Corbin Shaw’s artwork is striking. From his Instagram profile photo – a one-pound coin – to his exhibition work, it is suffused with images of English-ness. More specifically, Shaw’s subject matter centres on Sheffield, masculinity and lad culture.
Lad culture emerged with the Brit-pop movement in the 1990s. It was a subcultural trend mirrored in the rowdy, defiant masculinity of figures like the Gallagher brothers, with their very public interest in football, fighting and booze. It is important to remember that the ‘new lad’ was a pop-cultural development historically specific to the era of Oasis and Euro ‘96, and not – as it is sometimes treated – ‘just how boys are’ or ‘just the natural way of things.’
Shaw presents lad culture as one-dimensional and restrictive, but also deep rooted in the communities of the post-industrial North in which he grew up, and not without redeemable characteristics.
Consider, for instance, his 2020 video ‘Greasy Chip Butty’. In it, Shaw and his Dad sing the football chant ‘Greasy Chip Butty’, which Shaw said was passed down to him at a young age. Shaw is a Sheffield United fan, from a family of Sheffield United fans, and the video traces the lineage of terrace chants back to the late nineteenth century:
“Football chants may be considered one of the last remaining sources of oral folk tradition… I wanted to use this song as a way of examining how our masculine identity is taught like oral tradition”, Shaw explains.
The idea behind Shaw’s work is to demonstrate how going to the football is an occasion that unites a city’s different generations, and also one through which boys learn codes of behaviour, by singing songs about violence, beer-drinking and the like, that can lock them into the same old generational cycles of emotional illiteracy.
In this, his art feels timely and vital. A series of powerful messages can be seen emblazoned on flags, reading: ‘we should talk about our feelings’, ‘save our bastard sons’ and ‘I’m never going to be one of the lads’. These are important statements in a world of spiralling male suicide rates and where men are less likely to access mental health support.
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The first time I saw one of his images was on Instagram in 2019: an England flag fluttered from a goal-post, bearing the message “soften up hard lad”. In the background was a green football pitch and, behind it, the sea. I remember the image clearly: brilliant, so well done, such a great sentiment. It is a beautiful photograph and the caption is well worth a read, too – it ends, “gender roles aren’t healthy for anyone”.
Shaw’s art is not about Manchester. He is from a small ex-mining village in South Yorkshire, but his emphasis on what it’s like growing up in a post-industrial space undoubtedly resonates on this side of the Pennines, too.
There are attempts in his work to redefine what it is to be ‘a man’. There is also an attempt to represent Sheffield, and the broader South Yorkshire area, in a way that seeks to subvert old stereotypes whilst still cherishing its roots. You can love going to football matches with your Dad and still be empathetic. You can recognise terrace culture as a form of working-class folk tradition and celebrate it as such, without blindly accepting a stunted form of masculinity. He allows these tensions to stand.
It is difficult, however, to hold too much in tension when the means of carrying your message is a few words on a flag. Part of the power of Shaw’s work is its simplicity, but this has its problems. Here we have to wonder about his audience and whether the directness of his work perhaps leaves him open to misinterpretation.
His emphasis on what it’s like growing up in a post-industrial space undoubtedly resonates on this side of the Pennines
Shaw is a graduate of Central St. Martins and now lives in London. His debut solo-exhibition (which finished on the 21st December) was with London’s Guts Gallery. He recently featured in London-based magazine The Face.
According to a report by the thinktank ‘Onward,’ London currently receives half of all government spending on culture. From 2010-11 to 2017-18, London received £679 per head in culture funding, compared to an average of £144 in the rest of the country.
Sheffield receives even less funding from Arts Council England than Manchester, Leeds or Liverpool – significantly less, compared to Manchester.
“I probably would never have made this work if I was back home,” Shaw told The Face. “It’s only after you leave an area that you actually think about it a lot more.”
The art world is centred on the capital. It is not a criticism of Corbin Shaw to say that art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Rather, it is produced in relationship with an audience, and as such, there is a potentially awkward link between presenting work loaded with stereotypes and attempts to invert or challenge those same stereotypes. Using England flags and imagery of football and lager can be a double-edged sword.
There is a risk that, in certain cultural spaces, work like ‘Greasy Chip Butty’ could be received as little more than an entertaining, slightly foreign, but achingly ‘authentic’ story from those far away Northern lands. There is a risk of it being read only as a caricature, a post-card, an image of Sheffield that flattens it and is – as a result – inaccurate.
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Shaw is certainly seeking to challenge people’s perceptions. Yet it is a reality of life as a young artist, trying to navigate the spaces in which his career might flourish, that most of the people viewing and supporting his work will not be from Sheffield.
In Joe Kennedy’s 2017 book Authentocrats, he identifies the way in which voices from culturally marginalised communities, in attempt to carve out a space for themselves, can end up parodying the same places and people they sought to represent.
Shaw’s work is imperfect and exists in an imperfect world, but it also carries a series of vital messages directed at the present
We should talk more; we should be kinder. There is more to life than football, cheap lager and Fred Perry. These are, of course, the points Shaw is trying to make. We have inherited a culture that expects men to look and act a certain way. Shaw plays into that narrative to try and change it. But in subverting masculinity through the prism of lad culture, the worry must be that Shaw inadvertently locks his representations of masculinity into that same prism: white, laddy, ‘classically’ northern.
This is an interesting dynamic and one that tells us something about the artistic centre of gravity in this country. There is a necessary strain between who Shaw’s work is about and who receives it that would be eased somewhat if the art world was less dominated by London.
That being said, perhaps at a certain point you do just have to crack on and say whatever it is you feel needs to be said. The work is the important thing: Shaw’s is imperfect and exists in an imperfect world, but it also carries a series of vital messages directed at the present. We would do well to heed them.
In September 2020, Corbin Shaw’s artwork was exhibited by Guts Gallery as part of the exhibition marathon “It’s 2020 For F*ck Sake”. Founded by Ellie Pennick, Guts provides a platform for emerging artists who are underrepresented in mainstream institutions. You can find information about upcoming exhibitions on their website and follow Shaw on Instagram @corbinshaww.
Joe has also written about issues around relying on the idea of ‘England’ in politics and culture in his review of Alex Niven’s ‘New Model Island’.
Featured: Corbin Shaw, ONE OF THE LADS, 2020, Cotton thread 90 x 150cm. Used with permission from Guts Gallery, London. Photography: Diego Hernández
Joe Ronan is Head of Editorial at Salt Magazine and is from South Manchester. He is interested in books, music and how the internet is changing culture. He also writes about sport. Follow Joe on Twitter @JoeRo99.