Mill exhibition for an artist with an eye for the surreal

A major retrospective of Phil Shaw’s work has just opened at the 1830 Gallery in Halifax. Yvette Huddleston spoke to the artist.
Phil ShawPhil Shaw
Phil Shaw

For an internationally renowned artist who exhibits regularly in New York and London, it might seem strange that Phil Shaw’s first major retrospective is taking place in Halifax.

However, Shaw is an artist who revels in the unexpected – and besides there is a very good reason for his choice of venue. Gallery director John Ross is an old friend – they have known each other since they were students at the Royal College of Art together in the 1970s.

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Ross set up the The Artworks – an art school and studios – in 2008 on three floors of a former textile mill and the 1830 Gallery was opened in 2012. Shaw made a contribution to the initial project and as an art educationalist himself – he has been a lecturer at Middlesex University for the past forty years – has been a keen supporter. “Art schools have lost the vitality I remember as an art student and there is lots of life here,” he says. “I like the space and about six months ago, John asked me if I would like to do a retrospective. I’ve done quite a few things – I have been in a band and I have a doctorate – but whatever you have done it is nice to look back at it as a whole. You realise that some things are not unrelated.”

There are 71 works in the exhibition including paintings, drawings and prints and Shaw describes the show as “a dip into various points” of his career. “The first piece is a pencil drawing I did of my dad in 1968 when I was 18 – and the rest is organised pretty much chronologically.”

Shaw has always had an interest in the absurd – he cites Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll as early influences – and humour is a key element of his art. This is evident in the work for which he has probably become most well-known over the past decade – his bookshelf prints. Rows of books – using the real titles of real books – subtly convey a philosophical message to the viewer, sometimes humorous sometimes serious, often a combination of the two.

“Until I was about 53 I made very little money from selling artwork,” says Shaw. “Then one morning for some reason I woke up with the title ‘The Lust of the Mohicans’ on my mind. I started thinking about famous book titles and how changing one word or even one vowel or consonant could change it. It’s not just a trick of wordplay, it conjures up great images. I like people having to do a double take. I am interested in paradoxes, illusions and things which aren’t what they appear to be.” He started making the books and prints purely for his own amusement and wrily notes that: “Once I stopped being anxious about selling as an artist, I had tremendous success.” They now sell all over the world and his collectors include Jeremy Paxman, Jack Dee and Derren Brown. Last year Shaw was commissioned by the Government to make a special edition bookshelf print to present as a gift to the G8 leaders after their meeting at Lough Erne. “I got a text one morning saying ‘Your work will soon be hanging in the Kremlin, the White House and the Elysee Palace’. I thought it was a joke, but it wasn’t”.

• 1830 Gallery to July 6.