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