Tuesday, 13 December 2011

If there is something

So George Shaw, the man who paints council estates, didn’t win the Turner Prize. There’s any number of pretty obvious reasons for this – he’s a painter for a start, and a representational one at that. Or is it because he paints a council estate (Tile Hill in Coventry) and no one can understand why? One article on Shaw and his work begins quite typically:

the grey, pebble dashed frontages of 1950s council houses are not improved by rain … In Coventry, as elsewhere, the mistakes of the post-war planners of public housing have long been derided - from the materials they used (too much concrete) to the scale they built on (too monolithic) and the places where they chose to build (too far from the middle of town).

Chris Arnot, ‘Art of the matter’, The Guardian, Wednesday 13 August 2003.

The same old same old: ‘mistakes’. Too rainy, too ‘concrete’, too monolithic, too remote. The pebbledash on our house was actually full of colour and texture (so much so, my Mum used to go spare when we hung around picking the stones off). Shaw's work touches on things that are too complex and profound for the comfort of the chattering classes. Take just one of his statements about his work and his early life on the Tile Hill estate:

I started to make these paintings out of a kind of mourning for the person I used to be: an enthusiastic, passionate teenager who read art books and novels and poems and biographies and watched films and TV and listened to music and dreamed. They are paintings of places that were familiar to me in my childhood and adolescence, places in which I found myself alone and thoughtful. They are places in which I forgot things. For the one single moment that I can recall, I feel a dull sadness for the thousands I have forgotten.

How many of us, who were born in the 60s and who lived on a council estate but are now in the position to be reading vaguely pretentious blogs like this, recognise this scenario? Substitute the word ‘painting’, and put in ‘blog’. For me, Shaw’s sentiments and the evocations of his adolescent council estate world go way beyond mere nostalgia. Like many others of my generation, I would lie on my bed listening to the first Roxy Music album, dreaming of the usual things: glamour, escape, tape recorders, girls, oscillators. 

But when I listen to Bryan Ferry singing ‘threw your precious gifts into the air, watched them fall down’ now, I am also sharply reminded of Frederick Jameson’s claim that our relentlessly commodified and mediated society has created a ‘fear’ that we ‘have not really lived, not yet lived or fulfilled [our] lives, in a world organized to deprive [us] of that satisfaction.’

Apart from more recent works such as the superbly titled ‘Landscape with Dog Shit Bin’ (2010), the most mysterious and interesting facet of Shaw's paintings is that they tend to edit out all the clutter of the contemporary urban landscape – the abundance of cars, satellite dishes, wheelie-bins, or the hotch-potch of doors, uPvc windows and fencing that the post ‘Right to Buy’ privatisation of these council estates has allowed. This could be popularly explained as a merely nostalgic attempt to return to a simpler time, uncluttered and unmediated by the trappings of contemporary culture, but I think it is also part of a process that Freud called 'memory work' - of trying to strip away the layers of time in order to recover a time and place when one could be ‘enthusiastic’, ‘passionate’, and ‘thoughtful’. Is this one way to resist that fear that we have ‘not really lived, not yet lived or fulfilled [our] lives’? Maybe, but it is also about that other thing that life today prevents us from fully considering - the future: 
what happened in the past only matters inasmuch as it enables us to anticipate what lies in store for us … our memory is apparently designed so that it is focussed towards future changes 
Douwe Draaisma, Why life speeds up as you get older: How memory shapes our past, Cambridge University Press 2005
Maybe this is why Shaw paints the post war council estate. It's certainly why I write this blog: it's about the past, but it is also focussed towards those future changes - in what remains of a public sphere, we need to revisit and revive the council estate experiment more than ever.

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