Four girls are sitting on the bench in front of Het Steen (part of a school group, Year 11 at a guess). One is sketching in an A6 book with a big red ribbon on it. They debate whether it is really annoying, or not, that different galleries have different policies for taking photographs. They fall to looking at Google Maps on their phones.
“No, look, we are here right”
“No but like, what’s that bit there?”
In ‘The Art of Describing’, Svetlana Alpers describes Northern landscape paintings as a mapping of terrain rather than the (Italian) representation of an idealised scene. She usually holds Rubens up as an example of Italianate influence and in Het Steen the foreground, with its stock figures and grand, illuminated house fits this description well. In the mid/ background though, the raised mound on the horizon acts more as destination than vanishing point. In that sense, you feel you could walk or ride in your cart along one of a series of well-established routes to the central church tower that just pierces the sky (the Cathedral of St Rombout in the town of Malines). Like the Google Map directions, you half expect a hovering blue arrow to point to an area of trees and then, disconcertingly, relocate the whole image through 90 degrees when you tilt the phone too much.
“I actually like the curves in it; I could really imagine rolling down that hill”
“It reminds me of that time we had to go on a cross country run and we got lost and had to ring up your mum”
“Shall we go now?”
“I can’t, my legs are stuck to the seat”
Alpers further characterises the fundamental differences between ‘Italian’ and ‘Northern’ pictorial space. As we know, Italian art after Alberti/ Brunelleschi works with a mathematically defined, illusory box existing behind a transparent picture plane. It is the relationship of forms to the vanishing point and to the static, monocular viewer whose visual cone that plane bisects, which brings all this art into play. The fundamental intention is to create a unified, harmonious space between the viewer’s eye and the centrally defined infinity.
Whereas, she says, in Northern art forms are arranged in aggregation, the eye rests in a series of discrete movements around the pictorial space, movement defined by each composition, not by mathematical convention. We see each aggregation sequentially, not in one whole look. Italian represents something already known, usually known in words, Northern art is the act of describing existing objects and places through making images.
The Turner Prize at the Baltic
I have recently been to Newcastle to see the Turner Prize exhibition at the Baltic. Karla Black was the outstanding artist for me, although it was clear that the insider, with his modish re-working of early Modernism would win. This theme was all over The Venice Biennale this year; a clever bit of positioning by Martin Boyce. I had been looking forward to seeing George Shaw’s work, to seeing his paintings as real objects, rather than digital images or print. I was surprised to find them disappointing, perhaps a comparison with Het Steen will begin to describe why.
Shaw does not, strictly speaking, make landscape paintings of a Coventry housing estate. He makes paintings of his photographs of a Coventry housing estate. That distinction is important. Look at his images and you see a visually sophisticated eye at work; an eye that is clearly well trained in photographic technique: framing; cropping balancing, depth of field; viewpoint. So that when he comes to make; ‘Resurface’ for example, a lot of the decisions have already been made. There is a formal cohesion to them, a unity that denies the tentative snapshot nature of the subject.
If we take one key image to stand in for the whole of his display: ‘Resurface’. Like all the others, it tends to symmetricality, look at the orthogonal created by the ‘On/ No’ device on the tarmac. This is not the sudden, deliberately non picturesque, glance of Pissarro for example. It is not, despite the advance publicity, the aggregated contents of a described landscape. If you base your pictorial space so firmly on Albertian principles, your audience will make certain assumptions; we are all familiar with these traditions, there are no real surprises anymore.
The Bin Enclosure and Art
Arranging bin sheds/ garages in this way cannot be called transgressive; we are not being challenged by the composition, rather, we are being reassured. ‘Resurface’ is a great topic, what should the housing association that owns this area of Tile Hill North do with these old sheds? Knock them down and build something useful? Wicker bin enclosures seem very a la mode these days, and the bin enclosure is a real problem for contemporary social housing design. George Shaw shows an institution not getting to grips with issues; slap on new coat of paint, put new tarmac down and ignore it.
Shaw’s paintings speak to something very appealing to the large crowds visiting the Baltic. These images seem to place themselves on a continuum that runs from the Haywain at one end, to ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ at the other. We can recognise ourselves and our lives in these small familiar scenes, as far as this audience is concerned there is a substantial, and affirmative process at work. The Lords of High Culture have recognised us and thought us worthy; “God has seen everything that he had made and behold, it was very good”. But note that the hymn (Words: Cecil Alexander: ‘Hymns for Little Children’ 1848. Melody: 17th Century English folk tune arranged by Martin Shaw, 1915) continues:
‘The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.’
