Interview with Sarah Shaw

24 June 2015

White Dancers - Sarah Shaw - oil on canvas - framed

Spin - Sarah Shaw - oil on board - framed

Search - Sarah Shaw - oil on canvas - framed

Shift’ the incredible latest solo show by Sarah Shaw has been captivating visitors to the gallery for the past couple of weeks, so we thought it would be appropriate to pick Sarah’s brain on the new body of work. She very kindly agreed to take a break from the studio to answer our questions, and enlighten us with some of the themes and concepts she’s explored in the paintings.


If you haven’t seen the exhibition yet, now is absolutely the time as it enters its final week. The work on show ranges in scale from tiny intimate canvases that could fit in the palm of your hand, to the behemoth ‘Search’ which is the largest piece Shaw has created. We think the entire show acts as a great introduction to owning an original/one off piece artwork, with a host of reasonably priced canvases available. Read on to find out more about the thoughtful, intense and expressive paintings from the brilliantly talented local artist.


Can you explain to us some of the themes you’ve explored in ‘Shift’ and what’s inspired the work?

‘Shift’ brings together a new collection of paintings which explore different ways to express a multitude of ideas around history, time, consciousness and psychology – there are several obvious themes which run through the paintings, the key recurring image being that of something, whether it be a flux of humanity or a natural element, spinning in infinity – shifting in time and space through broken painted frames. I wanted the exhibition to have lots of interlocking reoccurring themes and colours running through, and visualised the show as a whole rather than a series of separate paintings.  I wanted the show to have a shifting sense of scale and imagery and emotion and to range from the epic to the intimate.


‘Shift’ is quite a thought provoking title for a show. Does it refer to a ‘Shift’ in your work, perhaps alluding to shift-like activity of painting or something else entirely? 

Shift' has many different meanings, and I do like exploring language which has different contexts, but I was thinking along the lines of it describing an event that occurs when something passes from one state to another and undergoes a qualitative change.  Towards the end of the making of this show I began to think of the word 'shift' as being the perfect one to illustrate my current practice.   It was also seemed perfectly in keeping with describing some of the qualities of paint, the shift in scale, the sense of time which I always attempt to evoke and the shift in movement of some of the inhabitants of the paintings. My work has undergone some transformations of late, and I have begun exploring a different kind of imagery and experimenting with different processes which have led to somewhat of a sea change in my practice therefore naming the show 'Shift' had personal significance.


You’ve explored a real range in scale in your latest show, from tiny pocket sized pictures, to the largest canvas you’ve ever painted. What was the thinking behind working in these different sizes? 

I wanted the large painting ' Search' to have an equation to real life, so the bending figures had a relation in size to the viewer - I had to compromise a little on this as I would have needed an even larger canvas, but the paintings I have made since the show started are exploring a more human scale.  The thinking behind the range in scale was to explore a sense of the epic versus the intimate - and to explore something of our human relation to nature; an attempt to capture a sense of the sublime.   In the large painting there is a great sense of distance in areas of the painting, contrasting with the painted mire the figures have found themselves searching through, whilst in the more intimately sized paintings an even greater sense of  landscape/space is evoked but constrained by the size of the canvases.


The two canvases Red and White Dancers are reminiscent of the kind of Morris dancing we might associate with old-fashion village fetes. What influenced those paintings? 

Theres something about old English traditions that always gets to me - It's really hard to put my finger on the feeling; its a kind of odd nostalgia, its something about how intriguing human beings can be with their odd customs and traditions and inventions - something about history and my sense of identity as an inhabitant of this country, and something about my gypsy heritage perhaps.  When I started painting the dancers I wanted to get a sense of not only movement and colour and unity but also something darker beneath these customs - something about nature, life and death  -  in the end the paintings evolved into these odd maelstroms of humans in and out of time, dancing, moving , living, fighting through the painted space. 


What overall feelings or emotions would you like viewers of the show to take away with them? 

Thats a difficult question! I think my kind of painting is perhaps not something which has immediate visual impact;  it is work that invites contemplation, like a sense of visual poetry.  I always find poetry relates better to painting than prose as it leaves room for 'somethingness', something which, if there were words to say, there would be no need to paint.  I can't remember who said it but I remember reading about an artist who said that he enjoyed images that change from something literal to something which has the possibility of becoming embedded in the mind - I would hope that the viewer is sufficiently intrigued at least that they would come back and take more time to look.


Over what period of time was this latest body of work created? 

This body of work has been in flux over the last six months, most were completed  in the last month before the show. I think they've been in my head for much longer than that though!


What do you think about while you’re painting? 

When painting is at its best there is a kind of blankness in the mind for me - I'm not thinking about anything specific, just making speedy and intuitive decisions, sometimes about practicalities/material qualities of paint / sometimes about the best way to evoke a certain feeling/ always a questioning of how to best make the two dimensional space suit my purposes  - my tutor used to describe it as 'accelerated consciousness' where the decisions you make are being made so speedily and intuitively obeying your own sense of aesthetics and 'rightness' in a painting.


Talk us through the ‘Tiny Protest Painting’ series. Are these in anyway a response to the recent election? 

Yes, definitely - There is, hopefully, beauty in this exhibition but there is also a dark element running through which is perhaps a sign of the times. The ironically named ‘Tiny Protest Paintings’ give a sense of the powerlessness to change the things I would like to, but the need also to express something in paint, no matter how useless, whilst it is unsure whether the ‘Comrades’ are holding each other fiercely in love or stabbing each other in the back.  If you look closely there are hidden symbols in the paintings, and you're often being watched by some cctv!  


Finally do you have a favourite piece from the show? 

I really enjoyed the process of making 'Search', the largest canvas I've ever worked on, one of the most challenging but also one of the most rewarding.  I was happy with the balance of space/matter/meaning/ abstraction and figuration in the piece - but then I also really enjoyed painting the dancers/fighters in the namesake painting of the show, 'Shift', which has a good balance between a looser painting style just barely held together into figures - I like this space in painting; the fine line where abstraction and figuration meet and have a kind of tension...