GOR­DON SHEPHERDSON

Artist Profile - - CONTENTS - by Louise Martin-Chew

Gor­don Shepherdson is a man of few words, who has had lit­tle to say about his artis­tic prac­tice. His paint­ings speak for them­selves, evok­ing not words but feel­ings about his be­ing in the world.

LATE IN 2017, ARTIST PRO­FILE VIS­ITED GOR­DON Shepherdson in subur­ban Bris­bane. He is now frail, and has re­cently moved into a nurs­ing home fa­cil­ity, but his stu­dio re­mains as it was. Gor­don’s son, Nathan Shepherdson, breathes deeply as we walk in the stu­dio door, say­ing, “I miss that smell of fresh lin­seed. It was part of the feel­ing of be­ing here – al­ways.”

There is a hu­mil­ity in this build­ing that is in­te­gral to the man. It is your ar­che­typal 1960s Bris­bane back­yard shed, small, cramped, with high win­dows and the door cov­ered to ex­clude the light. Stacked racks of paint­ings oc­cupy the back wall. “The box”, pur­pose-built decades ago by Shepherdson’s brother-in-law to store his work away from the dust and vo­ra­cious Queens­land hu­mid­ity, dom­i­nates the floor, knee-high with paint­ings on pa­per. His paint­ing wall be­hind the open door is black with paint from five decades, glossy strips stand­ing proud as though em­bossed, and mot­tled colours – blue, red, yel­low, green, white – vis­i­ble un­der drips and splat­ters of black that run like tears down the height of the wall. As Nathan un­packs the box, paint­ing af­ter paint­ing on pa­per ex­pand, un­fold and se­duce with Shepherdson’s re­mark­able vi­sion.

Shepherdson is an artist whose like may not come again. This type of work, its fig­u­ra­tive com­pul­sion, the ob­ses­sive fo­cus of an artist who told me (and many oth­ers) that he was on the planet “to paint and fish”, be­longs in but also tran­scends its mid-20th-cen­tury be­gin­nings.

That Gor­don be­came an artist was un­ex­pected; his work has on­go­ing res­o­nance and this is tes­ti­mony to his dogged pur­suit of an ex­pres­sion­is­tic arse­nal of marks put to­gether dif­fer­ently over decades.

He was born in 1934. His fa­ther died when he was six, leav­ing his mother with three young sons. As Nathan un­der­stands it, the fam­ily en­dured “a tough ex­is­tence”. Gor­don went to Gat­ton Agri­cul­tural Col­lege when he was 14, leav­ing there to be an of­fice boy in 1950 but then head­ing to Lon­greach for a stint as a jackeroo. When, back in Bris­bane aged 18, Shepherdson be­gan night art classes with Caro­line Barker (who was with the Royal Queens­land Art So­ci­ety), work­ing in the ship­yards dur­ing the day.

In 1954 he be­gan work­ing at an abat­toir, where he re­mained for 23 years. He mar­ried Noela Port­ley in 1956, and this em­ploy­ment pro­vided se­cu­rity for his fam­ily and, in due course, sub­ject mat­ter for his paint­ing. His in­ter­est in for­mal tu­ition saw him un­der­take a term at the Cen­tral Tech­ni­cal Col­lege, with Arthur Evan Read, a year of classes with painter An­drew Si­b­ley and then Jon Molvig in 1960. In 1962 he was a fi­nal­ist in the Archibald Prize, and his first ex­hi­bi­tion, The Slaugh­ter Yard, seen at the John­stone Gallery in 1964, but then at Rudy Komon Gallery in Syd­ney and Ge­orges Gallery, Mel­bourne in 1965, must have felt like an af­fir­ma­tion.

While in the 1960s and into the 1970s he painted on Ma­sonite, he be­gan work­ing on pa­per af­ter that, chang­ing the scale, and us­ing his hands to ap­ply the paint from 1982. The soft blur­ri­ness of his fig­ures and faces, and the depths in his back­grounds were a re­sult. Im­ages of the dy­ing bull, the merg­ing of the an­i­mal and the (of­ten fe­male) fig­ure, re­mained with him as a mo­tif. In ‘Dream­ing Woman with Dream­ing Bul­lock’ (2006) a bull’s white eyes fix the viewer, red the site of the death wound be­tween them, and red drib­bling from his nos­trils. The back­ground is dark, black merg­ing into green and a fig­ure, white, ly­ing on her side be­low, feels tur­bu­lent, un­set­tled, griev­ing.

A por­trait ex­hi­bi­tion, his first with Philip Ba­con in 1976, showed his abil­ity to chan­nel peo­ple. They may have sat for Gor­don, but Nathan re­mem­bers that his fa­ther rarely ac­tu­ally looked at his sub­ject dur­ing the process. Ob­ser­va­tion and mem­ory gave him the abil­ity to nail the sub­ject. His por­trait of art col­lec­tor Ben Peel (1983) cap­tured the gen­eros­ity of a man who was en­rap­tured by art.

