Last year the Turner Prize went to a Scottish sound artist of negligible talent. This year all four shortlisted artists are quite distinctively non-metropolitan: one, George Shaw, is from Coventry, another, Hilary Lloyd, from Yorkshire, and the third and fourth – Martin Boyce and Karla Black – from Scotland. What is unusual about this year's shortlist is that it includes the work of an excellent artist, George Shaw, who stands head and shoulders above the rest. What is more, he is also a figurative painter who "almost" (as one of the judges scrupulously pointed out) paints photo-realistically. Does this mean that figurative painting is making a comeback? Yes and no. Most figurative painters would do better to spend their time breeding rabbits. Shaw, however, has a very special sensibility, and if he does not win this prize, we will have further confirmation of the ignorance and perversity of judges.
Shaw's paintings are about returning to one's origins. In his case, this is the Tile Estate, an unlovely, post-war urban development on the outskirts of Coventry. He paints blank-faced, semi-detached houses; the doors of garages; unremarkable nooks and crannies where almost nothing seems to be going on. Cloudy skies lour, flatly; miserable potholes gleam dully in the aftermath of yet more dreary rain. His materials are extremely modest. He uses the kind of Humbrol paints that model makers air-fixate on. And yet, for all the modesty of the subject matter, he makes something utterly remarkable of the truly unremarkable.
The decision to include Shaw on the shortlist, however, is not without its complications, as Penelope Curtis, chairman of the judges, happened to mention to me yesterday. There is a troubling conflict of interest here this year in so far as one of the five judges, Godfrey Worsdale, is director of the Baltic in Gateshead, and Shaw is being nominated for a show which is currently running there. Should you really be allowed to nominate a show which puffs your own gallery? Is there not something a touch ethically dubious about this? What is more, the Turner Prize will be awarded at the Baltic this year. Shaw will no sooner be down South – his retrospective at the Baltic, which closes on 15 May, will open at the South London Gallery on 25 May – than he'll be up North again. Quids in, you might say.