GEORGE SHAW - Nothing Strange or Startling

Limerick City Gallery of Art 10 November 2023 - 28 January 2024

Limerick City Gallery of Art
Carnegie Building
Pery Square
V94 E67F 


10 November 2023 - 28 January 2024
Preview: Thursday 9 November 5.30 - 7.00 pm

Opening remarks will be made by Dr Caroline Campbell, Director, National Gallery of Ireland
George Shaw will be in conversation with Dr Campbell at 4.30 pm




Nothing Strange or Startling – George Shaw 
Text: Ciara Hickey


Nothing Strange or Startling offers a deeply personal and poetic enquiry into the nature of home. The exhibition unfolds across five distinct chapters and explores George Shaw’s longstanding relationship with his enduring subject, Tile Hill, the suburban council housing estate where he was raised in Coventry, England.

Throughout his distinguished career, Shaw has repeatedly painted Tile Hill, where he lived with his mother, father, brother and two sisters until he left in 1986 to study Fine Art at Sheffield Polytechnic followed by the Royal College of Art, London. Though he never lived there again, he frequently returned to visit his family until his mother’s death in 2020.

In the intervening decades he has extensively mapped this post-war housing estate through his paintings. Each work is a meticulous study of its grassy verges, football pitches, bus shelters, alleyways, pavements, trees, walls, graffiti strewn gable end walls. The work seen together is an archive of the overlooked, peripheral spaces of a once progressive post-war social housing project that itself has become overlooked and peripheral as a result of the changing socio-political conditions of the past 50 years. 

Shaw’s technique of using humbrol enamel paint on board, a type of paint most commonly used on model aircrafts, is a laborious process requiring focus and acute attention to detail. The enamel paint is applied in small, almost imperceptible brush strokes to create a smooth, unified surface plane, heightening the highly detailed, photographic realism of the paintings. Though Shaw works mostly with a muted palette to depict the overcast skies and edgelands of the estate, the colour is consistently vibrant and energetic. The slow labour involved in crafting the paintings and the seemingly ambivalent observations of a place, has often characterised Shaw as an artist who holds a detachment towards his subject, creating paintings with an objective realism. On viewing the body of work as a whole however, and considering his dedication over the years to one small geographical area, the work opens up a much more complex psychological narrative around our connection to place and time. 

Until recently Shaw’s paintings of Tile Hill have excluded people. In the quietly charged scenes, there is always the implication of an action that is just out of shot, or that we have stumbled across the aftermath of an event. This is emphasised through traces of presence; a piece of left behind litter, graffiti, and other small totems. That each painting represents a backdrop to the theatre of everyday life is pertinent when the viewer considers that these suburban landscapes are places where the artist has spent long periods of his life; they have formed the backdrop to the sea changes of childhood into adolescence; are the walls where he sat, fields where he played, woodlands that he went to smoke and drink. They were places that at different stages of life offered sanctuary, security, boredom, confinement and claustrophobia. They are spaces that he has had a durational, physical and tactile connection with.  

In his novel That They May Face the Rising Sun, John McGahern observes that people who leave their home do so because it “renews and restores a sense of their own places”. Almost as soon as he left the estate, Shaw began methodically mapping it through his paintings. In the process of repeatedly returning to a place, the work documents the subtle changes taking place over time. If the works are attempts to ‘restore’ a sense of place, each painting also creates more distance between the artist and the home of his youth. 

In Mark Fisher’s collected writings, Ghosts of My Life, he writes about the idea of memory, and the traversing of the past and the present in The Caretaker’s album Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia, “The theme was once homesickness for the past. Now, it is the impossibility of the present’’. In his exhibition at Limerick City Gallery of Art, Shaw engages with the plurality of emotions and temporalities that can exist within the site of ‘home’. The exhibition begins in the foyer with a series of recent humbrol on board paintings and several works on paper that were made of the interior of the family’s house following the death of his mother and after the furniture had been removed. As a final gesture to Tile Hill and marking this final moment of transition, these paintings represent the first time Shaw painted the interior of the family home as opposed to the external environments of the estate. Once again, we are left with just the traces of the bodies that once occupied the house, the marks in the carpet where the sofa stood, a patch of discolouration on the wall where a picture had hung. As the opening chapter of the exhibition, these exquisite, quiet paintings and works on paper meet the viewer in the lobby of the gallery and establish a sense of intimacy and reflection that lingers over the whole exhibition. In the final chapter of the exhibition, Shaw shifts the lens upwards to the sky, to himself in a series of self-portraits, and to his new home in the Devon countryside. 

Formally Shaw’s works are striking for their stillness, their naturalism, their skill. Viewing the works together in this exhibition is a testament to the emotional charge of his paintings. His longstanding commitment to his subject, Tile Hill, over the past four decades and his shift towards his new surroundings, opens up questions over our changing relationship with place over time, and the complex notion of ‘home’.

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October 27, 2023