George Shaw’s paintings are frequently described as straightforward accounts of anomie and social alienation; his subject matter the shoddy worker’s housing of Tile Hill, the council estate that he grew up in, and the slow dereliction of many British council estates in the present day. But Tile Hill is not a typical council estate, and Shaw’s restive, atmospheric paintings – poised between Romanticism and brutal realism, between nostalgia and critique – are not typical portrayals of disaffected suburban life.
All of Shaw’s paintings of Tile Hill are based on photographs. His archive comprises over 100,000 digital and analogue images which serve as reference points for his paintings. Constructed as composites of numerous distinct images, Shaw's paintings reproduce the camera’s expanded field of vision and its homogeneous, ordered space.
This objective gaze – the camera’s impartial vision masquerading as that of the eye – is remarkably seductive, and it has often overdetermined the reading of Shaw’s landscape paintings. But there’s a disquiet at the heart of Shaw’s practice that troubles notions of objectivity and impartiality. A similar tension – between order and disorder, between distanced appraisal and close, passionate involvement – haunts the history of the Western landscape tradition, from eighteenth century picturesque aesthetics all the way through to contemporary landscape photography. This historical lineage also suggests new ways of understanding his work. More specifically, I argue that Shaw's paintings operate in dialogue with photography in the 'new topographics' aesthetic: a style of architectural photography that variously celebrated and castigated the kind of development that Tile Hill represented. Like the photographs that they so closely resemble, Shaw’s landscape paintings employ a visual language that troubles easy antinomies between celebration and reproach, between the success or failure of a social vision.