It’s interesting that a young artist living in London chooses to predominantly paint landscapes. In David Shackleton’s sparse pastoral scenes, we never see the city. There’s no background buzz of technology, industry or commerce. There are no mobile phones, no streetlamps, no wind turbines on the horizon… Instead, we see nature writ large across canvases of lime green and rose pink. We see fields and blue skies, speckled with sunshine and pulsing with life.
Within these ebullient landscapes, man and nature interact – mirroring and mimicking each other by turns. There are scenes of blatant bestiality in Dunham Massey and more subtle moments of communion, as in Bridgewater Canal where a heron and a young boy exude the same poised quietude by the water. We may never see the city in these paintings but we feel it – we feel its absence and its impact.
Shackleton’s work reflects the desire felt by many to escape the city, or to find spaces of difference – or deviance – within it. In some pieces, such as the tenderly painted landscape Highfield, this theme is implicit rather than visually evident; felt, rather than seen. In others, the theme of escape is more obvious, as in an untitled crowd scene set against a brick wall. Here, we see clusters of human silhouettes spill into an open, underground well. There is a sense of urgency in this painting, and desperation. Like his portraits, it speaks of suffocation and the sometimes paralysing impact of social conventions.
In contrast to his multi-narrative landscapes, Shackleton’s portraits are direct and uncompromising. As in canvases such as Spencer and Tommy P, the psychology of the human head is the sole focus. We see damaged faces that look like they belong to a ventriloquist’s dummy, all chalky complexions and bulging eyeballs. These portraits are typical of Shackleton: they demonstrate his obsession with the human mind and soul – the damaged internal worlds that lie inside all of us.
A similar sense of psychological unease fills the interior scene In the Bay, where a choir of decapitated heads floats ominously beside a man’s bed. The man (perhaps a patient) has a Dali-esque quality, his face dripping into and onto the pillow. Haunted by surreal apparitions, this man, like the characters in Spencer and Tommy P, is bodiless and suffering. His head swims with tortured thoughts while his family, friends and fellow humans merely observe his plight.
It is a troubling scene, but one which will speak to anyone who has experienced or witnessed psychological trauma. This man is depressed, anxious and unhealthy. He feels absolutely alone. In the end, he represents the trauma of just being human. Yet there is something in this painting that also suggests the dichotomy between being yourself and ‘fitting in’. For this reason, In the Bay leaves us wondering if such paintings of outsiders reflect (even subconsciously) the position of the artist in a world that wants us to conform.
Compared to the pastoral energy of his landscapes, Shackleton’s portraits and interiors are dark and polemical – they ask us to question perceptions of mental health, as well as the impact of socialization on the human psyche. Throughout his practice lies an implicit faith in the healing power of nature. Whereas his portraits are painted in dehydrated hues of grey, black and sickly peach, his landscapes abound with vibrant colours and textures. Art enthusiasts will enjoy spotting references to famous plein air painters such as Seurat and Van Gogh, while others will enjoy their sense of space and peacefulness. In these landscapes, there is a paradoxical sense of quietude and energy – like a dramatic horizon or restless, cloudy sky, they transfix and invigorate us at the same time.
Shackleton’s portraits and landscapes contrast each other sharply, but they can also be read together as a meditation on what it means to be human. Ultimately, they ask us to consider the lifestyle choices we make – and those that are made for us – while asking questions about the impact of urban life on our sense of self. While Shackleton’s work may, at times, be uncomfortable to look at, his paintings never leave us cold. On the contrary, they remind us of the depth of feeling that exists within each and every one of us, as well as the restorative power of nature in a busy, urban world.
See more of David Shackleton’s work on his website