Earlier this term Coventry-born artist, George Shaw, was shortlisted for the art world’s most prestigious award, the Turner Prize, with his paintings of Tile Hill housing estate. In its 27-year history the Turner Prize shortlist can be viewed as taking the pulse of the British art scene, and, despite the deliberate diversity in both the judging panel and the artists nominated, continues to chart the changing mood of contemporary art today. By its own admission the Turner Prize is “intended to promote public discussion of new developments in contemporary British art” and this year has been no disappointment, with George Shaw and his earnest renderings of the Tile Hill housing estate where he grew up (just around the corner from the University campus) contributing to the reappraisal of art and beauty in 2011.
Broadly speaking, the Turner Prize of recent years has self-consciously sought to fly in the face of London’s monopoly over the British art scene, showing the nation that good and interesting art isn’t limited to a few square miles of art-school hipsterdom. If the shortlist this year is aiming to provoke one conversation, it is that art is not safely in the hands of London, with just one shortlisted artist being London-based (Hilary Lloyd), but can spring up anywhere, with two of the shortlisted artists being based in Glasgow (Martin Boyce and Karla Black), and of course, Coventry-born and Devon-based George Shaw. The Turner Prize exhibition this year is aptly being held at the BALTIC gallery in Gateshead, a newly-established provincial gallery in the North East, and one which thrives on the inspiring philosophy that art is for everyone and everywhere: it seems contemporary art has now left the capital for more than a field trip.
Shaw’s solo exhibition at the BALTIC gallery, for which he was shortlisted, is called “The Sly and Unseen Day” and with frank precision, portrays the in-between spaces of Tile Hill, on the outskirts of Coventry, where he grew up. His exhibition, more perfectly than those of the other artists shortlisted, encapsulates the current movement away from metropolitan elitism towards a mode of artistic expression that can depict the real experience of living in a Britain comprised of more than just chic urban vistas or rural idylls. Shaw’s paintings are the deadpan product of the suburbs, in all its mediocrity and has-been-ness, with its bland squares of pebble-dashed concrete- and yet his paintings also convey a calm acceptance that this is a valid and, dare I say it, beautiful backdrop to human life.
His paintings, rendered in the type of enamel paint usually used for painting model aeroplanes, capture the in-between scenes of life, the bits which are neither beautiful nor interesting in the conventional way, and in which little seems to be happening, but which are integral to our experience of the urban environment. The landscape of Tile Hill for Shaw is one which can be viewed with neither pity nor reverence and whilst the mood of his paintings is sombre, the landscapes cannot be described as depressing. Shaw paints what it is to be a bored child, on a post-war council estate, staring out of the window at tarmac beyond tarmac, and, yet, to look back on these memories and this dreary landscape not with loathing and disappointment, but to treasure life as it is and was, with each dull view out of the window.
Perhaps it is from living for far too long on Warwick Campus, but the dismissive tone with which people speak of Coventry and its Brutalist architecture and pound-shops has worn thin for me. The Midlands, and Coventry in particular, are often characterised by their lack of character, stereotyped as being nothing but a deep-fried Mars bar surrounded by unemployment and impossible-to-navigate ring-roads, and the paintings of George Shaw provide the perfect antidote to this depressing discourse: his paintings persuade us that the back-alleys and murky puddles of the suburbs are as valid a backdrop for life and art as anywhere else.
The winner of the Turner Prize receives £25,000, with all those shortlisted awarded £5000 and will be announced on the 11th December and I, for one, hope it goes to George Shaw.