Monday, 12 March 2012

Ecstatic Melancholy

The Editors turn their beady eyes on the work of George Shaw

ST: Right. I figured, as we've been so monstrously lax in our relations with Gists and Piths of late, and due to the fact that it's one of the few cultural 'events' - is a room full of pictures an 'event', even? - that we've both been to in the last few months, I thought it would be of some value (to ourselves, if not to our rapidly diminishing audience) to discuss the George Shaw exhibition that's currently on at the Herbert Art Gallery in Coventry (actually, it just finished: our timing's as impeccable as ever). First thoughts: excellent work. I'd been meaning to check out Shaw's work in more depth since seeing some eerie paintings of playgrounds he did at the Surrealism exhibition we attended in Compton Verney ages back (that is the most middle class sentence I've ever written, by the way). What strikes me most about Shaw's work is its luminosity: in spite of the fact that he's chosen deliberately 'mundane' subjects - the old Dutch and Italian masters did, too, a lot of the time: it's not what you see but how you see it - he invests them with an almost religious aura.

GT: I wish you wouldn't keep mentioning how lax we've been. I mean, it's true, but if we've anyone still reading, they've probably come to expect laxity on our part now. Though I prefer to think of us as squeezing out polished diamonds every so often, instead of the turgid, roughcut quartz of the majority of the blogosphere.

So, George Shaw. I honestly hadn't recalled his ghost playgrounds from Compton Verney when I went in to see it, but now I remember those old-fashioned, hobbyist photograph plates, or whatever they were. Full of numinosity and they come straight back to me now you say it. But what was in mind, as I'd guess with most people, was Shaw's Turner nomination.

I had a very strange reaction to the actual gallery space this time, compared to the Surrealist exhibition, walking around, seeing locals reflecting on one individual's response to their locale. You know what I mean: the women with their short, spiky-curly hairstyles, the men with their trueblue football shirts, shaved heads, beer bellies, all of them pointing at the paintings as if to say, 'Look, that's where we used to beat up them kids from Coundon," or, "Hey, he even got the empty syringes and rubber tubing in to that one."

No, I shouldn't be harsh, because the experience for me was definitely one of communality. The times I've been through Tile Hill, the year I spent living there and walking through the industrial estates to get to university, didn't exactly make me part of the place, indigenous, but I did feel a touch of that recognition. That's something the Turner Prize nomination couldn't account for, and well done to the Herbert Gallery for remembering that artists also come from Coventry (I think they've put about six tons of local art into storage, badly, over in the Abbey building, where it's being eaten by rats as I type). My point is, showing one person's idea of home to other people from that home is quite a special thing, when it's done so well.

And yes, technically, the paintwork, the enameling, that kind of geeky hobbyist approach, perfectly enhanced the feeling of neighbourliness I felt in the gallery space. All those people from Tile Hill who I used to call 'neighbours'; behind those opaque windows in Shaw's memory, they're building model airplanes, baking pies, surfing the internet, jobhunting, they're swinging, they're making babies, they're crying over pictures of Princess Diana...

It's a shame, because my two over-riding memories of living in Tile Hill are: (1) my Asian housemate being called racist names by two eight year old girls who were playing football in the street on a sunny day; and (2) the time I witnessed a head-on car crash right outside my bedroom window at 2 in the afternoon. I pulled the curtains aside just in time to see the perpetrator reverse his smashed up car into a three point turn, the license plate dangling off. As the car sped off, I could see a child in the back seat; in fact, I could even hear it screaming.

I wasn't sure, now I think about it, if Shaw's exhibition was quite right; there was something unsettling about the lack of people, as if they'd all been... I don't know. Purged?

ST: It's a way of lowering our readers' expecations. Think about it: if, say, McG or Michael Bay make a terrible action flick with no discernibly positive features whatsoever, no-one really cares. But if someone as revered and talanted as Terence Malick makes something as execrable and pretentious as, oh, I don't know, The Tree of Life, then it's a genuine shame, and casts a pall over the rest of the work. By continually referring to our failings, I am in essence setting up our readers to expect posts comparable in quality to Transformers: Dark of the Moon; when we deliver work of the calibre of The Thin Red Line, they'll be suitably delighted. It's all part of the plan.

