George Shaw fails to see the wood from the trees at the National Gallery - review

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George Shaw Natural selection
Natural Selection: painting by George Shaw Credit: George Shaw/National Gallery

If you go down to the woods today, you’re in for a moderately interesting surprise. By woods, I mean the forests painted by George Shaw for his new National Gallery exhibition, My Back to Nature.

The Coventry painter, a nominee for the Turner Prize in 2011, is best known for his grey cityscapes of a derelict West Midlands. Yet, after two years in residence at the National Gallery as its Rootstein Hopkins Associate Artist, he has now turned his paintbrush to a very different environment: the woodland scenes in the NG collection, deploying more green in these 30 works than in the rest of his career combined.

In his riffs on Old Master paintings, Shaw has added a plethora of contemporary elements. Gone are the goddesses and forest nymphs, replaced by discarded beer cans and the scattered pages of porn mags. Elsewhere Shaw depicts a tree trunk with a large phallus graffitied on it.

The Living and the Dead by George Shaw recalls Titan's Diana and Actaeon Credit: George Shaw/National Gallery

In short, he opts for slightly coarse, 21st-Century twists on age-old erotic myths, bringing the illicit sex and drunkenness of works like Poussin’s Triumph of Pan into the present day.

In one scene – the ironically titled Call of Nature – Shaw himself can be seen urinating against the foot of a tree, but this is the only figure we see. The other scenes are entirely depopulated; in some cases they’re so bare even the trees are bereft of leaves. Does Shaw want us to pause for thought about how modern man has despoiled his landscape?

For those of us who know and love the National collection, there’s fun to be had guessing which painting Shaw had (most) in mind when creating his response. In School of Love (complete with an abandoned mattress), the shared title with a Correggio gives the game away. In The Living and The Dead, it’s the drapery billowing on a branch, which recalls the source of the hunter’s voyeuristic destruction in Titian’s Diana and Actaeon.   

The Old Master by George Shaw Credit: George Shaw/National Gallery

Shaw is the ninth Associate Artist at Trafalgar Square, following in the footsteps of Paula Rego, Peter Blake and, most recently, Michael Landy. And he faces the same challenge they did: how to respond to the masterpieces without looking distinctly second best. Landy’s ingenious tactic was to change medium completely, creating insane kinetic sculptures that suggested the agonising torture of the saints in biblical canvases.

Shaw, however, by taking the greats on in their own medium – albeit in his own highly detailed, hyperrealistic style – rather falls between two stools. Wouldn’t we be better off looking at the Old Masters’ woodland scenes elsewhere in the Gallery or, for that matter, at Shaw’s cityscapes, which come naturally to him and are what he does best? 

The works in My Back to Nature seem neither here nor there.  

Until  Oct 30, free entry; nationalgallery.org.uk