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The Genuine Article

Alex Wade on Tim Shaw



Very few artists can speak with authority about what it feels like to find that their work provokes so strong a reaction that it is physically mutilated. But a work by Falmouth College of Art graduate, sculptor Tim Shaw, is one of a select minority that includes Michelangelo’s Pieta, Rembrandt’s Danae and Picasso’s Guernica.

Shaw, born in Belfast in 1967, had long been viewed as one of those sculptors to look out for but in October last year leapt into mainstream consciousness when Silenus, his sculpture of the Dionysian figure from Ancient Greek mythology, was vandalised by a man wielding an iron bar.

Silenus was in London thanks to a show entitled ‘Move’ put together by Joseph Clarke of Goldfish Contemporary Art in Penzance. Shaw and Clarke have worked together for a few years now, as part of what the latter characterizes as “an adventure – one which I hope will continue for a long time.” But despite the fruitfulness and longevity of their relationship, neither Shaw nor Clarke could have anticipated the response to Silenus, a sculpture of a naked, rotund and priapic part-man, part-stag.

Silenus’s attacker succeeded in hacking off an arm and would no doubt have wreaked more havoc had he not been interrupted. He is alleged to have shouted “You’re worshipping the wrong God!” as he vented his spleen. At the time, Shaw said he was shocked by “such an extraordinary act,” one which reported nationally. He allowed, however, that “part of me is honoured that my work has provoked so much feeling in someone – that’s the function of art.”

Not everyone will agree that art’s function is necessarily to shock, but just about everyone who encounters Shaw’s remarkable sculptures comes away impressed by their raw, visceral and insistent honesty. And in June, Shaw’s ongoing relationship with Clarke sees the pair put on another exhibition, this time rather closer to home in Penzance.

As Clarke says: “Working with Tim over the past few years has involved far more than simply showing his work. It’s been a privilege to provide a platform and see things blossom. In turn, it’s great, as a gallery owner, to have the support of an artist of Tim’s calibre. His work focuses with unshakeable honesty on our humanity, but his compassion is also ever present. He is a man of conviction, whose beliefs shine through his work.”

Two of Shaw’s most challenging figures to date appeared in 2006 Goldfish show called ‘No Title.’ As he explains: “I created two figures which were a direct comment on the war in Iraq. They refer to the tortured Abu Graib prisoner, the man pictured standing on a box and hooded, whose image appeared in the media worldwide. The first of these sculptures is made from steel and black plastic which is torn and stretched over barbed wire revealing a hollow void. The figure appears dark and sinister yet the hands have a certain forsaken, religious grace. The second sculpture consists of the same Abu Graib image that has been hollowed into a cradled plaster slab, which has been filled with sump oil. Both of these sculptures are titled ‘Casting a Dark Democracy’.”

A dark democracy indeed, but Shaw explains their rationale: “Each day, when I was working on the figures, at the studio, I would look at both the well-known Abu Graib newspaper image – which I’d pinned to the wall - and the similarly famous image of a British soldier clambering out of a tank that had just been petrol bombed. I would try to imagine the shared feelings of fear and terror as each man succumbs to his own dreadful ordeal.”

Evidence of Shaw’s uncompromising, perhaps compulsive need to confront the dark side of modern man can be seen at his forthcoming ‘Maquettes and Drawings’ exhibition at Goldfish. The work is a consequence of Shaw’s most prestigious prize to date, his award of the Kenneth Armitage Fellowship. One of Britain’s most significant sculptors, Armitage was similarly fascinated by the human form and condition. He won the 29th Venice Biennale where he was awarded the first prize for the best British sculptor under 45, and went on to achieve international recognition. Following Armitage’s death in 2002, the Fellowship in his name was established. Shaw says that “it allows a nominated sculptor the opportunity to work in a supported environment for a period of two years.”

Shaw’s home and studio had been based in Cornwall, but he is now in the midst of his Fellowship. He explains that the body of work for ‘Maquettes and Drawings*’ was “created in London, in Kenneth Armitage’s former London studio, between February and September 2007. The work consists of maquettes and drawings, which articulate thoughts and ideas for potential large-scale sculpture.”

The influence of Silenus – in myth, the wisest and oldest of Dionysius’s followers – is not hard to discern. Shaw confirms that “Figures 1 to 7 relate to the large foam Silenus figure that was created and exhibited at Goldfish in 2006. With these maquettes, I want to convey a sense of something primitive and potent. They are fertility ritual figures, earthy and rotund. They stand and stare through old eyes. Like Padstow’s Obby Oss, their sexually is neither conventionally pretty nor beautiful, but is of a dark and unsettling kind.”

In addition, there are Funerary Figures. Shaw says these were “inspired by the powerful impressions left on my mind by three wooden carved ancestral figures that I saw at the Royal Academy’s Africa exhibition in 1995. The figures struck me in a way that few sculpted forms have in the past. The experience was apparitional, like seeing spirits emerge through gauged wood that struck upon the window of our present day reality, Spirits of a different time and foreign place.”

And once again, Shaw revisits world conflict. “Man on Fire was created between May and June last year and was exhibited after the terrorist attack on Glasgow airport. The figure lunges uncontrollably forward engulfed by flames, and could be the victim of a petrol bombing or a suicide bomber who has just self-ignited. Making these works, I tried to imagine the dreaded thoughts and feelings that would inevitably race through the mind of someone who is being consumed by fire, of someone who is caught between two worlds, that of life and death. The panic associated with the instinct to stay alive and the dreaded terror of losing it.”

The history of art has seen a few, notable attacks on its creations. That Silenus should suffer the same fate as work by Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Picasso may be as much to do with Shaw’s ever increasing stature as the rogue impulses of a man with an iron bar. Shaw’s Minotaur, also shown at Goldfish in 2006, now deservingly stands in pride of place outside the Royal Opera House, a success story as much for the gallery as for the former Falmouth student, whose work has also been bought by David Roberts, Britain’s biggest art collector. 

No wonder, really. For as Royal Academician and leading sculptor Michael Sandle says: “Thank God for Tim Shaw. He stands out like an indestructible lighthouse built on rock. He is his own man, he takes risks and he is engaged in a dialogue with the real world. He has great integrity and is lucky enough to be very skilled in many reaches of the difficult and demanding profession of sculpture. He has irrevocably committed his life to art. He’s the genuine article.”


*'Maquettes and drawings' was an early working title. It was changed later to 'Future History'

Article published originally in June's Cornwall Today. See exhibition review 'Future History' Goldfish, Penzance