Garry Shead, painter, print maker, cartoonist, photographer and film maker, was born in 1942 in Sydney’s northern suburbs. Shead grew up in the suburb of Gordon, attended the local primary school and then moved on to Shore (Church of England Grammar School, North Sydney) for secondary school in the 1950s. While at Shore, Shead won the art prize each year and was admitted to the National Art School (NAS) in the Sydney suburb of Darlinghurst in 1961.
While at the NAS Shead began shooting his first experimental film, Ding a Ding Day, starring Jon Crothers, Richard Neville and Martin Sharp. In 1961, Shead’s portrait of his sister Lynne was hung in the Archibald exhibition, making him one of the youngest exhibitors for the prize. Also in 1961 Shead first appeared as a cartoonist in The Bulletin, Honi Soit and the Sydney Morning Herald . He became a regular contributor to Oz magazine after its founding in 1963.
At the end of 1962 Shead left the NAS without completing his studies and, after a period of unemployment, commenced work as a scenic artist with ABC Television in 1963.
In 1966 Shead held his first solo exhibition at the Watters Gallery in Sydney. Entitled ‘Wahroonga Lady and her naked lunch’, it featured erotic painted collages of North Shore matrons naked on their front lawns. The exhibition caused controversy and was visited by the police although no paintings were seized.
In the late 1960s Shead travelled to the Sepik Highlands of New Guinea on a film expedition. It was while he was in New Guinea that Shead discovered the letters of DH Lawrence, written while Lawrence was in Australia in 1922, which so heavily influenced Shead’s later work.
In the early 1970s Shead became close friends with Brett and Wendy Whiteley. Brett Whiteley shared Shead’s interest in DH Lawrence and in 1973 they travelled to Thirroul, south of Sydney, where Lawrence and his wife had lived in 1922. While there the two collaborated on a diptych Portrait of DH Lawrence which they sold in 1973. Shead’s share of the proceeds paid his airfare to Paris where he lived for six months with his wife and young daughter Gria.
During the 1970s Shead continued to make experimental films, although painting took up more of his time. In 1974 he collaborated with Martin Sharp and Peter Kingston to paint monumental murals at Luna Park, an amusement park on Sydney’s north shore.
Shead again travelled to Europe in the early 1980s, living as artist in residence in Vence, France (the place where DH Lawrence had died) in 1981. Here he met his third wife, Judit Englert, and lived with her for a year in Budapest.
The couple moved back to Australia in 1983 and finally settled in Bundeena, in the Royal National Park south of Sydney, in 1987. That year Shead embarked on the first of the ‘Outback’ series of paintings, the first in which his lyrical style came to the fore. Those paintings, along with the ‘Bundeena’ series in 1990, paved the way for Shead’s distinctive style to emerge in the breakthrough ‘DH Lawrence’ series.
Living in the Australian bush with his European wife inspired Shead to include not only DH Lawrence in his work, but also Lawrence’s wife Frieda (the German born Baroness von Richthofen) modeled on Shead’s wife Judit. Placing a European woman against the Australian bush began with the ‘DH Lawrence’ series of paintings and became a recurring theme in Shead’s work.
The ‘DH Lawrence’ series was exhibited seven times during 1992-93, including a selection at the Art Gallery of NSW. With its brooding native animals and ethereal figures, the series was hugely successful for Shead and represents a watershed in his career. Shead used Lawrence’s novel Kangaroo as a springboard for the scenes in some of the works, including the figures of the kangaroo, cockatoo and currawong as the spirit of the Australian landscape brooding over the alien European visitors.
In 1993 Shead won the prestigious Archibald Prize for his portrait of publisher Tom Thompson, further entrenching his commercial success.
In 1994 Shead commenced ‘The Royal Suite’ series, which was inspired by his memories of the first Royal visit to Australia in 1954. Tied up in Shead’s pre-pubescent eroticism, the series again focuses on the progress of a European woman through the Australian landscape, again employing the native animals as spiritual guides and guardians. Deliberately subversive, the paintings make subtle comments on the treatment of Aboriginal people as well as establishing Shead’s visual vocabulary of wattle sprigs and embracing couples.
In 1999 Shead commenced the ‘Artist and the Muse’ series, again focusing on the female nude, this time in her role as inspiration for the works of old masters such as Velázquez, Rembrandt and Goya. Early in 2000 Shead began painting a series of religious paintings, placing Christ within the Bundeena landscape and using the sulphur crested cockatoo to symbolize the Holy Spirit.
In 2002, following the outbreak of the second Iraq war, Shead commenced work on the series ‘The Apotheosis of Ern Malley’. Ern Malley was a fictitious poet, invented by James McAuley and Harold Stewart, whose poetry caused a media frenzy when it was published in 1944 and the merits of which have been hotly debated ever since. Similarly to the ‘DH Lawrence’ series, Shead used the text of Ern Malley’s poetry, along with the description of his fictitious life, as inspiration for a series of paintings exploring Australian iconography. The Ern Malley paintings cast the fictitious poet as an Australian martyr who dies tragically young, is resurrected and ultimately deified. Rich in Shead’s uniquely Australian iconography, the paintings comment on Shead’s own mortality as well as the marginal place artists hold in Australian society. As part of the ‘Ern Malley’ series, Shead collaborated with potter Lino Alvarez Carrasco to produce large painted urns displaying scenes from Ern Malley’s life and poetry. Colloquy with John Keats , a drawing from the ‘Ern Malley’ series, was awarded the Dobell Prize for drawing in 2004.
In 2007, following the death of his wife from pancreatic cancer, Shead exhibited a series of paintings to accompany Judit Shead’s sculptures. Based loosely on the ‘DH Lawrence’ series, the paintings show Judit, his wife and muse, slipping away from the earth-bound artist. After Judit’s death Shead continued to live and work in Bundeena, south of Sydney.
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