LONDON — A continuing challenge facing British galleries in the wake of sweeping cuts in arts funding is to promote their permanent collections as enticing and relevant, arguably more so in historic collections, looking to capture wider and young audiences. The National Gallery, for instance, established its Rootstein Hopkins Foundation Associate Artist Scheme that challenges contemporary artists to produce work inspired by its collection pre-dating 1900, and has been a canny ploy in finding new ways to highlight and compliment its historic holdings. Previous incumbents have been stalwarts of British art — Peter Blake, Paula Rego, Ron Mueck — although I had problems with Michael Landy’s “Saints Alive,” which imagined the saints featured in the gallery as giant kinetic sculptures with all the cultural integrity of fairground attractions, but boy did visitors enjoy playing with them.
The latest commission is a curious, more subdued affair. George Shaw is known for his small, modestly observed representations of suburban and rural landscapes around Britain in Humbrol enamel paint, more commonly used by model-makers, capturing a peculiar British charm in their quietness and occasional bleakness. In My Back to Nature, there is evidently some hesitation on Shaw’s part in deciding how to apply this uniquely anti-ostentatious style to the National’s collection; he has admitted his nerves and that at least the commission would “give [him] a kick up the backside.” As such, the introductory room filled with initial preparatory charcoal sketches of the crucified Christ’s face, or Pollaiuolo’s “Apollo and Daphne,” are unimpressively tentative and should have been left in the studio.
Where Shaw really falls into his stride is the main exhibit of larger woodland scenes, where links to the historic collections are many and varied. Shaw doesn’t do figurative painting, so these empty woodland scenes, deliberately evocative of the generic classical landscapes employed as theatre-like backdrop throughout the collection, are unpopulated, emphasizing this link; Shaw’s contemporary stage for framing his argument as it were. It is a happy accident, allowing him to focus on symbolic, rather than narrative content.
In direct response to scenes of mythical debauchery depicted in paintings by Titian and Poussin, Shaw uses the updated woodland backdrop to imagine the morning after the night before. In this scene, inspired by his own childhood — and that of many of us growing up — the ground is littered with empty cans, pages of porn mags, and other unsavory debris. It is a threatening, mysterious collection of remnants to our naïve eyes, indicating previous happenings to which we were not privy. Perhaps this peculiar feeling mirrors that felt by contemporary viewers of Poussin: that what they beheld on the canvas were magical, mythical events thoroughly removed from the ordinariness of their own lives.
On the one hand, you could read a mirthful, wry humor in the work, which suggests that the miraculous events shown in the historic collection were actually more earthy and bawdy than reverential. “The School of Love,” mimicking the noble titles and intentions of historic works, reveals an ironic reality: a battered, grimy looking mattress sits abandoned in the woodland. “The Rude Screen,” a play on the traditional church rood screen, is a discarded billowing blue fabric hanging abandoned on a branch, the blue evocative of so many Virgin paintings. It is a cheeky reminder that so many mythical paintings, presented as entirely serious and intellectually lofty, are really an excuse to paint frolicking nudes; that sex is often at the base of things. The scattered porn mags repeatedly remind us of this sniggeringly naughty, almost blasphemous, realization.
On a more political note, the work could be taken as a commentary on the place — or lack of — religious imagery today, and how it is treated not as reverential, but obsolete. Not only is the woodland presented as less than idealized, but dank and unappreciated; titles such as “The Tree of Whatever,” depicting an ancient trunk filled with discarded cans, suggest that previous centuries’ imagery of the Tree of Jesse, or Tree of Life, is now greeted with an attitude of “whatever.” Or is it a sly dig at the attention spans of modern audiences? “The Old Master,” showing a tree trunk spray painted with the familiar phallic graffiti, can arguably sit in all of these camps.
Elsewhere, the simple observational skills of Shaw are a pleasure to behold: inspired by the mysticism of Ovid, where things change into other things, Shaw sets himself a challenge to observe faces and limbs within his natural surroundings. A sequence of trees, presented as portraits and titled “You’ve Changed,” or “Portrait of an Old Midlander,” finds an individual character or personality in each.
There has clearly been a struggle in adapting Shaw’s own unique style and subjective confines to an essentially abstract project, and to the visitor wandering through the gallery, the connection and relevance to the rest of the National’s collection is far from immediately apparent. The scaling up in size from his usual canvases, using the same enamel paint, may lend the surface a curiously opaque, non-fluid feel, which combined with a relatively somber, brooding palette, may not appeal to all. In my opinion, however, a more oblique approach to the collection will always be more interesting than an obvious, straightforward, and empty one like Landy’s.
George Shaw: In My Back to Nature continues at the National Gallery (Trafalgar Square, London) through October 30.