George Shaw – Payne’s Grey


The Time Machine, 2010, George Shaw

I haven’t seen George Shaw’s works in person but I clearly remember seeing the first online. With a red telephone box, by some railings, in the rain. That this scene was so important he dedicated hours to capturing it shot straight to my heart. When I found out the artist sometimes wears cardigans it was a full-on crush.

I’ve devoured the paintings online. Each one seems to spark recognition, though I grew up far from Tile Hill there are common elements in that 1970s architecture and street furniture. The triangular top to a wooden fence, pale grey paving slabs as pathways, the separate block of garages – an allotment for those who prefer to tinker with grease over fertiliser.

I think they also spark recognition in those that have that melancholic mix of nostalgia, romanticism and regret sloshing around inside them, all to a soundtrack by The Smiths, of course.

There’s a longing in these works to go back to the days when time didn’t pass. When were suspended in endless days. When these scenes were the wallpaper of our small worlds and we saw them day in day out. The bus stop, the wall by the bus stop, the alley short cut, the phone box. A phone box alone can spark the sharpest memories; the stench of piss and smoke, getting out of the rain, heavy books swinging up on hinges, pages torn out, that smooth black warm receiver. Though of course time did pass, just that we were too young to notice, and now all those years are lost and time is playing its cruel joke of running faster as we get older.


Wednesday Week, 2003, George Shaw


I love that Shaw finds a place, a still, a snapshot and in that he sees balance, beauty, interest. If it’s recorded, it’s loved, it becomes beautiful.

I ordered the catalogue to his Payne’s Grey exhibition at the Baltic in 2011 in which he quotes from Richard Ullmann’s biography of James Joyce: “The epiphany (for Joyce) was the sudden ‘revelation of the whatness of a thing,’ the moment in which ‘the soul of the commonest object …seems to us radiant.”

I love the idea that this group of paintings is done in just the one colour – it should be enough – I’m one of those that never tire of telling the kids about black & white TV, and how yes, we did see colour in it.

But some of these work better than others for me. Shaw himself writes that the paintings he is most often drawn to are those that “look as though the weather has just fallen on and stained the paper as it passes through the day…” and some of his Payne’s Grey works capture exactly this. A raindrop has sploshed down with dreadful predictability, bringing with it the dark grey cloud – most especially in the painting of garages (I think it’s just called #1). Those days where cloud meets puddle and the world feels submerged.


From Payne’s Grey 1-14, 2007-2008, George Shaw

He captures sunlight on a cloudy day – from when the sun has victoriously broken through, to when it is so feeble it can barely be bothered and all the way to when it is just plain absent.


From Payne’s Grey 1-14, 2007-2008, George Shaw

There are a couple of works in the catalogue that I can’t help but feel would work better in colour. I long to see the side of a house solidify – it is just too ghostly as it is – or a strip of lush green grass to break the monotony. After all, that is what England is so good at – breaking the monotony with a patch of green. Maybe this is part of the fascination of this series, the black & white TV-ness of it – we layer our own colour where we need it.


From Payne’s Grey 1-14, 2007-2008, George Shaw

I need to mention the trees. I find some of them really unsettling – there is often one spooky tree dominating, with branches like evil tendrils. I don’t have a problem with trees, but there is something about the trees in some of these paintings that are slightly other worldly, and I wonder if it was done deliberately.

As I take first steps to understand watercolour myself these words of Shaw in his catalogue ring oh so true: “Watercolour painting is a thoroughly fascinating activity. It is, like murder, very common but when one tries to do it oneself proves quite difficult and is often best performed in the thought rather than in the practice.”


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