The Death and Life of the Shankill

Watercolourist Stephen Shaw is 'a forensic chronicler' of Belfast

Stephen Shaw’s watercolours immediately appear as realist. Indeed his picking out of detail in the buildings of the Shankill is extraordinary. One can well understand why he finds an appropriate home at the Red Barn, with its mould-breaking role in encouraging documentary photography.

Yet Shaw emphatically states, ‘I would be failing miserably if I was a photorealist.' What distinguishes him? Perhaps hyperrealist would be a better description. It is a matter of light and colour, and particular emphasis where the effects are often subtle but ones that make all the difference.

His choice of subjects also shows the kind of inspiration that comes from long observation: these paintings are the fruit of more than 20 years of work. Shaw, who hails from the Woodvale, is an ‘embedded’ artist in the best sense of the word.

Indeed there is another Red Barn connection. Shaw frequented it in its previous life as a bar, along with Jackie Redpath and photographer Buzz Logan as they plotted the creation of the Shankill Bulletin. Shaw was layout man and also the cartoonist, ‘Head the Bap’.

Redpath, who opened this exhibition, reminded us of how the Shankill’s population has plummeted from 76,000 to 23,000 and principally because of ‘the other troubles’ of redevelopment. Here Shaw becomes the forensic chronicler of that long drawn out disaster. See his ‘Crumlin Road Jail’, where he focuses on the gates and the contrast between official prison blue and the encroaching yellow rust.

'Making Way for the Westlink'

‘Windows and Flagholder’ is just one of a number of examples of how he is a master at portraying decay, and here that of the plaster render on the facade. Back to colour again and ‘Another Bollard’ is just that, but in faded red, white, and blue and assumes the proportions of a phallic symbol.

Transitions in the course of decay enable powerful essays, perhaps most effectively in ‘Fading Mural’, where we can still see a gunman and the Red Hand of Ulster, but they are eroding from below as the plaster finish of the wall falls off.

In ‘Regeneration?’ breeze blocks fall away to reveal a B&Q style door. This was a house that was ‘a wee palace’ before redevelopment swamped it. Deservedly ‘Regeneration?’ was used as a cover illustration for Lionel Shriver’s The Bleeding Heart (1990). In the realm of collapsing plaster I particularly like ‘Found Island’ – plaster has fallen leaving an original brickwork profile of Ireland!

Past splendours still come as a surprise. Perhaps one should expect a ‘Big Green House on the Ballybo’ – it was up the hill, though derelict now. But here we realise that the Berlin Arms on the main road had a fine facade complete with exotic turret; here it is festooned in equal part by aerials and sprouting shrubbery.

So too with the long closed banks at Craven Street and Agnes Street, and at the latter even the pockmarks of bullet strikes in the sandstone facade are faithfully rendered.

It is a story of closures: once there was a ‘Roller for Hire’ in premises that also offered ‘Silver Daimers [sic]'. The ‘Yellow Gate’ of Stadium Auto Services is still just about intact, but its many advertisements for exhausts are a metaphor for its fate. ‘At The Co-Op’ worn 1960s style terrazzo work is a supreme challenge in detail for the watercolourist, and one successfully overcome.

Even more modest houses once had style, perhaps in lovingly observed brickwork around doors and windows, or as in ‘Gone to Glencairn’ where one half of an original late Georgian style portico has fallen away. Other buildings are less redeemable. Shaw records the demolition of the infamous ‘Weetabix’ flats.

Elsewhere the Bayardo Bar is a shuttered shebeen, and ‘Sunday Closing’ presumably satirises another that has closed forever. The ‘Factory Wall’ surmounted by yet more ragged barbed wire is daubed with the enigmatic slogan ‘Not What it Seems’.

‘New Life’ relies on a particularly luxuriant creeper rising to cover a derelict house. Creepers feature again in ‘Walls, Weeds, and Wire’ and Shaw’s plants and barbed wire do have an unhealthy and unreal vividness about them, indeed almost a triffid like menace.

Hope survives in ethereal zones as in ‘Behold’, where derelict buildings are adorned with posters reading ‘Behold Now is the Day of Salvation’ and ‘Bright Midweek Meeting’. Shaw is less successful with human subjects, however, such as the boy in ‘Hey Mister Take My Picture’ and ‘Old Unionist’ who are a trifle wooden, or with landscape as in ‘The Hammer and the Mountain’.

Yet he has truly made his mark with his portrayal of the built fabric. The Shankill has been fortunate in its chroniclers, whether in Ron Wiener’s book The Rape and Plunder of the Shankill (1976), or Buzz Logan’s photography as in The Shankill (1979). Stephen Shaw must now be added to the pantheon.

The Death and Life of the Shankill runs in the Red Barn Gallery until Feburary 26.

'Protestant West Belfast'