GEORGE Shaw has an immediate answer for those who ask what the difference is in hosting the Turner Prize in Gateshead compared to London.
“About £10,” he says.
The fact that we can see for free at Baltic in Gateshead what we’d have to pay for in the capital – and you have only to see those queues to realise how many people are keen to take advantage of the open-door policy – is a hugely important point for the artist whose says art should, like medicine, be accessible to everyone.
“Otherwise why bother making it,” he says. “For three or four people you went to art college with?”
The Turner Prize, having moved outside the Tate for the first time in its 27-year history, brings us a shortlist that could hardly have a more equal spread: two men, two women; taking in film, installation, sculpture and, courtesy of Shaw, the good old-fashioned art of painting – mood-shifting works all shown to great advantage by Baltic in interlinked spaces.
Shaw’s short-listing followed his exhibition at the Gateshead gallery earlier this year, where The Sly and Unseen Day detailed in Humbrol enamel paint – the kind boys use to paint model planes – muted scenes of the Coventry housing estate where Shaw, born in 1966, grew up: blank-faced homes, brick walls, graffiti, pad-locked shuttered shops, skies sickly yellow or dead grey, and never a person in sight.
Four of them, such as Landscape with Dog Sh*t Bin – a just-rained-upon crossroads with an Edward Hopper-like stillness; the bin a flicker of red in the not-yet-light – make a return. The other four, with titles such as The New Houses and The Same Old Cr*p, he’s created specially for the Turner Prize.
Shaw is as down-to-earth as his paintings, although far chipper than they’d suggest.
And the humour and irony hinted at in those titles and in half-glimpsed words in faded road markings in the paintings, come to the fore when you talk to the man himself.
“There are lots of hidden bits and pieces for my own amusement,” he admits, pointing out that not many people pick up on the V-sign shaped by a couple of trees in one painting entitled The Devil Made Me Do It.
There’s personal significance, for instance, in The Assumption which confronts the viewer with locked gates. It’s actually the site of Shaw’s old Catholic primary school; the assumption, the irony, being in the idea that Our Lady could ascend to Heaven from such a spot.
But these could be estates anywhere.
A rare exception it can be said for the Turner Prize is that Shaw’s work, even his choice of humble Humbrol enamel paints, represents something most of us can relate to. And that’s his point.
Of those paints he explains that, more than having childhood connotations, they’d saved him from having to visit an art shop.
“I found art shops quite intimidating – but you could get these at hardware shops and I realised most houses and garden sheds had them.”
They add a gloss to the mundane, such as the run-down, now off-limits, remains of his dad’s former local, featured in The Age of Bullsh*t which he tells me was inspired by memories of his dad watching the episode of The Likely Lads in which the pair bemoan the loss of their beloved Fat Ox.
“I remember my dad watching that scene, and thinking I was far removed from that ‘old man’ sentimentality.
“That’s what my dad has given me – a chip on my shoulder and a bit of sentimentality!” he laughs.
“A softy poet,” is how the likeable artist describes himself; the romance, sense of aloneness (not necessarily loneliness) in his work captured in spells of solitude.
“I find the opportunities for a romantic, thoughtful state of mind are strongest when I’m on my own.”
He recalls a moment from his childhood when, so absorbed in something, “I looked up and I was the only person in the playground.
“I didn’t feel lonely – more like there was a little corner of the world just for you.”
He finds the notion of solitude romantic “not in the Mills & Boon sense” but in how it acquires a quiet significance. And the way he chooses to work is how he expresses that.
“People who go on and on about their life – me, me, me – are quite boring,” he says, while comedians, for instance, can have serious things to say but use humour to make them more palatable.
He adds: “I wanted to be a singer – I can’t sing!
“What are the chances of being a singer? It’s not going to happen.”
Taking in his paintings, he says: “These are the songs I would have sung. If you read their titles, they could make up the songs on an album. People could read the titles, wonder about the meaning and, after three to four minutes of listening, become aware.”
So, what sort of songs would his be? Blues?
“They would be quite downbeat,” he agrees.
“The bands I liked from the late 70s, early 80s were The Jam and The Specials. They sang about quite dark subjects: social injustice, teenage pregnancy, war – but people dance to it; nightclubs full of 500 people jumping up and down!”
The unlikely relationship between the downbeat and the uplifted is the kind of thing that strikes him but that, he points out, is how life is.
The Turner Prize runs at Baltic until January 8, with talks by the shortlisted artists taking place this month. George Shaw’s, on Saturday, is sold out.