2 January 2004

Australia's Most Collectable Artists, 2003

Profiles written for "Australia's Most Collectable Artists, 2003" from Australian Art Collector Magazine.

Since the late 1990’s Garry Shead has shot into that pantheon of Australian modernist figurative painters who can command prices in excess of $100k. Son of a Sydney North Shore estate agent, Shead is privately influenced by the occult, and works in themes which can traverse several series over several years, taking inspiration from sometimes oblique corners of Australian culture: DH Lawrence’s time on the NSW South Coast, the 1954 Royal Visit by Elizabeth Windsor, and, most recently, the “Ern Malley” poetry hoax of the 1940s, which see him tackle ceramics for the first time – urns etched with poems by Ern! Championed as logical inheritor of the mantle of Boyd and Nolan, Shead quickly embraced the comparison in a recent interview: “Definitely… I like the story telling aspect of painting. I like to express in painting something that’s already there but hasn’t (yet) been done in visual terms.” Sasha Grishin, Head of Art History ANU, the author of several books on Shead as well as catalogue essays for the artist’s exhibitions, says Shead is now “painting at the height of his powers.” He believes Shead is “arguably Australia’s finest lyrical expressionist painter”, adding that his prices continue to grow dramatically. In 1993, the year he won the Archibald Prize, Shead sold just two works at auction for an aggregate of $693. A decade later and one of 39 works at auction included The Secret, which Christies offered with an $80k upper estimate. It brought a new artist record of $129,250 – a spectacular indication that supply is failing to meet demand.

Gordon Bennett
Queenslander Gordon Bennett went to art school in the late 1980s, where he openly embraced the postmodern positions of the time, a legacy still seen to today in a practice the artists describes as “conceptual painting based on the semiotics of 'style' and paint application, images and text, historical and contemporary juxta-position.” Of mixed Scottish, English and Indigenous Australian heritage, Bennett was brought up as a 'white' Australian and has only investigated his Aboriginal heritage as an adult. While issues of race loom large in his work he denounces the term “urban Aborignal” artist as racist, and prefers to be understood as an artist pursuing strategies of appropriation. Dr Ian McLean, who lectures visual arts at the University of Western Australia, is impressed with the long-term commitment Bennett has shown to his practice. McLean compares Bennett to another Aboriginal artist, Judy Watson, who are both “very different painters, but in less than 15 years each has produced an impressive and substantial body of work and built very successful careers as artists.” Says McLean: “Both found their feet quickly and now are at critical stages in their career. However they have demonstrated stamina, commitment and talent as artists, and so probably are yet to produce their best work.” Bennett is well represented in major state galleries but most works remain in private hands. A rare appearance at auction in 2002 saw Bennett achieve his current saleroom peak of $47,500 for an early 1993 canvas. Always the provocateur, his most recent show at Sherman Galleries, in August 2003, conflated camouflage and Islamic designs with ungainly portraits of Saddam Hussein.

ADS Donaldson
Profiled in issue #24 Of Australian Art Collector, this Sydney abstractionist has had a red letter year culminating in making our list for the first time. Donaldson’s select international following walked away with works from the Armory art fair in New York in March and then at Art Basel in June, the world’s most prestigious art fair. In April Donaldson collaborated with fellow artist Elizabeth Pulie for a show at Sarah Cottier’s now defunct Gallery, where he also exhibited 3 enormous large scale silver and blue paintings. Another show of hard-edge abstract paintings at Pestorius Sweeney House in August prompted Brisbane and AAC critic Rex Butler to write in The Courier Mail that "the issues signaled in this modest little suburban gallery will come to dominate the coming century of Australian culture – the battle between ‘Australian’ and ‘unAustralian’ ways of seeing ourselves." Commissions for Aldi and the City of Sydney and another group show at the Kunsthalle Palazzo, near Basel, followed. Already next year Donaldson has group shows lined up in Wellington, New Zealand in March and at the Ivan Doughety Gallery, as part of the Sydney Biennale.

Ian Fairweather 1891-1974
With a body of work estimated at just 500 major works, this Scottish born ‘citizen of the world’ is often acknowledged as one of the most important artists of the 20th century to work in Australia. Fairweather spend between the wars travelling throughout Asia and Oceania; living first in China, later in Bali, the Philippines and India, taking in creative and cultural influences as he went. He first visited Australia in 1934, and took a studio briefly in Melbourne after the WWII but wouldn’t settle permanently until 1952, when he moved to Bribie Island, north of Brisbane. There he became involved in the local indigenous culture and would become the first and perhaps only non-Indigenous artist to successfully incorporate Aboriginal art into his practice, where it joined with disparate influences such as post-impressionism, Chinese calligraphy and Cubism in the realisation of outstanding abstract paintings. Most highly regarded are the abstracts of the late 1950s, early 1960s but works from throughout his career are keenly sought. Many already grace Australia’s major state collections, as well as overseas at the Tate and Liecester galleries and the Ulster Museum, Belfast. Although saleroom prices have been steadily trending up in recent years [his current auction record of $255,500 came in 2000], there is still value and room for significant growth. “For one of Australia’s most important 20th century painters,” says Sotheby’s Chairman, Justin Miller, “his works still seem reasonably priced to me when compared to the million dollar plus prices paid for iconic works by other truly great Australian painters.” Drawings and watercolours, which are more plentiful, may be easier to come by.

Robert Macpherson B.1937
This Brisbane based conceptual artist is an unlikely “grand old man” of Australian contemporary art but with more than three decades of cutting edge practice behind him, that’s just what he is. Macpherson has become a regular feature on our list, first appearing in 1999. Michael Snelling, Director of Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art, goes as far as saying MacPherson is “probably the most interesting artist working in Australia today, although he may well remain an artist's artist.” Snelling characterises the artist as “conceptually tough, viscerally mesmerizing and continues to make work that is both local and global - parochial and universal…” The broadening of Macpherson’s reputation became complete in 2000 with the major survey show at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, curated by Trevor Smith, recently appointed curator at the New Museum in New York. The show took over the whole bottom floor and some of the second at AGWA. “A scaled version toured to the MCA and looked just as impressive second time round,” says Snelling, “The catalogue was the best on an Australian artist seen here for many a year.” Macpherson was Australia's representative at the 2002 Sao Paolo biennale, and then in Face Up, backed by the Australia Council, at the prestigious Hamburger Bahnhoff in Berlin. Continues to be attractive to admirers of contemporary art, although works rarely surface on the secondary market.


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First published in Australian Art Collector magazine, Issue #27, Jan-Mar, 2004.