history tells us fundamentalists are scared of humour. When I was younger religion amused me more than it scared me. All theory and all big ideas go up like rockets and come down like sticks. I was watching a programme on telly the other night about the sacred places of Britain. It was full of Heritage images of Stonehenge, Avebury, the Ring of Brodgar, etc. with no tourists spilling out all over them, and hardly any cars, and a presenter telling us what they all meant to the people that made them. How does he know? For all he knows they could mean nothing. All we do know is that they were built. It is there significance to the present tense that matters. When Paul Nash wrote about the spirit of English art he says it is ‘of the land; genius loci is indeed almost it’s conception. If its expression could be designated I would say it is almost entirely lyrical. Further I dare not go; except to recount history and state my faith.’ He went on to paint the landscape of his own autobiography describing his beloved Wittenham Clumps as ‘the pyramids of my small world.’ And further he (or I) dare not go…
You’ve avoided answering the question about why this music from this year?
Well, my interest in contemporary music is almost nil. I listen to quite a lot of old stuff in the studio when I’m working and the music from our first days of listening allows a kind of sensitivity I suppose. It opens up the room, the location, the moment. Music is the fuel for so many things; time travel, longing, dreaming, saying goodbye. They could be my desert island discs; the soundtrack to my anxious lounging around as I slowly starve to death or die of exposure on an island of my own mediocrity and middle age. Talking of time travel I was shocked to see that in the 1960 film of Wells’ The Time Machine the traveller stops off at the year of my birth, a month before my birth in fact, to find a world being bombed out of existence. Nabokov again! I’m beginning to realise that I’m without ambition or a sense of progression in the conventional sense. I keep my finger in my wound. Dwelling on it now it saddens and amuses me but I don’t give a shit. Its all there is anyway. To be honest, I don’t think about work that much really. Once I’ve started I regret not having thought about it more and end up feeling sorry for myself. I’m sure the painting could have been better. The next picture is always an apology for the previous one. But far from paint being the medium I’m beginning to consider that shame is how I choose to converse with the world. I remember reading a quote from Dylan, presumably Bob, chalked up on a board in a pub that went something like ‘most people don’t do what they believe in. they do what’s convenient and then repent’. But I might have got it wrong. I did have a few drinks … In almost everyway the choice of music, the songs from where my titles come, chart those very last days of belief. I mean, in that year I travelled from the social realism of things like The Specials and The Jam to the doubtful epiphanies and final farewells of Joy Division. I suppose for all of us there comes a time when growing up turns into growing old.
He gets out a tatty book and reads
Truly, though our element is time,
We're not suited to the long perspectives
Open at each instant of our lives.
They link us to our losses: worse,
They show us what we have as it once was,
Blindingly undiminished, just as though
By acting differently we could have kept it so.
Philip Larkin, Reference Back