Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Maurice O'Shea, creator spirit of Australian wine, captured in oils

Sacramental wine by Garry Shead 2010
courtesy of Australian Galleries

Nothing's truly new.

Amidst all the chatter about 'natural wine', I popped into the Australian Galleries in a leafy inner-Sydney cul-de-sac recently to have a look at Garry Shead's gorgeous exhibition of new paintings, Love on Mount Pleasant. And these fabulous, whimsical, deeply romantic canvases made me think about how the legendary Hunter Valley winemaker, Shead's uncle, Maurice O'Shea, would be right at home with today's breed of eager young natural grape treaders.

Here was Maurice, devoted to his mature, dry-grown vineyard - already 50 years old when O'Shea was at his winemaking peak in the 1930s - fashioning remarkable, long-lived bottled gems in a dirt-floor tin shed with no electricity. Those vines up there on Mount Pleasant were farmed for decades without chemical herbicide or pesticides - we'd call it organic farming these days. And the wines were made with the minimum of fuss: nothing much added or taken away. Great wine. Slumbering in big old vats. On a dirt floor. Very natural. And revered, now. Iconic, even.

In the kitchen by Garry Shead 2009
courtesy of Australian Galleries

Garry Shead's paintings capture Maurice's obsession, his passion, his connection to his terroir. They capture, too - beautifully - a spirit of place: the light of a hot Hunter summer; bright midday glimpsed through windows in the shed; the relief of violet dusk draping itself over the hills. Shead has been painting the place since early visits to see his uncle in the early 1950s; he knows this country.

There's a mythic quality here, too, in the Chagall-like presence of prancing fawns, floating goats, Bacchus himself, Aphrodite in the form of a black swan ... But this ancient European symbolism is projected through a rough-hewn, thoroughly Australian prism. As Gavin Wilson, exhibition curator says in the catalogue notes: 'the artist, through an intensely personal experience, has illuminated a little-known narrative that lies at the heart of our nation’s cultural life.'

Maurice with Bandicoot by Garry Shead 1966
courtesy of Australian Galleries

The exhibition runs until Nov 27. If you're not in Sydney, you can check it out online: Australian Galleries