Art Essays

Euan Macleod & Garry Shead

Published November 20, 2010
Euan Macleod, Two in Boat (one standing) 2007, oil on canvas, 100 X 124 cms

You may not have noticed any banners in the streets or sixteen-page colour supplements, but November is Euan Macleod Month. This popular New Zealand-born artist is the subject of a survey exhibition called Surface Tension, at the S.H.Ervin Gallery, and a new Piper Press monograph by fellow kiwi, Gregory O’Brien. Accordingly, the month is filling up with book launches and other functions. I’m involved in a minor way, having written a preface for the monograph and agreed to take part in a discussion at the Art Gallery of NSW on 23 November.
The book, Euan Macleod: The Painter in the Painting, demonstrates there is plenty of material worth discussing. In a remarkably thorough study O’Brien tries to get under the skin of Macleod’s work, examining recurrent themes and preoccupations in relation to the artist’s life. This may sound simple enough but it’s no mean feat to write an account of a painter’s career that is neither dull nor pretentious. Contrary to the Hollywood template most artists lead pretty sedentary lives, spending day after day alone in the studio. This prompts some monographists to spice up their accounts with Baroque explanations of the work, as if intellectual congestion might compensate for an uneventful existence.
Such gambits only tend to compound the error because a successful work of art requires no special pleading. As for the biography, in the hands of a skilful writer no life is uninteresting, while the simplest, most direct accounts can have an uncanny power. Think of Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907), a book written by a famous critic about a parent who was a renowned naturalist. It could be about any child and his father, as Gosse paints a psychological portrait of the relationship, not a recital of honours and achievements.
Any sustained examination of Euan Macleod’s work draws us into very similar territory. The artist was born in Christchurch in 1956, and spent his childhood in a suburb near Lyttelton Harbour. His father, Roy, built a boat in the lounge room, and had to remove a window from the house to ‘launch’ it when Macleod was only six. This boat turns up repeatedly as a motif in Macleod’s paintings. His father is also present, as a dark, ghostly figure in a room or the landscape. The image has a poignancy because Roy Macleod suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, with its the long, slow withdrawal into darkness. When he died in 1993, it was the signal for Macleod to return home and begin painting the New Zealand foreshores after a decade in which he’d been preoccupied with Australian subjects.
Knowing these details provides a deep meaning for pictures such as Two in boat (one standing) (2007), which shows a boy and a man in a rowing boat; or Door with figure in boat (2007), where a figure lies in a dinghy that doubles as a coffin. Any amateur psychologist can see that these works deal with an unresolved relationship between the artist and his father, but if there were nothing else to discover they would be far less engaging.
The shadowy figure in the landscape may be Roy Macleod, but it might conceivably be his son. It is also a kind of Everyman, a symbol of universal experience. At times it takes on a mythical dimension, as in Seated figure, feet in harbour (2005), in which a giant sits astride a row of mountains, cooling his feet in the ocean.
This is the sort of image that has emerged from the artist’s subconscious during the past two decades, a period in which he has thrown himself with ferocious energy into landscape painting. The show is dominated by three distinct but equally dramatic kinds of landscape: the bays and craggy peaks of New Zealand’s south island, the red earth of the Australian outback, and the icy wilderness of Antarctica, where Macleod visited last year.
Seeing these three bodies of work together in one room, it becomes clear that Macleod uses the landscape as a frame for his personal obsessions. The shadowy figures and even the rowing boat recur in all three settings. This is most striking in a work such as Boat in desert (2007), where a figure stands inside the frame of a boat buried in the red earth of Central Australia. In the distance, a great rusty mountain rises up in indignation at this affront to nature and common sense.
On one level these are the paintings of an expressionist who responds with tremendous spontaneity to the landscape, endeavouring to capture the feeling and spirit of a place in a series of rapidly executed manoeuvres with the palette knife. This outpouring of energy makes an immediate impression but we gradually realise that every motif has a symbolic dimension as well. The empty boat is not just a memento of the artist’s father; one could say that it represents an anxiety about losing control, a fear of being drawn and buffeted by a current with no choice of direction. The painting Smoke/pink landscape/shovel (2009), which won the 2009 Gallipoli Art Prize, shows a trench dug into the muddy earth, but it is also an open grave.
The figure in Wheelbarrow man (2007) seems to be pushing a cart piled high with steaming manure, but the vaguely spherical shape suggests the world itself being pushed along by some faceless deity. It’s easy to think of Sisyphus, condemned by Zeus to push a rock to the top of a hill only to have it roll down again, eternally. It’s a useful metaphor for any artist’s career, with one work leading to another in an endless procession, in pursuit of an unrealisable summit.

