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March 15, 2011
A 4-hour train journey across England to go from an anonymous post-war working class estate in Coventry to Newcastle... to see paintings of the same anonymous post-war working class estate. That sounds like a great week-end plan.
George Shaw’s ‘The Sly and Unseen Day’ exhibition at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art is worth it. And Tile Hill is worth it too.
Shaw made his paintings over the 1996-2010 period, on the basis of an archive of thousands of photographs he took around the Tile Hill estate, where he grew up. He took many of the photos with his late father, who had come to Tile Hill from Ireland, like many others. Painting from pictures, rather than from real life, reduces the light’s dynamic range (much detail is lost in shadows) and flattens the perspective, but also allows painting at strange times and under bad weather conditions – especially rain – while keeping an indirect individual link to the place. Shaw uses an unfashionable, humble, almost weird material: Humbrol enamel paint. This reminds of simple craftwork in the shed, and gives a very simplified and artificial colouring: more industrial than natural. The perspective and composition are also very simple – as from a child’s eye.
Subject of the paintings (owned by various collections including Tate, Deutsche Bank - some are of Warwick's Mead Gallery) are Tile Hill corners that mean something to the painter: a phone box no longer used; the school entrance; his house; old garages; what remains of a demolished pub; a path in the woods; a subway. There is no human figure in any painting, nothing happens. You have to think to interpret what sort of life could have been there, why a certain path, a certain boarded window may be important. No easy symbolism, but a very strong statement of what art is about, and where it comes from.
To see the exhibition coming from Tile Hill makes a double impression. The first instinct is to locate the apparently anonymous locations: where exactly is that garage, that corner, that tree? Then, there is the reaction that it is quite unfair, the paintings focussing on the abandoned, decadent parts in an apparently depressing manner. But after these neighbourhood-provincial reactions, a further look discovers all the depth of artistic creation. The neo-Romantic references, especially with the suburban landscapes echoing, maybe mocking the Pre-Raphaelites. The poetic references to Larkin on Coventry, where 'my childhood was unspent' - and 'it is not the place's fault - nothing, like something happens anywhere'. The historical references, from old trees that were there before the estate, to peeping holes in a fence, reminders of Coventry’s legendary Peeping Tom from the medieval Lady Godiva story – in Shaw’s words ‘a classic British story – sex, class and realism'. Indeed, Shaw is a ‘classist’ artist, despising the ideological, un-experiential ‘higher-class’ art and affirming his working class roots strongly, even though avoiding political language, also in the way he talks about his work. The paintings are intimate – but in their artistic content they are also universal.
Tile Hill is a good place to reflect over time, memory, decadence. It is right in the middle of England and could be seen as representative of all working class estates in the country, but that's not factually precise: the place has its individual history. It was built for the ‘new’ working class, largely from Ireland, for the factories nearby - 'everyone either worked at Standard or at Massey-Ferguson', remembers Shaw. (According to the Acorn classification my street’s typical demographic definition is ‘large families with low level of education’: my house is an outlier, with a popolation of 2 and 100% PhD-level education). It was a 'new town', after the old Coventry had been destroyed by the 1940 bombing. Some of it was intended as progressive, innovative urbanism; especially the Jardine Crescent estate, a circle of brutalist housing blocks encircling a common and community services: you can still tell the utopia of such planning. Shaw paints the burnt or razed pubs, the abandoned playgrounds or football pitches, the boarded houses. Indeed, since the 1980s Tile Hill has suffered serious decline, like most of Coventry (1980s Coventry, and Warwick University, are portrayed in a sweet-sour sauce in the fine short novel by Jonathan Coe, A Touch of Love). The factories have gone and Tile Hill is the seventh poorest of 230 parishes in Coventry. In some regards the decline goes on: the Irish club where I used to go to watch football, attached to the Catholic Church and Catholic school where Shaw grew up, has just closed down, killed by the smoking ban and by cheap supermarket booze. However, something also develops on the ashes. On Jardine Crescent, on the place of desolate prefabs painted by Shaw, there are now an impressive Youth Centre, a nice library, a new health centre. The old craftsmanship of Shaw’s enamel paint has not disappeared, and on the same Jardine Crescent survives a fantastic family bike shop. The woods are being managed and kept well - one point on which Tile Hill differs from the average estate is the amount of parks and woodland. It is a continuous fight against destruction: the library is at risk thanks to the vandalic cuts of the Tories. Some regeneration is replacing services (Tile Hill college) and social housing with more anonymous middle-class housing, although there is still no systematic speculation-driven effort at ‘gentrification’, as for instance at London’s Heygate.
Newcastle, vibrant and friendly northern city with its bars, its arty scene in regenerated industrial Ouseburn, its spectacular river and its labour movement traditions (the Jarrow Crusade) is an appropriate setting for this arty celebration of the quintessential, but actually unique, English working class estate.
Postscript. The train journey back was disrupted, as usual given the state of British railways. Trains were not running to Tile Hill, because no London Midland’s train drivers volunteered for Sunday work. The union is in dispute after the company dropped the special Sunday pay rate. Even if Sunday work is voluntary, the company says that the refusal to work amounts to a strike and refused to provide replacement services or to refund my ticket. But it is not an official strike and after losing the patience of its employees London Midland is on the path to lose the patience of passengers.