Aaanyway, so much to respond to, not least the casual scorn you appear to direct towards the people of Coventry. I'd assumed that I was going to provide the majority of the right-wing screeds in this review, but I don't want to steal your thunder. Joking aside, you do get to grips with Shaw's engagement with a sort of collective project of nostalgia in these works; and when you mentioned 'commonality', I remembered my own experiences as a postgrad student living in Nottingham, in Dunkirk, and how there was a genuine sense of community in the area, how welcome I was made to feel, in spite of - maybe because of - the fact that it wasn't the richest neighbourhood, it backed on to some industrial areas, canals and rail-lines, the usual architectural mishmash at the edge of the city, really not far removed from some of the landscapes that Shaw's recovering from his own memory. I remember discussing with you the notion that these pieces, for all their obvious personal significance for Shaw, have a very inclusive element to them: that for anyone who grew up in a slightly shop-worn suburb or housing estate in the last 30 - 40 years has a wealth of similarly nostalgic memories to draw upon when approaching these lovingly, autistically detailed paintings. I've recently been re-reading I Remember by Joe Brainard, partly for fun, and partly as a jumping off point for my own writing, and I've been struck afresh by the way Brainard, like Shaw, generates memories in his readers as much as he records his own: the unspoken question inhering in every one of Brainard's reminiscences is 'Do you?' 'Scenes from the Passion', likewise, felt like a conversation, where the viewer is gently encouraged to bring their own memories to bear upon the viewing. At least that was my understanding (or feeling) of the exhibition. People with a different upbringing to mine - Midlands, suburban, lower middle class-ish - might feel differently; I'm sure there's a degree of kindred spiritedness in my enthusiasm for Shaw.

As for the lack of people in the paintings themselves, here are two thoughts: firstly, from Rochelle (I can't claim this one, and it's a humdinger of an observation), who thought Shaw's work was reminiscent of architectural drawings - the same detail, the same focus on the buildings and their place in the landscape, the elision or 'purging' of the human presence. This makes sense to me, as a critique of the spaces themselves, or at least their original intention: the architect's model or painting is a vision of the fututre, utopian and utterly at odds, in many cases, with the ways in which people behave and want to live. What Shaw's providing is an antidote to excessive utopianism; it's not dystopian, just realist, a portrait of what utopia looks like when it's been lived in for a few generations by people the city planners never gave a second thought to. Second thought, following on from the discussion of nostalgia and communality: maybe there are no people because Shaw wants the viewer to project him/herself into the painting, to recast the landscape within the contexts of their own mythologies and daydreams?

An aside, but relevant: I'm sure there's a Japanese word meaning 'happysad', a kind of ecstatic melancholy. Can you help me out? Did I dream it?

GT: Hmm. Wabisabi? Is that the one you're thinking of? Though I think it refers more to the cycle of birth/death, so leans more in meaning towards artistic creations that include within them signifiers of new life, budding, fresh growth, kittens, or decay, cracks, peeling paint, bones. The other term I know is yugen, which has hints of sublime experience, a widening out beyond the material images of the poem into an awareness of spirituality and mystery. Maybe our readers know. Maybe not.

I'm going to just say one thing about your Terence Malick comment: you're wrong. There isn't space in this particular review to elaborate, but you are. Pleb.

So, nostalgia. I've recently come up against the term as a static response from disempowered conservatives (small c? not sure) towards change. In that, look at all those things we used to have. It's somewhat of a useless sentiment, if you ask me. Raymond Williams beautifully decimates the notion in saying, well, if you go back to when one person was hearkening back to a golden age, what you find is someone else from that time hearkening back to an earlier age and so on and so forth until you reach the limits of recorded history (he gets back to Hesiod, where basically his poem looks backwards to a time when mankind lived in trees and et the froots from the bowentifull forestss, or something).

I can't quite settle with Shaw as a nostalgist, though. It's too playful. What Rochelle said about architectural drawings is close, but something extra is going on for me. Each of the pictures looks a little bit like an empty playground, with the kids waiting just off stage to come in and play. Play - that's the word. When you say that he's inviting you to write yourself into the space, with your own memories, it's an invitation to recreate (recreation, also, as a pastime) the spaces in your own life, somehow, or to allow them to rewrite your own memories, perhaps? So a two-way process.

It's funny you say they're realist - I had the opposite feeling. Almost as if they're depthless, flat. The varnishing of the enamels with a clear wash seems to take away all the brushstrokes, so everything's covered with a horizontal gloss. The contrast of sunlight and sunsets and electric lights in windows was so well captured in some of the pictures, but it was as if the intangible atmosphere had more substance than the buildings or lawns.

There's a fun plot point in Fallout 3, where you enter a virtual reality town and have to crack the computer simulation's code in order to escape. The world is glitchy and strangely dreamlike, always reminding you that the subworld you've entered isn't real, to increase the sense of having to escape, to unlock the puzzles. Similarly, remember Cronenberg's eXistenZ, where human actors play the role of computer controlled characters, sometimes 'glitching' when their coded interactions are exhausted?