Look at ‘Resurface’ and the receding planes, directly parallel to the picture plane: the sheds/ a fence at the left on a scrubby grass verge/ leafless trees/ a house and in the far background more trees. These trees indicate Tile Hill Wood, one of the last remnants of the Forest of Arden, a nature reserve since the 1930’s, now rather overgrown with holly. The setting for Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’, pastoral romance and courtly love, all ending happily amongst the rich and powerful: Orlando carves poems to Rosalind on trees, Coventry youth paint their names on brick walls. Apart from the neatness of the interconnections that you would expect from a successful contemporary fine artist, there is an underlying nostalgia: warm and softening. We feel comforted, we accept our lot and go home thinking of British sitcoms.
In this cosy glow, we wonder whether the internal spectator for this work could perhaps be the proverbial man out walking his dog, a man who had once who been a 1970’s youth on a Raleigh Chopper bike (first released in the UK in Christmas 1969, made in Nottingham) when these sheds were in their prime. Tile Hill North was a post war estate, a new utopian future, open plan with views and walks to the surrounding woods. Employment from the new Massey Ferguson factory turning out tractors: new forms of housing and new forms of agriculture and new ways of treating nature for new futures. What we see now is entropy and ennui, decay has been unsuccessfully resurfaced, the structures themselves have not been re-worked, just given new double yellow lines to keep them in their place.
Back to Het Steen
By and large Het Steen is descriptive, a specific place at a specific time of day and year: although it is redolent of ownership. We can see that through viewpoint, a raised position familiar from Patinir and earlier Flemish landscape painting. In this later work we are either an all-seeing God, or possibly a presumed absolute Stuart monarch, or perhaps we are seeing the landscape from the square crenelated tower you can just see to the right of the house: a reworking of the exact topography to emphasise the notion of ownership. Such a reworking displays the extent, the scale of the land that comes with the manor of Het Steen.
Shaw also re-presents and describes a particular landscape with a strong underlying narrative, why was seeing Shaw’s actual paintings unfulfilling? After all, in reproduction his works look very fine indeed. But the real things seem diminished, they were either too small, lacking the power that scale should bring in this context. Or, they were too large and could perhaps been bright jewels; elegant and perfect. Each approach in direct and telling visual contrast to the actuality. In fact the paintings lie very flat to the wall, dull of surface and demanding very little for the eye.
‘Resurface’ and the painted surface
It is the painting as object that matters in this context, and the surface quality in particular. In Het Steen we see a grand statement, as an object it is a glorious thing, of a piece with what it represents. The paint surface is layered and, despite the best efforts of the National Gallery lighting scheme, lively, vital, light catching on the foreground trees and the vertical fold of the hunters sleeve for example.
In common with the lack of clarity between their pictorial space and their subject, Shaw’s paintings have a muddy, unclear set of tonal values, based in ‘Resurface’ on a sharp Viridian green. Every single mention of George Shaw must, by legal decree I assume, talk at length about the medium he uses. Again a brilliant USP: Humbrol enamel. The reader immediately thinks of craft practice; obsessive hobbyists in adolescent bedrooms; that soft nostalgia again. Enamel lacks the apparent depth of oil paint, there are no evident layers of varnish in Resurface and the shine sits on top of the surface. Oil paint appears to contain tangible highlights as well as reflect light through different textures; those layers of glaze/ varnish and consistency present forms of depth to the viewer. Enamel can’t really contain texture, it just provides a uniform shine, again thematically suitable, but as interesting as looking for a long time at the surface of an Airfix model or perhaps the gleam on a slightly muddy Mark 2 Raleigh Chopper. It is interesting how much the digital version provides the depth that is missing in the object.
The four GCSE artists have gone, I now realise that during the twenty minutes, at least, I heard them on the bench, not one of the girls said ‘Oh My God’, or it’s diminutive ‘OMG’. These things ought to be noted.
Beside me in bulky tweed called, I think, a covert coat, and balancing a rather fine Brown Derby hat on his knee, a man keeps consulting first one mobile phone from the left pocket, then the right. After a while he calls from one of them.
“Hello, Hello, I’m trying to get hold of Gerrard…I came in just after one to meet him…it’s now after 3…it’s all very interesting, but I don’t know what happened to our rendezvous”
I leave him surrounded by huge numbers of French children with clipboards. Our tweed clad gent is talking about ordering a meal from M and S, he places his hat on his head to protect him from youthful Gallic indifference.