Amazed and Amused
WITH DEMAND FOR THIS MID-CAREER PAINTER’S WORK AT AN ALL TIME HIGH, DR SASHA GRISHIN
CHARTS THE ARTIST’S CAREER AND SPECULATES ON THE ROLE OF THE MUSE IN HIS WORK.
In Garry Shead’s art there is a bewildering variety of styles and technical
strategies, prompting some critics to tag him an ‘artistic
chameleon’. He received notoriety in the 1960s with his own peculiar
blend of pop art, laced with a quirky sexuality and at times
exploring gruesome and sensational themes. In the 1970s and 1980s,
his work was markedly out of fashion with the prevailing trends of the
Sydney art scene. When abstraction, cool sensibilities and minimalism
were receiving curatorial attention, he was exploring the imagery of
high romanticism in his personal re-evocations of the Arthurian myth,
together with excursions into candy eroticism and pop imagery, some
of which was inspired by the cult heroes from popular comics.
Although predominantly a Sydney artist – he was born there in 1942
and trained at the National Art School – Shead achieved his artistic
maturity in the 1970s and 1980s when he travelled extensively in
Europe and studied the techniques of the old masters. It was at this
time that he achieved his remarkable technical facility and could feel
equally at home with a glaze invented by Vermeer, the expressive gestural
mark of Rembrandt or with the optical trickery of Dali.
Looking back at the first three decades of his work, Shead has
gained proficiency in a wide range of artistic media and forms. He has
created a serious body of work in experimental film, photography, collage,
assemblage, printmaking, painting and drawing. If we approach
his oeuvre from a formalist and stylistic point of view, then the diversity
is overwhelming and it appears like a path studded with wrong
turns and pointless experimentation. However, should one reassess
his oeuvre from a more conceptual perspective, and look at what the
work is about, rather than only at the technical means employed for its
resolution, then quite a surprising unity emerges. One could argue
that Shead’s work from the early 1960s to the present, in all mediums,
represents many different paths travelled in pursuit of the same Muse.
Philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy persuasively argues the case for nine
separate Muses, as nine quite distinct forms of inspiration, leading to
different kinds of artistic creation. He writes: “The arts are older than
religion… The Muses are daughters of Mnemosyne – not in a single
conception, but after nine nights spent with Zeus – and they carry the
memory of what comes before the divine order.” 1 It can be argued that
Erato, the erotic Muse, has been Shead’s guiding source of inspiration
throughout his life’s work.
From the late 1980s onwards in Shead’s work there appear series of
paintings, drawings and prints which explore different personal
mythologies. In each instance, the imagery has a focus on an epic
theme, but this has been interpreted on different levels which accommodate
personal, national and universal humanist readings. DH
Lawrence, when writing on painting, noted that “A picture lives with
the life you put into it. If you put no life into it – no thrill, no concentration
of delight or passion of visual discovery – then the picture is
dead, like so many canvases, no matter how much thorough and scientific
work is put in it.” 2 With Shead it is precisely the question of the
inner life of a painting that is central to his art making and this inner
life is dependant on inspiration and on Erato.
The Outback series Shead commenced in 1986. The catalyst was a
visit to cartoonist Bruce Petty’s place in Maianbar, near
Bundeena in the Royal National Park, where he came across a
book on Sidney Nolan’s landscapes. “Then something in me clicked,”
Shead said in a 1998 interview. “It was a liberating experience and
immediately on returning to my Sydney studio I commenced the first
First published in Australian Art Collector,
Issue 14 October-December 2000
ABOVE: Garry Shead, Crown land, (Royal suite), 1997. Oil on board, 60x51 cm. COLLECTION: PRIVATE
OPPOSITE PAGE: Garry Shead, Dancers, 1999.Oil on canvas, 121 x 92 cm. COLLECTION: PRIVATE.
