Shedding light on Ern Malley The Sydney Morning Herald, October 28, 2003

garryshead02None of this is surprising to artist Garry Shead.

Shead, an Archibald Prize winner, is perhaps best known for his 50-strong series of South Coast paintings inspired by the D.H. Lawrence novelKangaroo; and for his satirical and controversial Royal Suite series on the Queen’s 1954 Australian tour.

Shead says he had been fascinated with the Ern Malley story for as long as he can remember.

“It was one of those literary myths I grew up with,” he says.

“But about five years ago, a friend gave me the complete series of Max Harris’s Angry Penguins editions to read. I began thinking about the whole thing. I couldn’t let it alone. It has become an obsession with me.”

So much so that Shead began to see Ern Malley, feel that he had lived, that he was real, alive. “I could see him, I could see his dark eyes, I see him walking the streets, dark and melancholic. I began to identify with him.

“You know, I got so deeply into this identification thing, that one morning, about three weeks ago, I got these aches and pains. I woke up and thought, my God, I’ve got Graves’ disease. I really thought I had got what Ern had.”

He began a series of drawings and, about two years ago, a large painting started to emerge, filled with the characters in the Ern Malley story, but washed with Shead’s tender lyricism, sharpened by his ironic eye. Three more large paintings were to follow. During this time, Shead had also spent some time working at Hill End. Next door to the cottage in which he was staying was a pottery. “I wandered in, and I was quite taken by the large ceramic vessels they made there. And it came to me, that Ern should come out of one of these vessels,” says Shead.

Shead put it to the potter, Lino Alvarez, and the two began a year-long collaboration to bring the idea to fruition.

“What emerged were these wonderful things, these vessels.

“They are about five feet in height, there are nine of them, and the poems are engraved upon them, sometimes half sculptured, and sometimes painted. They are wonderful. They look as though they have been dug up.”

The four large canvases and the nine vessels form the nucleus of Shead’s new show, opening tonight at Australian Galleries in Paddington.

“The thing is,” says Shead, “none of this would have happened, I don’t think, but for the light that is there in the poems.”

Elsewhere, Shead has said that painting was “about light”. “If a painting doesn’t emanate light, it’s dead. For me, I think of light as being the presence of the spiritual, the life force, whatever you choose to call it.”

He sees this same light in the Malley poems. “The whole thing won’t ever die down. Ern is alive, and the poems are alive, because they are filled with light.”