Euan Macleod, Wheelbarrow Man, 2007, oil on canvas, 172 X 188 cm

Surface tension has been put together by Gavin Wilson, on behalf of the Tweed River Art Gallery, and Murwillumbah is the next stop after the show finishes in Sydney. It is also due to travel to Orange, Mornington Peninsula, Newcastle and Brisbane, although not to any venue in New Zealand. This is a significant omission because it is Greg O’Brien’s thesis that Macleod is the ideal trans-Tasman artist, equally at home on both sides of the ditch. One might imagine it provides a good opportunity for Australian and New Zealand arts bodies to work together, but I’m told this would be somewhat less be likely than a joint travelling show from North and South Korea.
By coincidence, Gavin Wilson is also curator for another travelling exhibition that has arrived at Australian Galleries in Paddington after short seasons in Orange and Maitland. Love on Mount Pleasant: Garry Shead toasts Maurice O’Shea, is as much a family affair as Euan Macleod’s reflections on his boat-building father. The salient difference is that the painter, Shead (b.1942), has nothing but happy memories of his famous winemaker uncle.
Garry Shead, The History of Wine, 2010, oil on linen, 92 X 71 cm

A legendary figure in the Australian wine industry, Maurice O’Shea (1897-1956) planted his grapes at the Mount Pleasant estate in Pokolbin in the early 1920s. He had studied the art and science of winemaking in France, and recognised the quality of the soil in the region. He would not have required a French education to recognise the cultural wasteland he had entered. Even today there are only about five kilometers separating Pokolbin from the old coal-mining community of Cessnock, but that journey is like crossing a bridge out of the Loire valley and finding yourself in Albania.
O’Shea found his paradise in wine, in fine cuisine, and in his infatuation with his young wife, Marcia. This has proved an intoxicating recipe for his nephew, who paid many visits to the property in his younger days. Shead is by nature a painter of happiness, a preoccupation that sets him apart from approximately 95 per cent of his peers, putting him in Renoir’s club rather than Goya’s.
Some complain that Shead lacks gravitas, and it would be difficult to deny such charges on the evidence of this show, which is full of dreamy, floating figures; mythological animals and marsupials, and the bespectacled figure of Maurice O’Shea engaged in an ecstatic love affair with the grape. As a curiosity, the first two portraits of O’Shea date from 1966, when Shead first began his exhibiting career. Over the years he has grown to resemble his late uncle, so each picture feels like an oblique self-portrait.
O’Shea was a practicing Catholic, and in several paintings his ecstasy is explicitly identified with that of the saints celebrated in the paintings of the Renaissance. One would have to be very hard-hearted not to enjoy the playfulness of these works, and the sheer pleasure they obviously gave their creator. But a word of warning is in order. Inveterate gallery-goers should proceed with caution because too much happiness may come as a shock.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, November 20, 2010
Surface Tension: the art of Euan Macleod 1991-2009
S.H.Ervin Gallery, November 12 – December 19, 2010
Love on Mount Pleasant: Garry Shead toasts Maurice O’Shea
Australian Galleries, Sydney, November 9- 27, 2010