PHOTOS: GREG WEIGHT. IMAGES REPRODUCED COURTESY GARRY SHEAD
Shead has a serious body of work in experimental
film, photography, as well as collage, assemblage,
printmaking, painting and drawing
of the horse paintings.” Shead’s father had brought him up on tales of
outback adventures as a jackeroo in the 1920s and this became a
source of imagery in the series.
Shead saw in this theme a universal allegory, a myth which had both
a specific and personal meaning, as well as a much broader national
symbolic significance. The series has a strong sense of allegorical narrative,
in the same way as we may apply the term to Arthur Boyd’s Bride
series, where in a non-literal manner, the central theme gradually
unfolds. It has been argued that the central theme of Boyd’s series is
frustration, 3 with Shead it is the sense of loss and sacrifice.
In 1987 Shead moved with his wife, the sculptor Judith Englert, to
Bundeena, where a year later their daughter Lilla was born. At the beginning
of the 90s a number of factors converged. The presence of Shead’s
wife within the coastal environment of Bundeena with the rocky hillsides,
angophoras, currawongs and cockatoos, created an environment
which seemed to prepare him for engaging with Lawrence who lived
with his European wife in nearby Thirroul. In 1991 Shead came under the
spiritual guidance of Siddha Yoga, when Gurumayi Chidvilasananda
visited Australia, and felt a great spiritual clarity, focus and calm.
AUSTRALIAN ART COLLECTOR 79
Garry Shead, The supper, (Lawrence series),
1992. Oil on board, 91.5 x 122.5 cm.
COLLECTION: PRIVATE. PHOTO: GREG WEIGHT.
IMAGE REPRODUCED COURTESY GARRY SHEAD
Garry Shead, Stockman’s dream (Outback series), 1988. Oil on canvas, 120x152 cm.
COLLECTION: PRIVATE. PHOTO: GREG WEIGHT. IMAGE REPRODUCED COURTESY GARRY SHEAD
Shead came under the spiritual guidance of Siddha Yoga, when Gurumayi
Chidvilasananda visited Australia, and felt a great spiritual clarity, focus and calm.
80 AUSTRALIAN ART COLLECTOR
Late in 1991 he commenced work on the Lawrence/Kangaroo series.
DH Lawrence once described the novel Kangaroo as a “thought adventure,”
as a novel “where nothing happens and such a lot of things should
happen.” 4 Shead’s Kangaroo series is a personal, intuitive response to
the novel, rather than an attempt to illustrate the narrative. The
imagery has as much to do with the Lawrences at Thirroul, as with the
characters in the novel. Richard Somers and his wife Harriet, of the
novel, in the paintings appear, as strange and ambiguous figures, at
times taking on the features of Lawrence and Frieda, at others, having
more than a passing resemblance to Shead and his wife Judith. There
is created a constantly changing fabric of ambiguity, with the blurring
of identities and a complex pattern of inter-relationships. Not only are
the central figures ambiguous in their identity, but so too is their main
adversary, the Kangaroo. The Kangaroo, which appears in most of the
paintings, is more of a presence than an identifiable character.
The artistic statement which Shead makes in the Kangaroo paintings
is one of provocative simplicity, wit and dramatic power. As with the
Lawrence novel, you are left with the feeling that you have encountered
something significant and powerful. In both there is a strong
narrative, where in a way, nothing much happens, but a lot of things
should happen, and you spend years in your mind seeing them through
to fruition. The Lawrence series received major critical acclaim in
Australia and overseas and Shead’s national standing was further
enhanced when he was awarded the Archibald prize in 1993 for his
portrait of Tom Thompson. Shead has been hung in over a dozen
Hard on the heels of the Lawrence series, Shead in 1995 commenced
work on the Royal suite paintings associated with the visit of
1954 Royal Tour of Australia, which the artist had witnessed as an
11-year-old child. Although Shead could be described as a republican
and these paintings promptly entered the republican debate of
the late 1990s, this was not the primary intention of the series. It
had been a long time in the making, about 40 years in fact, and
employed the metaphor of the Royal Visit of 1954 to explore a wide
range of themes. Implicit in the series is a discussion of childhood
sexuality, and the oedipal complex with its attendant patricidal
wish and desire to reclaim the queen. Also implicit are the Jungian
notions of heroes and journeys, a spiritual quest for the new Holy
Grail, connected with perhaps a not totally pure or blemishless
royal presence. In a sense they are also historical paintings, looking
back to the Australia of the 1950s when the omnipresent figure of
Menzies dominated so much of the political scene. The Royal Suite
paintings reflect something of the naive innocence of youth, of
events seen through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy.
