VALE Gordon Shepherdson

With the sad news of Gordon Shepherdson's passing on 18 July 2019, we look back to Issue 42 when Louise Martin-Chew wrote about the artist's incredibly inspiring perception of painting – and his quiet, humble journey in paint.

Gordon Shepherdson (1934–2019) 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 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’.

VALE Gordon Shepherdson, 1934–2019


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