Dur­ing 1987-88 Shepherdson be­gan mak­ing draw­ings amongst the paint­ings. Fig­ures grew larger, the bull/woman re­turned, and there were re­clin­ing fig­ures, of­ten with masks, and swim­mers in the sea of blue. Land and seascapes were al­ways part of his oeu­vre and, as a “fish­er­man who couldn’t swim”, the salu­tary “sea of eyes”, em­bossed glossy black, stand proud of the pa­per, a re­peated ref­er­ence to the num­ber of peo­ple who per­ish in the ocean. ‘Dark ocean of dark eyes with wind’ (2009) is a moody med­i­ta­tion on blue, black and the ele­ments; with the eyes in­creas­ingly re­duc­tive, in later works they be­come sim­ply black dots.

Paint­ings of St Stephen, an­gels, and other bib­li­cal sub­jects are pow­er­ful, with the bru­tal­ity of these sto­ries con­veyed through the sen­si­tive treat­ment of paint, its coloured segues like lay­ered bruises, rather than graphic im­agery. ‘Ode to a giant pe­trel’ (1997) salutes the rare sight­ing of this ocean bird in More­ton Bay dur­ing a fish­ing trip. An aerial view sees the bird, prob­a­bly ag­ing and tired, cir­cling the land and sea, wings out­stretched.

Early in Shepherdson’s oeu­vre, land­scapes were about 10 per cent of what he pro­duced, with the swim­mers and waders, demons and fig­ures more preva­lent. How­ever, later he painted more of the places where he had spent time, mostly fish­ing; his haunts in More­ton Bay also ap­pear uni­ver­sal.

His most re­cent in­sti­tu­tional out­ing, in the Queens­land Art Gallery and Gallery of Mod­ern Art (QAGOMA) ex­hi­bi­tion in 2015, in­cluded smaller works. ‘Ocean with wind’ (2012) is a day on the bay, a barely dis­cernible hori­zon tak­ing the viewer straight to the ex­pe­ri­ence of a bat­ter­ing on the sea, gritty sand in the eye. Painted onto an un­evenly

Fin­ger-borne colour lays down water, sand, veg­e­ta­tion and sky. It is where he has been. It is also where he is go­ing ... si­lence is also a colour.

trimmed sheet of pa­per, the picture is con­tained in a rec­tan­gle sur­rounded by a broad bor­der of black. In its notes, the QAGOMA blog said: “Fin­ger-borne colour lays down water, sand, veg­e­ta­tion and sky. It is where he has been. It is also where he is go­ing. To re­peat in paint the vis­ual echoes of a life … Si­lence is also a colour.”

Shepherdson’s dark vi­sion was in­flu­enced by his years of ob­serv­ing an­i­mal slaugh­ter, ob­serv­ing the con­trast be­tween the death cy­cle inside the abat­toir build­ing and the man­i­cured gar­dens out­side, but also his ex­is­ten­tial in­ter­ests in life and death, land and sea, sky and moon, peo­ple and place, all of which are probed, poignantly and per­sis­tently. Look­ing into their dark­nesses is to be drown­ing, tugged back up again by the twist of a mouth on a face, jolted by the mot­tled bruis­ing of shadow across a fe­male body, cap­tured by the clo­sure of the sky cloud­ing over a dark land­scape.

His sen­si­tiv­ity and quiet in­tro­ver­sion per­vades each paint­ing. Each one rep­re­sented “hunks of me”, in­tended for an “au­di­ence of one” he once said. Their ex­is­ten­tial drive has only be­come more press­ing in re­cent years. His need to make the jour­ney down to the stu­dio, his “palace of chance”, has al­ways been pro­pelled by aware­ness that he may not be able to do it to­mor­row. And Gor­don’s health has re­cently pre­cluded his abil­ity to paint. Nathan asked him re­cently, if he con­tin­ued to think about paint­ing. His in­stant re­sponse, breathed rather than spo­ken, was none­the­less res­o­lute: “AL­WAYS”.

Gor­don Shep­her­don is rep­re­sented by Ni­cholas Thomp­son Gallery, Mel­bourne and Philip Ba­con Gal­leries, Bris­bane

02 Man search­ing for him­self, 2004, oil and enamel on pa­per, 46.5 x 47cm Op­po­site page: Seated in Dark Land­scape (cen­tre left), 2000, oil and enamel on pa­per 47 x 42.5cm. Float Bowl IV (bot­tom right), 2016, oil and enamel on pa­per, 48 x 54cm.

Girl Hold­ing Mask Walk­ing Into Re­al­ity, 1993, oil and enamel on pa­per, 108 x 118cm, pho­tog­ra­pher Tim Gre­sham

Kneel­ing fig­ure in dark land­scape, 2003, oil and enamel on pa­per, 48 x 44cm

Re­al­ity at River of Eyes, 1993, oil and enamel on pa­per, 108 x 118cm, pho­tog­ra­pher Tim Gre­sham

Cour­tesy the artist, Ni­cholas Thomp­son Gallery and Philip Ba­con Gal­leries

Pale bul­lock swing­ing, 2005, oil and enamel on pa­per, 55 x 34cm

Ode to a Giant Pe­trel, 1996, oil and enamel on pa­per, 108 x 123cm

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