He achieved his remarkable technical facility and
could feel equally at home with a glaze invented by
Vermeer, the expressive gestural mark of Rembrandt
or with the optical trickery of Dali.
Unlike the Lawrence paintings, the Royal Suite images do not
engage a pre-existing narrative. Nor do they illustrate the royal
progress through Australia, documenting events and encounters.
The Royal Suite is like a series of tableau paintings, each possessing
a dramatic and unexpected character, but each also graced with a
lyrical charm and a gentle sensuousness. Events unfold under
clear skies or spectacular Southern Hemisphere sunsets, where the
absurd royal couple, possibly Elizabeth and Philip, or Garry and
his mum, move among their subjects: koalas, cockatoos, emus,
kangaroos, cows, dogs and sheep. Where human figures join in,
they appear as unconvincing echoes of the royals, and are occasionally
accompanied by the token Aborigine dressed in full
Shead’s Royal Suite invites readings on different levels. The series
can be interpreted as a historical recreation of a specific royal visit
in 1954 as seen through the distorting mirrors of memory and the
eyes of an 11-year-old boy. The whole series can also be interpreted
as an allegory, an expression of a naive belief in a white goddess,
one who was seen as supernatural, who could not be touched or
experienced, but could only be worshipped. She came from a
remote place and appeared to her subjects in the form of a celestial
apparition. Simultaneously, subverting this interpretation, was a
growing awareness of a sordid reality which surrounded her, with a
faithless consort and the growing impotence of imperial power.
Perhaps on the simplest level, the series is about a quest for beauty
and a lost innocence, a quest for a new Holy Grail. It is a tale about
the gradual process of disillusionment where Shead peels away the
taboos to reveal the sensuous vulnerable flesh, strategically
planted erotic fetishes expose this sovereign as a desirable, yet
slightly tragic being. They are wonderfully evocative, lyrical and sensuous
paintings, which may mock the monarchy, but which
celebrate the erotic Muse.
First published in Australian Art Collector,
Issue 14 October-December 2000
AUSTRALIAN ART COLLECTOR 81
Garry Shead, The dream (Lawrence series), 1992. Oil on board, 122x152.5 cm. COLLECTION: PRIVATE.
PHOTO: GREG WEIGHT. IMAGE REPRODUCED COURTESY GARRY SHEAD
Garry Shead made the perfect debut for his new dealer
Stuart Purves earlier this year when he sold out his entire
show of new works before opening night of his Sydney
exhibition at Australian Galleries.
“I guess we were just ready for each other,” comments a
wry Purves, director of Australian Galleries, Sydney and
Melbourne. “You don’t get a genuine sellout like that very
often – we’re very pleased to have hooked up with Garry at a
time when he is finally coming into his own.”
Purves has set prices for new works ranging from $16,000
to $75,000 – bechmarks that are no astonishment to those
who have witnessed the market for Shead steadily grow, and,
in the last 18 months or so, take the great leap forward.
Before 1998, Shead’s major paintings rarely eclipsed
$10,000 at auction. Since then he has achieved ten sales
beyond the $25,000 mark, nine of those since last spring, and
three of them beyond $50,000.
His saleroom record remains Envoy, and oil on board from
the DH Lawrence series which achieved $63,000 at Christie’s
Melbourne sale in November, against an estimate of
Judging by this year’s winter round of auctions collectors
now seem to be holding on to works. Only one major work
was offered by Christie’s in August – an 89.5x120 cm oil
painting from 1988 entitled Metamorphosis – and it was
passed in. Sotheby’s did better with the 91x121 cm oil The
Edge, another from the Lawrence series which sold for
$55,200, right in the zone against an estimate of $45,000-
Smaller works are, of course, more affordable. Paintings in
the vicinity of 30x30 cm have been attracting prices in the
$5,000-7,000 range and are regularly appearing at auction.
