George Shaw brings his haunting My Back to Nature series of paintings to the National Gallery

Olivia McEwan
George Shaw's The Living and The Dead, which takes inspiration from the blue robes of the Virgin

George Shaw is best known for his highly detailed renditions of high streets and urban scenes from middle England, favouring enamel paint more commonly used for Airfix models. These deliberately unspectacular, eerie images reached their widest audiences following his nomination for the Turner Prize in 2011.

It is fascinating, then, to see how this traditional painter has responded to the National Gallery collection following his two year residency as Rootstein Hopkins Associate Artist. Unlike the slightly one-dimensional effort of the previous artist in residence (Michael Landy, who recreated the paintings’ inhabitant saints as kinetic sculptures), Shaw applies his own careful, studied style to a series of woodland scenes, subtly revealing layer upon layer of links with and reactions to the National’s permanent collection, which will satisfy both casual visitors and art historical buffs.

On an immediate level, the sequence of empty woodland studies highlights the stage-like role played by landscape in pieces throughout the gallery, which are often used as suitably generic or innocuous backgrounds for religious scenes or hunting portraits. The series – entitled My Back to Nature – also explores our relationship to this ‘background’, with litter and pornographic debris discarded among trees and leaves. Given Shaw’s characteristically dispassionate rendering, this is less a preachy comment than quiet observance (he admits his apprehension regarding the phrase “Back to Nature” and what we really mean by it).

George Shaw’s The Old Country

The series also presents Shaw’s own version of the National’s collection. The trees in each piece are the focus, as in a portrait, and the painter says he challenged himself to “treat inanimate objects like a tree as a person… seeing faces and limbs”. Indeed, each ‘portrait’ evokes a distinct personality through its bark and form. Elsewhere, the blue drapery worn by the Virgin in religious paintings is evoked by a blue tarpaulin rotting on some branches; Shaw has captured the mysterious aura experienced by viewers of early genre paintings, hinting at hidden symbolism and meaning.

The title of each work references both lofty art historical significance and more earthy humour: The Rude Screen’ puns on the Medieval wooden Rood screen used in English churches, Tree of Whatever’ evokes a blasé attitude to nature where once it held mystical significance, a sequence of nude self portraits wryly entitled The Loneliness of the Middle-Aged Life Model pokes fun at the poor models-for-hire who pop up in Caravaggios or Velazquez genre works.

It’s a pleasure to see the relevance of fantastic, but wholly unostentatious, painterly skill in an era heavy with hyper-realism and conceptualism. Shaw’s is a unique voice that responds with quiet grace and intelligence to the challenge set by the National’s collection.

The National Gallery | ​★★★★☆