Ditto, then here. The paintings aren't realist, they're memorist, hobbyist, I'm not sure what word to use. When you see a particular garage, there's a sense of it evoking what's happened there, not the space itself: the bikesheds where you used to smoke joints and snog, the football pitch where you used to sniff glue and kick pigeons, etc. So you're sent, as a viewer, into recall, but in a playful way, as if you've been invited to invent childhood memories you never had in these memoryscapes.

Maybe you can elucidate on what I mean better. I'm not entirely sure. But in one of our conversations, I think you related him to Paul Nash or similar. And it suddenly occurs to me that these are like Nash's landscapes, but with the surrealist imaginative distortions/insertions/figurings left out.

Before I sign off, what did you make of the titling of the sequence? I felt irritated by it - it pushed me off in a direction I didn't feel comfortable with. It was either too simplistic an assertion of an extra interpretation of the nostalgia, or a kind of sidestep away from the paintings' genuine interest for me. I really wish he'd dropped that stuff, but, thinking cynically, maybe the sequencing effect makes them more viable commercially, or something.

Oh yeah, one more thing, which you should bring up in case I turn it into a thesis chapter: trees, huh?

ST: Cheers for trying, but they're not the right words. I'm with you on letting the readers sort it out in the comments thread: do we have to do everything round here, for Christ's sake? I mention it because Shaw's paintings have that quality to them, like a great deal of pop music, which is very good at generating that happysad feeling, drenched as it is in a kind of readymade nostalgic glow.

Re: Malick. I'm not wrong, and I'm not a pleb. You petit bourgeois reactionary. (Context helps: bear in mind I absolutely worship Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, so The Tree of Life was, overall, a monstrous disappointment - like someone filtered a series of Jack Vetriano's most glib paintings of upper middle class people on beaches through an undergraduate essay on Heidegger. Moments of beauty, but crashingly pretentious.)

The issue of nostaligia is a sticking point, isn't it? It can be a conservative gesture, if it becomes allied to a particular political or historical moment. I've not read the Williams, but that interpretation matches my own reading of political nostalgia - that it necessitates something always already being out of reach, and that the repetitious nature of historical nostalgia means that there'll always be a golden age to hark back to. I think that Douglas Coupland in Generation X comes up with this notion of instant nostalgia: as historical, social and technological change speed up, so too does the generation of nostalgia, to the point where it becomes possible to be nostalgic for five minutes ago (that's already the case in relation to pop music - see above - which moves so quickly that each of its products is an exercise in nostalgia almost before it hits the shelf).

But personal nostalgia is a very different beast, and far less insidious. Indeed, it's less exclusive too, as Shaw's work, I would suggest, shows. Play is right, though it's interesting that you went for the image of children in a playground: if that's not a deeply nostalgic image, I don't know what is. That suggests to me that there is, in spite of your protestations to the contrary, a deeply nostalgic cast to the paintings, but that doesn't mean that they're inert or conservative in intent. To be honest, this is a big subject, and I suspect we'll keep circling around the same ideas without really achieving any closure on the matter. I'm more intrigued by the question of realism. I remember having a conversation with a friend about Flaubert, and how his work is so realist, so attuned to the small nuances of everyday life and objects, that it becomes almost superabundantly realist: so much so that it begins to fall apart, becoming in the process a critique of realism. (I can't remember now whether this was his observation or a critic he was reading, but the point's a good one.) Couldn't we say that Shaw's operating within a similar field? That his work takes realism to the point where it is so hypertrophied in its attention to the details of lived - or remembered - experience that it becomes dream-like, Surrealist? I guess it's because the work is so charged with a personal vision that talking of realism becomes something of a moot point: can images from a daydream, even painted in a 'realist' manner, truly be considered realist? Most likely not.

Interesting that you feel that Nash's surrealist elements were absent here: I'd see them as having been transubstantiated into the atmosphere of the paintings. You noted above that there was an almost tangible quality to the light in the paintings, and that's where I'd see Shaw's surrealism residing. It's the not-quite-right light of dream, or the intense, otherworldly light of religious experience or religiously inspired painting. Which brings me onto the final substantial point you make: the title of the sequence. I must admit I'm less concerned as you are with it. It doesn't feel like a cheap gimmick, more a playful nod to the fact that memory, childhood nostalgia, does have an almost mythic cast to it, and that the spaces of childhood memory tend to be charged with that same mythic, transcendental hue. Shaw notes in the bumph accompanying the exhibition that he grew up Catholic, so that would explain the Passion as a structuring mechanism. We're not meant to read these paintings as literally religious; maybe it's more that Shaw's suggesting that nostalgia has replaced religious narrative as a means of shaping and giving deeper meaning to our lives? Or that he's, again, just playing games with his viewers: getting us to read significance into a painting of a bus stop, when really it's just a painting of a bus stop.