(All prices quoted include buyer’s premium.)
82 AUSTRALIAN ART COLLECTOR
First published in Australian Art Collector,
Issue 14 October-December 2000
There is a profound tenderness in the gaze, where
for the artist the Muse is a revelation, something
magical and a being who does not exist in a specific
time or place.
Over the past few years two series of paintings have preoccupied
Shead, the Dancers and the Artist and the Muse. They are
adventurous but also self-conscious works, where Shead in
an analytical manner investigates the appearance and role of Erato.
Again, Dancers can be interpreted on a number of levels. The constant
re-occurring motif is that of the fully clad male dancer, usually shown
in an evening suit and occasionally appearing slightly awkward and
uncertain of himself, accompanied by a nude, or an almost nude,
female dancer. On a basic level, there is the aspect of voyeuristic
erotic wish fulfilment, building on the surrealist strategy of undressing
the woman with the male gaze 5 that had been so effectively
employed by René Magritte, Paul Delvaux and later by Balthus. There
is also a hint at a more metaphysical dimension of this dance, relating
it to the dance of life as interpreted by artists like Edvard Munch.
The dance is performed on an allegorical stage – the arena of life. In
most of the paintings in the Dancer sequence, there is an indication of
an open door in the background, at times cast in darkness, at times
shown as the source of light, but in all instances the doorway offers a
path for escape.
The Artist and the Muse series of paintings appears to almost seamlessly
grow out of the Dancer sequence of paintings. In Shead’s work
tongue-in-cheek humour cannot be equated with complete frivolity, so
that by painting Rembrandt, Goya or Velázquez with their Muse, this
is not an exercise in satire, but an exploration into a rather complex
labyrinth of ideas. Shead is an artist who in most instances has to
enter the work by putting himself into the composition – whether he
be Lawrence, Prince Philip, a dancer, or in this case, an artist. However
entering a composition does not imply that he ‘owns’ it, as painting
grows through its own internal logic and momentum, but he enters it
to give it life and then participates in the delight and agony of its
growth and development. It is interesting that Shead has not called
the series, ‘the artist and his model’, but precisely, the artist and the
Muse. In each instance we recognise Erato, as she may have appeared
to Rembrandt, Goya or Velázquez.
There is an expression of passion as Shead pays homage to the old
masters. Despite the secular iconography, his figures inhabit spiritually
charged spaces. There is a tenderness in the gaze, where for the artist
the Muse is also a revelation, something magical and a being who does
not exist in a specific time or place. They are also paintings of considerable
colouristic complexity and sophistication in the handling of the
paint with wonderful loose breathing surfaces, where beneath the flicker
of a white highlight there is an internal glow that seeps through veils of
translucent colour. Shead’s work of the late 90s – the dancers, the artist
and his Muse and a number of large religious paintings – are all part of
the same theme, and belong to the same source of inspiration.
They all pay homage to the same Muse.
1. Jean-Luc Nancy, The Muses, translated by Peggy Kamuf, Stanford University Press,
Stanford, California 1996, p.36
2. D.H. Lawrence, “Making pictures”, in Mervyn Levy (ed.), Paintings of DH Lawrence,
Cory, Adams and Mackay, London 1964, p.iii
3. Ursula Hoff, “The paintings of Arthur Boyd”, Meanjin. Vol 17/2 (1958) pp.143-47
4. Letter to Catherine Carswell, June 22, 1922, DH Lawrence, Complete works, Letters II,
Heinemann/Heron, Geneva , p.711.
5. See Mary Ann Caws, “Ladies shot and painted: Female embodiment in surrealist
art”, in Susan Rubin Suleiman (ed.), The female body in Western culture: Contemporary
perspectives, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA 1986, pp.262-287