By Kenn Taylor
I always take an interest in art’s biggest bauble, the Turner Prize, and usually have my favourite entrants, but for once, in 2011, I was actually excited about a nominee. It was through the prize I learned about the work of George Shaw, comprising of paintings, in Humbrol enamel model paint, of seemingly insignificant places in the area of Coventry where he grew up.
Occasionally, something just speaks to you. I’m not from Coventry and my feeble attempts at Airfix as a child were limited, but his representation of abandoned pubs, bent fences, tatty lock-up garages and scrappy woodland appealed greatly to me. There was a personal recognition that the landscapes he was painting looked similar to where I grew up, but more importantly, and why I wanted him to win the Turner, was that his work felt so representative of where the UK is now as a country.
This is not to disparage Turner winner Martin Boyce’s work, which I also like. However, Shaw’s paintings seem much more significant, almost like a stark acknowledgment of a Britain brought back down to Earth after what Adrian Mole writer Sue Townsend brilliantly referred to as ‘The Cappuccino Years’. The time when we pretended everything was getting better in new modern sophisticated Britain, when really they were getting worse, covered only briefly by froth on the surface now swept away.
Coventry, like pretty much everywhere outside the South East of England, has suffered economic decline, in particular in its once thriving car industry. However Coventry’s decline was not in a dramatic, easily aesthetic way the likes of Liverpool and Glasgow did in the 1980s; cities picked apart by so many ‘social realist’ photographers and documentary makers.
Coventry’s decline was slower, almost unknowable. A breaking apart, due to various factors, of economic, social and cultural ties, something that has now enveloped much of Britain, from Dundee to Burnley, Ipswich to Plymouth. Shaw’s Coventry is neither the ‘gritty’ inner city like East London, places for the latest crop of art students to colonise, nor the ‘quaint’ leafy suburbs, but the area in between. Places where the hope of the post-war settlement, of new housing estates and modern factories and a better, more stable, more egalitarian world has decayed. Places confused, liminal, unsure of what anything means any more or where things are heading. The Britain that I know, the Britain David Cameron hasn’t got a clue about.
That’s not to say ‘The Cappuccino Years’ that led us to now didn’t have their plus points. For those of us in the arts it was a boom time. Galleries expanded and spread, audiences grew and diversified, there was cash for ambitious projects, and art entered more into the arena of mainstream culture. Now though, when I look back on so much of the work that was created at this time, at least that which dominated the public consciousness; the infamous Young British Artists, all those big public sculptures and the Tate Modern Turbine Hall projects. Grand visions assembled by armies of fabricators with money no object. Even if I like such work and still value it, I can’t help but think back into art history.
Back to the turning of the 19th century into the 20th, of the Fin de siècle, the Viennese Secession, the beautiful decadent work produced at the zenith of a culture that would soon collapse in on itself. A high point before everything that was solid melted into air, transformed by technological advances, war, depression, revolution, social change and scientific discovery. I look back and ponder that we might now be at a similar point again.
The sheer lack of monumentalism in Shaw’s work seems to me to represent the UK now. A country humbled from its arrogance that its laissez-faire, sado-monetarist system should be embraced by the world and that real industry could be replaced by finance and the ‘Cool Britannia’ cultural industries. Shaw shows instead the reality; a Britain cracked, dog-eared, confused, battered, half-shod, but in a way that is sublime and truthful rather than bleak.
His use of Humbrol model paints is also resonant. An everyday product that most people must have used at some point as children, Humbrol was once manufactured in Hull. Now it is produced in China and its old plant stands abandoned and boarded up. Hull being another place in the UK that has suffered slow, quiet, decline, ignored by those in the ever faster spinning wheel of the City of London, a wheel that has now fallen of its axis.
It was great seeing musician and former graffiti artist Goldie on Channel 4’s Turner Prize coverage from the Baltic in Gateshead. The very fact that the Turner prize was held in Gateshead, shown on Channel 4 and partially presented by Goldie is a positive product of the last ten to fifteen years, of art’s increasing popularity and expansion out of the capital and, to an extent, out of elite circles. Goldie’s open enthusiasm for fellow West Midlander Shaw’s work was also great in contrast to fellow presenter Matthew Collings, looking like Karl Marx and talking the usual jargon.
Shaw at least has been given a solo show in the Herbert Museum in Coventry, and like all Turner nominees, should see his work grow in popularity and price even though he didn’t win. Hats off to Martin Boyce, but we’ll see in decades, who was making the more important work, the work that captured the spirit of our age.
This piece appeared at a-n Online in January 2012.