There is a slightly unexpected display to be found at the National Gallery at the moment; in amongst the Madonnas and the wood nymphs, Impressionists fields and Venetian canalscapes, comes a breath of fresh air from Coventry born artist George Shaw, who has spent the last two years scanning the collection for inspiration, as the current artist-in-residence. Early student sketchbooks show a preoccupation with the gallery’s idyllic woodland scenes, and Shaw has come up with a body of work that conflates the themes of mythical woodland narratives – illicit sex, drunkenness ans violence, with the timeless symbol of the crucifixion, to recreate the forest as a liminal place of adolescent first experiences: sex, drinking, smoking, truancy. The canvases are unpeopled, human presence belied by booze bottles, porno magazines, graffitied trees and an abandoned blue tarpaulin.
A kind of disrespect for our natural world permeates the paintings, echoed in the title “My Back to Nature” – the cock and balls spray-painted onto an ancient tree in The Old Master has a very adolescent kind of humour – but it’s tempered by an overarching view of humanity and a kind of everyday mysticism. The setting is autumnal, the artificial detritus nestling in amongst brown dead leaves of trees preparing for winter; and that he chose a transitional season is surely significant, echoing as it does the liminality of youth, and the sense of abandonment felt by the litter-bestrewn landscape.
George Shaw: My Back to Nature is on display at the National Gallery until 30 October 2016.