Lives in Sydney, Australia
Garry Shead is one of Australia's most celebrated contemporary figurative painters, with his work steeped in allegory and symbolism, inviting spiritual, philosophical and historical interpretation.
Shead attended the National Art School in Sydney 1961-1962 and from 1966 exhibited regularly with Sydney's Watters Gallery. In 1967 he received the Young Contemporaries Prize, travelling to Japan, France, Vienna, New Guinea and Budapest. During this period, Shead also worked in film and television, being a founding member of the Ubu Film collective and making experimental films. Shead was also artist in residence at Karolyi Foundation Studio in Vence through the Victorian Arts Board in 1982 and has completed residencies with the indigenous artists of Lockhart River.
In the late 1980s he developed the figurative paintings for which he is best-know; the Bundeena Paintings the D. H. Lawrence Kangaroo Series(1993) and the Queen Elizabeth II Series (1995).
His work has been included in group exhibitions including the Archibald, Wynne, Sulman and Moran Prizes at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. Shead was awarded the Archibald Prize in 1993 and the Dobell Prize in 2004. His work is held in all major collections in Australia, including the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra and Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.
“Shead is an artist who subscribes to what is now an unfashionable theory that the artist is a medium who surrenders to his Muse. Although he is an exquisite technician, who has spent forty years mastering the skills of the old masters, in the final analysis, as he notes in his journal "Ern Malley emerges from the blank page”...”
(excerpt from Garry Shead and the Ern Malley series by Sasha Grishin, 2003
THE MUSE OF MOUNT PLEASANT
ARTIST STATEMENT -
“My uncle found his fulfilment in poring his heart and soul into the art of his winemaking. In the present work, I believe I have come to the essence of Maurice O’Shea’s muse at Mount Pleasant.”
Maurice O’Shea 1987 – 1956, is best remembered as this country’s most celebrated wine maker having studied at Grignon University in Montpellier, France. He founded Mount Pleasant Wines at Pokolbin in the Hunter Valley in 1922 when hardly anyone in Australia drank table wine. Through the twenties and the Great Depression, O’Shea devoted his life and turned a remote Hunter Valley vineyard into an Australian legend.
Marcia Singer Fuller a cultured pianist was the love of his life. They married in 1926 and had a daughter Simone. Maurice was a devout Catholic and Marcia a firm Protestant, and life in the country together was to prove difficult for them in many ways. Marcia left Maurice in 1936. In his grief Maurice poured his heart and soul into the legendary dry red Mountain ‘A’ 1937, acknowledged by connoisseurs as one of the greatest wines produced in Australia.
Throughout Garry Shead’s childhood his family would spend Easter at Mount Pleasant. These visits were very important to Shead cultural development and where he saw his uncle expressing joy in socialising and celebration around food and fine wine in great company. Maurice was an excellent cook.
It is these impressions and memories that first inspired the many images dating back to Shead’s adolescent works in the 1950s through to a series of paintings exhibited at Watter’s Gallery in the 1960s. These paintings used wine glass bases as spectacles to mimic the extreme myopia of his uncle.
More recent exhibitions, curated by Gavin Wilson and titled, ‘Love on Mount Pleasant – Garry Shead Toasts Maurice O’Shea’, have been exhibited in the Regional Galleries of Orange & Maitland NSW, Australian Galleries in Sydney and Philip Bacon Galleries in Brisbane.
Shead’s images bring together the sacramental aspect of wine in its Christian manifestation and also the pagan Dionysian festive influences of wine, incorporating ritual madness and ecstasy.
PRECURSIVE PAINTINGS BY GARRY SHEAD
OPENING SPEECH BY SASHA GRISHIN -
Floating angels and hovering Muses, enigmatic smiles, sacrificial mermaids and kangaroos in flames – this is some of the imagery which inhabits Garry Shead’s new exhibition. What are we make to make of all of this?
For almost two decades Shead’s art has been dominated by three major thematic series of work – the D.H. Lawrence paintings, the Royal suite and the Ern Malley cycle. As none of the paintings in this exhibition seems firmly rooted in any one of these series, the ingenious Paul Greenaway coined the term “precursive paintings”, I assume that this is meant to designate the idea that these works are a precursor to some new series of work which is as yet to appear. This seems to be a much more positive term than transitional paintings or even worse, unresolved body of work.
