Gordon Shepherdson (b. 1934) is one of “the major artists of Australia’s figurative tradition” (Louise Martin Chew, The Australian, 6/6/1997) with an exhibiting history of over 50 years. Shepherdson’s work is in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria, the Queensland Art Gallery (where a career retrospective was held in 1997) and several tertiary and regional collections. His work has been included in major survey publications on Australian art including Horton, M. (ed) 'Present Day Art in Australia' Ure Smith, London, 1969 and Murray Cree, L. & Drury, N. (ed). 'Australian Painting Now' Craftsman House, Sydney 2000. “Shepherdson records, primarily for his own satisfaction, the raw experience, the celebration and dark poetry of ‘one man’s stay on the planet.’ ” (Pamela Bell, Art & Australia, 1978).
PAINTINGS FOR AN AUDIENCE OF ONE: WORK FROM THE 1990s
CURRENT TO 11 FEBRUARY 2018
It could be regarded as odd to think of something we might call Australian romanticism, either as a genre or where a single artist or group of artists give expression to its historically accepted disposition. The Angry Penguins fit nicely as do paintings from the 1960s by Arthur Boyd. Other lyrical painting is an observed expressionism – John Perceval, for example - or a painterly symbolism like the late and seemingly endless repertoire of Nolan, where his familiar literalism offers a well-worn meaning, of sorts.
Charles Baudelaire summed up its temperament, ‘Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor in exact truth, but in a way of feeling’.
Subjective vision need not exist as an extreme and turbulent expression of an observed world, its circumstances or particular material fact. It can, of course, but in Gordon Shepherdson’s case it's where an impulsive and intuitive mind transcends any sense of literalism. We are familiar with figures running, nudes held within dark and menacing space. Bulls and open-winged birds and images drawn from literature and religion are each the well-spring for allegories developed within his rich imagination. They are painted without pictorial forethought - the act of painting and its physical process defines the declarative strength of his art.
I know this from personal experience. He painted my portrait and I sat for it. His studio – the shed - is a small space at the bottom of a scruffy-verdant back yard. He paces, settles, talks, offers a beer while stalking a large white sheet of paper clipped to a board on an easel. Silence, total silence, descends then a few staccato lines mark the surface, then brushes and fingers take over. In half an hour or so he needs a break and it takes a while for his mind to calm and he settles. Nothing is an affectation and his natural humility and self-doubt consume the space. I choose not to disrupt the pause in an incomplete momentum and don’t get up to look at the work.
Gordon Shepherdson sits within a familiar pattern of Australian art historical circumstance. He has always lived in Brisbane, a place where a localised expressionism became something of a tag for local modernism. Early in his career and in Sydney, Rudy Komon (Gallery) picked him up. Artists admired his work. He continued to exhibit commercially and in 1997 the Queensland Art Gallery presented an exhibition of painting from 1979 to 1996. He is represented in the NGA and many state, regional and university galleries. To my mind he is the natural consequence of the uncritical acceptance of the repeating blast of Australia’s art historical canon. He doesn’t appear to us as figuratively post-Antipodean let alone playing some Australian card. His interests are vast, and colloquial one-liners never appear.
Exhibitions like this help in reshaping our perceptions of the past, and with next-generation curiosity perhaps comes the prospect of seeing and placing his art differently.
While his work might be familiar, it’s never formulaic. The works in this exhibition hold an all-pervading certainty where black and white as massed and negative space compress the imagery and intensify its sensory experience. The use of half-tones is interrupted with blood-red flecks which amplifies drama. Figures are framed within compositions – open and closed space - and remind us of earlier art historical suggestions and discreet symbolic references to freedom and restraint.
The exuberant expression, those sightless eyes and masks - exaggerations and awkwardness – lead to a sense of intense vulnerability. They really are paintings for our time.
Doug Hall AM