Encounters with the Contemporary

by Mark Hallett

  • 21 January 2015

The Paul Mellon Centre’s growing scholarly interest in the field of contemporary British art is taking a variety of forms. Following on fromthe conference that we organised in December 2013 to accompany and respond to the Tate Britain exhibition Painting Now: Five Contemporary Artists, we are currently working with colleagues from the Whitechapel Gallery and Film

London on a major conference entitled Artists’ Film in Britain: From 1990 to today. The purpose of this three-day event, which will take place at the Whitechapel on 5-7th November, is to map the recent history of artists’ moving image practice in Britain and to broaden discussion on this topic. We hope the conference will showcase and further encourage the exciting new scholarly research that is taking place within this burgeoning subject of art-historical study. More details to follow!

As well as institutional collaborations like this one, we pursue more informal forms of exploration in this area. Last week, I had the privilege of spending some time with two leading contemporary British painters, Dexter Dalwood and George Shaw, and discussing their work in some detail.

Dalwood, a Turner prize nominee in 2010 and Professor of Painting at Bath Spa University, accompanied me on a walk around his current exhibition, London Paintings, which is on show at the Simon Lee Gallery until January 24th. The display offers a complex pictorial meditation on a variety of themes: the history and imagery of earlier artists living and working in London, including Whistler, Monet, Sickert, Hockney and Freud; Dalwood’s own engagement with the capital and its art world over the past thirty years; and the character and spaces of the city at different moments in its modern history.

 at Simon Lee Gallery, London

Installation of 'London Paintings', at Simon Lee Gallery, London

Shaw, who was nominated for the Turner Prize in the year after Dalwood, is currently the painter in residence at the National Gallery. Speaking at his temporary studio at the Gallery, which has quickly become crowded with a mass of new sketches, studies and paintings, the artist discussed his own enduring preoccupation with a particular environment – in his case, the area near Coventry in which he grew up, and which provides so much of the topographical and emotional underpinning for his work.


George Shaw, Scenes from the Passion: Wednesday Week, 2003

Digital image courtesy of Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

His paintings, too, conjure up particular moments not only of a personal history but of the wider history and imagery of modern Britain. At times, they seem to feed off and contribute to a particular strand of urban representation concerned with the geometric aesthetics and cultural resonances of ostensibly nondescript public spaces: council estates, recreation grounds, empty car-parks. At others, their depiction of gloomy stretches of forest criss-crossed by partially hidden pathways and littered with the cast-off clues of secret activity – a shoe, a beer-can, the remnants of a fire – seem to explore the darker side of that English landscape tradition so in evidence elsewhere in the National Gallery. These shadowed spaces of woodland, often edged by brick walls and wire fences, appear as the contemporary heirs to those gloomy, impenetrable but fascinating pockets of woodland that Gainsborough often introduced into his paintings as counterpoints to the sunlit trails that lead the eye out into the open landscape.

For an art-historian far more used to engaging with the work of eighteenth-century painters such as Gainsborough, and thereby reliant on second-hand expressions of their thinking about their work, it was a rare treat to have the chance to talk in depth to both Dalwood and Shaw. Their very different work, and their commentaries on that work, confirms that advanced forms of painting continue to address aesthetic and cultural concerns that are both pressingly contemporary and caught up in far longer cycles of history, memory and visual art.

About the author

  • Director at the Paul Mellon Centre