However this is only one way of thinking about Garry Shead’s work – in terms of its subject matter and narrative. When you think about it, this may not be a totally satisfactory approach for even in his major series, which I have just mentioned, they are all paintings about a cast of characters and symbolically charged situations, rather than paintings illustrating a particular text or narrative. Perhaps it could be more meaningful to think of his work as being united by a certain sensibility and a meditative experience. If we think of the paintings in this exhibition from this perspective, then they all seem to be mainly about loss, sacrifice and letting go. They are, like the best of Garry Shead’s work, excruciatingly personal, even confessional, often erotic, but never literal, spiritually charged and direct in their emotional impact.
Take for example the major canvas, The sacrifice. In the centre are two figures accompanied by the two birds – the magpie and the sulphur-crested cockatoo - and there is the kangaroo in flames in the background which seems to be a source of illumination. All of this, taken together with the coastal cottage and the scrubby foreshore of the NSW coastline, may remind one of the DH Lawrence series, but such a reading would be somewhat erroneous. On closer examination it would appear that the male figure, positioned strategically in the exact centre of the composition, appears as if crucified in space, his head slightly inclined to one side as in traditional medieval Crucifixion of Christ scenes. I think that it was Arthur Boyd who originally introduced the swooping magpie in his Crucifixion imagery of the 1940s. With Shead the magpie and the cockatoo adopt the role of the sun and the moon, the polarity which defines human existence and without which no traditional Crucifixion scene would be complete. The most interesting and telling figure is that of the female nude, who like a mermaid belongs to the sea knowing that if she leaves the water she must perish, while if she returns to the sea she will sacrifice her love for ever. What is very unusual in Shead’s oeuvre is that she has her faced turned away from the spectator and her identity is known only to the one who is crucified. Her form and the colour of her hair suggests that this could be Judit, the artist’s wife who died on 8th of May 2007, yet the work thrives in its sense of ambiguity. When the identities are not firmly fixed, then there is room for allegory and symbolism and the freedom of association which delivers a deeply personal reading uniquely relevant to each beholder. On closer examination it seems that the kangaroo is opening the window and offering a path of escape – but for these sacrificial lovers there is no, and never will be, a way out.
In an intimately related painting, The metamorphosis, the three protagonists re-occur – the sacrificial woman, the man and the flaming kangaroo – but the dynamics of the composition have altered, as she clings on to him as if dragging him into the sea, while he clings on to the kangaroo, the terrestrial aurora, dragging him back to shore and the land of the living. Shead’s imagery is slightly mystical and contemplative, like a waking dream – one in which you sleep little and see much. It is gentle, lyrical and evocative. What saves the work from being an illustration of a fantasy is the sheer beauty and absolute mastery of technique, the composition emerges out of the surface of the paint, neither laboured nor facile, but as a single breath of creation concealing the various formal battles with compositional structure and seems to celebrate those sonorous colour hues.
Once you enter the peculiarity of Garry Shead’s lyrical and expressive pictorial language the whole drama with its power of human emotion unfolds and a painting like The Proclamation, appears to slot into a series of paintings dealing with loss, sacrifice and letting go in situations where it is impossible to let go. The danger with following too closely prescriptive readings is that the audience will cease to see anything beyond a self-referential autobiographical reading which will in some ways belittle the work. I have had the privilege of seeing Garry Shead work and know that quite often he operates almost in a trance-like state, where, after the best part of half a century of painting, technical solutions offer themselves intuitively and the painting adopts a life of its own full of unexpected surprises for both the artist and his audience. One can think of it as the Muse operating through the artist who becomes a vehicle through which she works her inspirational magic.
Of course Paul is correct in that each painting is a precursor of the one that follows like a powerful unfolding diary of visual ideas. Why Garry Shead is one of Australia’s most distinguished and acclaimed lyrical figurative artists is because he manages to convey that unique sense of pictorial magic where we are given privileged access to a world which is both tangible and real, but also has the quality of otherness, that of the waking dream and the quiet revelation, where we feel and see visual truths which can only be revealed through art.
Professor Sasha Grishin AM, FAHA
The Sir William Dobell Professor of Art History
Australian National University