'Trees, eh?' What the hell am I meant to do with that? Oh, yes, I remember: the clarity that Shaw lavishes upon buildings and man-made objects seems is at odds with the often impressionistic quality of his trees (except the bare ones, which are picked out in the same pitiless detail). There does seem to be some kind of critique, or comment at least, being made about the relationship between man-made and natural space, though I don't think it's vital for an understanding of the paintings. It might simply be a matter of documentary: a comment on the ways in which suburban space necessarily create a borderland between the manufactured and the natural world. This probably isn't relevant, but did you notice that there isnt' any greenery at all in 'The Dark Knight'? Not one tree or patch of grass. What's going on there?

GT: Re: Malick. The problem is that your expectations were skewed by your fangirlery. Watching it cold to Malick's reputation (cold, with an emphasis on having seen The New World - Colin Farrell really wasn't up the task), it was a shock. Yes it's a mess, but it's supposed to be messy: life is messy. Evolution is messy. It shows you all that. And then some. And it's very very sad. And powerful. And hopeful. And, OK, it gets a bit new agey by the end, but this isn't a discussion of that. Though I kind of think we need to talk about it. 'Pretentious', as a criticism, in the middle of this conversation, is a bit too meta for my liking.

Shaw's personal nostalgia: interesting point. But on circling: you can flap about like a lost butterfly, and I'll be the falcon. Did you ever see Tarkofsky's Nostalghia? It's the same kind of thing, and that kind of nostalgia falls into two emotional categories: unattainable desire and unresolvable regret. Both of which are redundant self-wallowing. Shaw's hankering after a lost childhood, but if you accept his hyperrealism (hypertrophyism - nice word, Mr. Boffin, had to look it up), which you do, then he's hankering after alternate realities. In which case, the whole caboodle is a critique of middle England's Tile Hills, the parochial suburbanias; he wants a sururbania, something bigger than the mediocrity of where he came from.

I don't buy the nostalgia. Hmm. I'll come out and say it: it's not nostalgia. He's going back to the place he grew up over and over and over, and it's not nostalgia! There! I said it!

What is it? It's plunder for another purpose: a critique of the human brain maybe? We read it like that because that's what it looks like Shaw is doing in his hobbyist approach, but I think he's making us question our own engagements with place, childhood, memory, habit. He's giving us a space to play out our memories, like a green-screen, a blank canvas.

I don't entirely get a sense, especially after this exchange, that Shaw cares about Tile Hill. But that was exactly the reaction I saw in people going around the exhibition, the pointing, the recognition. Shaw cares about analysing our relationships to our own pasts, the regret, the desire, and his paintings are the catalyst for throwing us into that state. Maybe there is a small amount of nostalgia (OK, I was posturing a bit earlier), but it's only a trace, designed to push us into ourselves.

I don't think it's anything new, but his approach is fresh. You're spot on when you say the light is the surreal quality - in exactly that cliché of literary description, but made visible, so fresh to the eye. It's just one of the factors that add up to destabilise the depiction - the architectural parallel is also a way of writing out the emotional attachments to the place, emphasising the emotions of the process of creating the art.

And the trees - I've had a thought, based on what you say. Yes, there's a conflict between manmade/natural, which is an easy line. (The titles are an easier line and I think a throwaway distraction, an error of judgment. OK, I'm feeling very cranky today and making gross assumptions about Shaw's intentions. But I'm lazy and tired.) Notice how the trees you describe - the impressionistic ones - seem to block our view of the subject? They're not the actual subjects, they're in the way of the houses, the brick walls, etc. They obscure things, like a coda for memory block, or an interruption. They don't feel right. They're uncanny. Yeah. OK, stop.

[Well, I could rise to your comment about The Dark Knight. But what would be the point? Who else on this planet has obsessed about that film as much as you? I don't want to unleash that stuff here. The Malick is bad enough.]
ST: Ah, come on, you love it.  I'll concede that, not having seen The New World, I don't have a full context for whether The Tree of Life represents the decline or the apex of Malick's work.  The fact that we both seem to be so passionate about it, at least, is proof that it's valuable as an artefact: it's difficult to work up the same ire or enthusiasm about Ian McEwan, say. 
I'm going to take you advice and stop, too: we've taken up our readers' time far too long.  We can see what people say in the comments threads before launching into another tirade.

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