Corbin Shaw, an artist currently studying at Central Saint Martins in London, grew up like many boys in the UK. “There wasn’t really much to do around our neck of the woods, but my dad would take me to watch our local football team Sheffield United on the weekend, and I would box in the week,” he tells us, describing the environments he grew up in as “heteronormative”. Today, he draws on that upbringing within his work, documenting pubs, football grounds, boxing gyms and welding firms in an attempt to understand his own idea of masculinity and what it means to others in those environments.
“I have always felt a sense of pressure from the hyper-masculine men around me to conform to the same unachievable, outdated standards of what they think a man should be,” Corbin elaborates. “My work looks at the rites of passage of manhood and the obstacles men force each other to conform to.”
Corbin first became interested in working as an artist after an art teacher urged him to attend Leeds College of Art after his A-Levels, from where he then progressed to CSM. However, when he first arrived in London, it proved an alienating experience, as so much of the art he saw felt like it was made for someone else. Until, that is, he encountered the works of Mark Leckey at Tate Britain. “Seeing these works changed everything for me, it felt as though the work addressed me and spoke to me in a visual language that I could understand,” he recalls. “Leckey really inspired me to make a lot of the art I make today.”
While Corbin’s works always begin as photographs or videos documenting typically masculine environments, the final outcomes can vary massively. It’s something which drew him to fine art over other creative media in the first place, as he is not bound by “one specific medium, or format”. To date, he’s produced flags, banners, scarves, desks, beer mats, coins, mugs and collages. These are objects chosen for their specific connotations and are inspired by his upbringing in Yorkshire – “a very proud county, you’re reminded where you are every day by a flag, monument, advertisement or a mining banner from the past” – but also by the remnants of folklore, myths and artworks like the Bayeux Tapestry.
It’s in the combination of these references that Corbin’s work becomes so interesting, highlighting how our means of self-identifying, choosing a tribe and telling stories haven’t really changed, particularly in regards to masculinity. “I am interested in the enforcement or teaching of our gender by our fathers and the construction of our male identity through our idols in the media and our peers,” he says. Currently, this is manifesting in an investigation into how outdated ideas of masculinity can have a detrimental impact on mental health among men, visualised as a series of flags.
“I started making these flags when an old friend of my dad’s, who he regularly attended football with, sadly committed suicide,” Corbin tells us. His flags, which feature bold statements like “SOFTEN UP HARD LAD” and “WE SHOULD TALK ABOUT OUR FEELINGS”, represent a cry for help which is often left unrecognised. Corbin made them in response to the fact that, in the UK, men are three times as likely to die by suicide than women. “I aim to infiltrate spaces like my home-team football ground, where the biggest percentage of the audience is still men,” Corbin says. “My flags aim to subtly get my message across by speaking in a recognisable visual language that doesn’t alienate its audience.” In turn, he hopes the project will have a genuine impact, acting as a catalyst for men to start talking about their mental health and seeking help from friends and family.
Many of these themes and topics are explored by the collective of which Corbin is a member, Boy Don’t Cry, that incorporates artists who make work that talks about their experiences and encounters with mental health in one way or another.
As well as being inspired by “traditional tapestries and historical artefacts from a bygone Britain”, his work incorporates references to modern British pop culture. “I just love pure British crap, whether it’s on the telly, social media or everyday mundane British life,” he remarks. “My signature style is an accumulation of quintessentially British visuals but with a message that spreads across all cultures.” Having developed an incredibly distinctive voice for someone so early on in their career, Corbin is keen to ensure he doesn’t settle. He concludes by saying: “At this moment in time, I would say that my signature visual language is the flags. However, I am always aiming to make different work and constantly strive for something better.”
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor. Get in contact with Ruby about ideas you may have for long-form stories on the site.