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The Painter, the Potter and the Muse
Photo: S. Grishin.
Garry Shead Ern Malley ceramic sculpture.
All works thrown and fired by Lino Alvarez. Photo: Kim Deacon.
Garry Shead is one of Australia’s most highly acclaimed lyrical figurative painters and while critics have taken notice of his work since his early exhibitions in the 1960s, it has been only in the last couple of decades that his work has achieved national prominence.1 His series of paintings dealing with D.H. Lawrence and another with the Queen’s visit to Australia in 1954, the Royal Suite, have become iconic in Australian visual culture and have commanded record prices on the Australian art market.
Lino Alvarez is a Mexican ceramist from Sonora, who in the 1970s trained in Sonora and then San Diego and who settled in Australia in 1981. Six years ago, he and his partner, the actress and singer Kim Deacon, moved to the old gold-mining town Hill End where they converted a 19th century historic property into the La Paloma Pottery.
Shead arrived at Hill End on a residency in one of the historic art cottages administered by the Bathurst Regional Gallery and the two artists met.
While this may be an account of some of the details and logistics which brought the two artists together, the circumstances behind their collaborative project were far more complicated and unusual.
Ever since the 1960s, Shead has been fascinated by an anthology of poems known in Australian literary history as the Darkening Ecliptic by a certain Ern Malley.
The poems were initially published in the avant-garde literary journal, Angry Penguins, in 1944 and shortly after that two frustrated poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, who had difficulty in getting their own verse published, announced in the press that they had invented the identity of Ernst Lalor Malley and had assembled the poems from miscellaneous sources as an example of bad verse. It was intended as a hoax designed to expose the pretentious shallowness of the so-called literary avant-garde. The matter did not end there for despite the exploding controversy, media hype, petty vitriol and litigation, many of the sixteen poems were generally acknowledged both here and overseas to be of such a high literary merit, that the circumstances of their creation became irrelevant. For example, the editors of the Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry (1992) chose to include all of the Ern Malley poems in the anthology and Harold Stewart, with more than a note of bitter irony, noted almost on his death bed “one day it will be irrefutably proved that James McAuley and Harold Stewart were really figments of the imagination of the real-life Ern Malley and in fact never existed!”.
It was certainly a case of the creation being greater than its creators and the Ern Malley poems have inspired the paintings of Sidney Nolan and the novels of Ian Kennedy Williams (1990) and Peter Carey (2003).
While Shead initially flirted with the idea of Ern Malley’s Darkening Ecliptic as a theme in his art in the 1960s, it was only in about 2000 that it became a major obsession in his work. Although he has often turned to literature as a source of inspiration, with Lawrence’s novel Kangaroo the most famous example, Shead’s work is never illustrative of a literary work, for him homage to an author is a parallel act of creation, in Henry Miller’s famous aphorism, it is up to the artist to prove “that one has caught the flame he tried to pass on”.
The paintings, drawings, etchings and ceramics which form the Ern Malley cycle are a wonderful lyrical exploration of not only the poems of Ern Malley, but also of the whole idea of Ern Malley, the image of the creative individual and of his precarious journey through a materialistic world.