In the newly relocated Guts Gallery, situated opposite automobile repair shops under the arches of Hackney, artist Corbin Shaw’s newest exhibition Nowt as Queer as Folk stands in solidarity with its working-class surroundings. It’s a fitting exhibition for London’s most exciting new gallery, founded to combat London’s major institutions, a business model the gallery describes as “socio-political austerity.”
Shaw first came prominence creating St George’s flags that criticise the toxic masculinity of his own upbringing, working class routes in Yorkshire that mirror my own. The flags inscribed within the blank spaces, with the survival tactics of a young man growing up in austerity “GET A JOB, GET A CAR, GET MARRIED, GET A MORTGAGE” or simply “WE SHOULD TALK ABOUT OUR FEELINGS.” The simplicity of Shaw’s poetry has gained traction within the political background of rising right-wing politics, rising poverty through the economic turmoil of the pandemic and the scenes of rowdy young men shouting through the streets following England’s national football teams’ journey to the Euro 2020 final.
His latest instalment has a similar eloquence, but instead it is inspired by Adam Curtis’s 2021 film Can’t Get You Out of My Head, the documentary outlining the history of folk music and it’s hijacking of musicians such as Cecil Sharp, who used folk music to bolster British pride whilst spreading messages of right-wing radicalisation and racism.
Shaw uses iconography and cultural elements of folk as a social commentary of rural communities such has his own in Harthill, South Yorkshire. Shaw weaves in his usual slogans from his upbringing such as “PLAYING ON THE PARK UNTIL IT GETS DARK”, but instead of against the background of English nationalism, he plays upon the practice of ‘well flowering’, a pagan custom in which a water source, such as wells, are adorned with flower petals as an appreciation to the Gods for a consistent water supply. Whilst also adding badges to the tapestries, and creating vibrancy, Shaw plays on the myth of contemporary and historical village life, by juxtaposing practices as well-flowering, or adding ribbons to public drinking penalty notice signs to mimic a maypole. By accompanying working class slang with passages of rural myths, Shaw is reminding us of the instability of progress, illustrated by the roots of Brexit through nostalgic ideals of an imperial and independent Britain advertised by right-wing TV personalities.
The romanticism of Shaw’s tapestries, however, is what drives the work. As a Yorkshireman living in the south, I couldn’t help but smile at the largest piece, undecorated by flowers or badges. It reads like an echo chamber of memories if you’re brought up in those working-class northern cities; “BABYCAKES YOU JUST DON’T KNOW KNOW” was my first song sent on Bluetooth as a child ‘larking’ on the park. “HELLY HANSEN, TRACKIES TUCKED INTO SOCKS” was not only embroidered, but, coincidentally, was the outfit I wore to visit Guts Gallery that day.
Shaw’s work mirrors that of the gallery’s ideals, “when trying to be a force for change, we must all ask ourselves, do you want to uphold traditional views or models, or join in with change?” The artworld cannot sustain its financial disparity, nor can Britain, change is a must, and it seems to have begun with the sprouting of a flower.
Nowt as Queer as Folk runs from 10th February – 3rd March 2022.