George Shaw: A brush with the ordinary

George Shaw, The Age of Bullshit, 2010 George Shaw, The Age of Bullshit, 2010 - © the artist, courtesy Wilkinson Gallery, London
Posted: Mon May 23 2011

Shock, horror! A painter of suburban landscapes is in the running for the 2011 Turner Prize. Time Out talks to George Shaw.

Over the past 15 years George Shaw has painted the post-war Coventry Housing estate of Tile Hill where he grew up. Painstakingly rendered in the shiny Humbrol enamel, more commonly used for painting Airfix models, Shaw's series of paintings (now numbering hundreds) explores the artist's own relationship to the shifting effects of time on place. In his framing of mundane subject matter - a row of garage doors, a muddy path leading to the woods - Shaw also evokes the melancholy, rather than the majesty, of the English suburban landscape. Shaw's Turner Prize nomination, for 'The Sly and Unseen Day' (first seen at the Baltic in Gateshead, and then at the South London Gallery) puts him in the perverse position of being this year's most radical Turner contender - for daring to make work in the old fashioned genre of representational landscape painting.

It's interesting that since your Turner Prize nomination I've heard you described as a 'conceptual' painter. Are you being rebranded?

'Describing my work as conceptual probably makes it more comfortable for those who find responding to it emotionally a bit embarrassing. Because the project came out of paying dues to a place that formed me, it contains a strong element of nostalgia and sentiment. If I were a true conceptualist it would have more of a chronology to it, but it's messy in the sense that I'm painting from photos I've taken at different times over the past 15 years.'

Is there a resistance to nostalgia in contemporary art?

'If you look at a lot of the work in this year's “British Art Show 7”, for example, it's equally nostalgic, just in different ways. There's a lot of use of old projectors and analogue recording equipment. There's an element of science fiction there in that you have an audience using powerful hand-held computers tweeting about watching a Super-8 film. When I look at all my photographs and then my paintings and get confused about how time flows between them, I think - well that's a pretty accurate representation of how we experience the world now.'

Have you been championed in the tabloids's Turner Prize coverage for being a 'proper painter'?

'Surprisingly, no. Those papers did what they always do - which is look for what you don't like and then bash it, rather than celebrate what you do like. Whether it's the Turner Prize, Wayne Rooney scoring a goal, or the killing of Osama Bin Laden, it's all covered in the same way.'

You also have an exhibition at Coventry's Herbert Art Gallery in November 2011. Will this be a homecoming for the paintings?

'They will be coming home in that I'm showing a different selection of pictures that will be much more identifiable by their location. If I have one regret about the project it's naming the estate. I always wanted the work to be more allegorical than topographical, about seeing something like a crisp packet on the ground, which becomes a trigger to send you off into a reverie about something else. I had to name it in the end though, because not identifying it just made people more obsessed about where it was.'

Might the estate become an attraction for art tourists?

'It's already happened is a way. Andrew Graham-Dixon made a TV series about drawings in which he included my work and when the programme aired, there he was, wandering round the estate. He went straight from Constable's Sussex to Tile Hill. I'm still not sure what that means!'

You live in Devon, deliberately far away from the art world and its social systems. Are you looking forward to the additional Turner Prize attention?

'It's always good to be put on the spot and if I can I always say yes to interviews. It would be great to be on something like 'The Graham Norton Show'. There's a lovely quote from Gilbert & George after a TV interview in which all the audience did was laugh at them, and they said “It's essential for the artist to debase himself”. I thought that was perfect. It's always good to be reminded of how ridiculous the ego of the artist is and that you're no different from any other figure in the media.