Michael Shepherd is a unique New Zealand artist. His latest exhibition of 11 paintings at Two Rooms in Auckland reminds us that his singular voice – neither modernist, nor really contemporary – speaks with a rare clarity, summoning forth some timely home truths, writes Hamish Coney

Slight spoiler alert here. I’m a Shepherd fan. I own an exquisite painting by the artist dating to 1985. One of my definitive art experiences was attending Shepherd’s first solo show at Denis Cohn Gallery in 1980 as a schoolboy. I’ve even attended a number of Elam Summer Schools conducted by the artist in which he shared the secrets of traditional oil painting, his lifelong passion.

In 1982 Shepherd travelled to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to study the techniques of the 17th century Dutch masters, including Rembrandt. If you need to know anything about the history of lapus lazuli or burnt umber Shepherd will provide you with enough information to ace any pub quiz. He knows his subject. He lives it. 

Michael Shepherd, It May be the future depends on an orator. Photo: Sam Hartnett, courtesy the artist and Two Rooms 

As an artist Shepherd’s twin axes have been his unswerving engagement with those many centuries of oil painting tradition and New Zealand history as it weaves between Māori and Pākehā attitudes to the land, colonial settlement, war at home and abroad and our collective memories (and his reading) of these over the past two hundred years. 

Shepherd was born and raised in the Waikato, close to the seat of the Kīngitanga in Ngaruawahia. The river, the troubled history of the Waikato and the potent whakapapa of the region conflate with the vivid memories of a young man growing up out of time in New Zealand.

Over a four decade exhibiting career these tributaries have imbued Shepherd’s work with an agile acknowledgement of both the trickiness of memory and a compassionate self-awareness of his own position as an outlier. He quite literally excavates the past. 

Shepherd is not a prolific artist, so exhibitions such as Suppose the Future Fails are to be savoured. The current exhibition takes its title from a 1937 poem by Wallace Stevens that anticipates the collapse of chronological certainty and the disintegration of the hope inherent in it.

This suite of 11 works includes, in addition to Shepherd’s bravura painting technique, layers of dead bees, alphabet soup, plant seeds, iron sand and even muesli. Behind the curtains of organic material which symbolise a swirling dystopian blizzard – a world coming apart – the artist depicts insects and rare plants amid arid tableau at the end of the line. Shepherd has constructed a form of widescreen colonial sci-fi, in which the dusty spaces appear vast, desolate and interminable. 

Michael Shepherd The ancient of days/Newton’s compass. Photo: Sam Hartnett, courtesy the artist and Two Rooms

These entropic visions of a disintegrating future, where humans are long gone and insects and plants battle on as they always have are juxtaposed with a suite of six paintings of discarded or rusted out engine blocks and parts that are pure steampunk. The artist grew up in the 1950s and has vivid memories of rehabilitating old engines of indeterminate pre-WWII vintage with his father.

This facility with practical engineering and the Kiwi virtue of creatively making do, was at the heart of much of the New Zealand masculine experience at this time. Shepherd recalls ‘hallucinating’ as a revived engine burst into life. The sight, sound and smell of the motor, the almost sacramental nature of the shed and Shepherd’s boyish wonder at the alien forms and sculptural dynamism of the engine blocks and carburettors are memorialised in monumental form in these canvases.

The obsolete old engines, already way past their best when Shepherd was a schoolboy, rear up from a bygone era as the tarpaulin is lifted at the back of the shed and speak of a benzine soaked past long forgotten. By everyone except Shepherd. 

‘The past is a foreign country’ goes the saying, ‘they do things differently there’. The task of fact checking history is usually the job of, well, historians. In this matter Shepherd’s gaze is similarly piercing, but as an artist he also makes room for the past’s fictions, follies and feints. Through this lens he comes into focus as a genre of artist rarely encountered in In New Zealand, or indeed anywhere in 2018.

Shepherd is a magic realist of the most perspicacious nature: cleaving to both documentary accuracy and the alchemy of imagination. He finds the steam of memory still rising from the ground in the most quotidian of locations; Mercer, Rangiriri or a former Pa site in Mangere half obliterated by an open cast scoria mine in the case of the canvas I own. 

His terrain may well be provincial and near forgotten and without the florid gesture, gunfire and dripping sensuality of Latin American magic realists such as the writers Jose Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez or the painter Frida Kahlo. But Shepherd’s sorcery is no less beguiling even if its essence is colonial and Protestant as opposed to the incense drenched Catholicism of the Latins.  

His vision carries the intensity, intellectual or emotional, that is the hallmark of Magic Realism, but in Shepherd’s hands the facts are always stranger than the fiction. This sense of bearing witness to the past and not sliding into fantasy or critique in his interpretations or ‘findings’ provides Shepherd’s work and these 2018 canvases with their immense gravitas. 

His best work also possesses an element of activism, a sense that Shepherd is proselytising for the past, or in the case of this exhibition (and this does mark a departure) the future as well.  

Close up detail of Michael Shepherd canvas using Muesli and seed, other works include dead bees, iron sand and alphabet soup. Photo: Sam Hartnett, courtesy the artist and Two Rooms 

Shepherd’s voice is so singular, his locations so far in time and place from the urban art centres where he exhibits and his technique so historically at odds with current trends that at times I fear his work cannot be ‘seen’ by many viewers in the digital era or ‘heard’ over the clatter of the faux drolleries of so much contemporary art.  

It is hard to step back into the time of, and get a real bead on the beliefs that inspired the Tūhoe Prophet Rua Kenena in the Ureweras in the early 20th century. Furthermore, it will be beyond most of us to understand the mystical Christian base of the Ringatū faith, but Shepherd does all of that in a canvas I would nominate as a candidate for the shortlist of the great New Zealand easel painting of the second half of the 20th century. 

Still Life in the Year of the Comet painted in 1986 commemorates the intense symbolism of the passing of Haley’s Comet to the embattled followers of Mihaia (Messiah) in 1910 and asks us, seventy six years later when the comet next passed, to not forget Kenena, the intense manifestations of the Ringatū faith and Māori desire for self-determination at that time.

How could such an arcane historic moment become so contemporary in its concerns? And how in this current exhibition, can Shepherd’s questioning of the viability of the future or his puckish suggestion that we might find sanctuary in the past carry the weight of revelation? 

Cometh the hour, cometh the artist might be Shepherd’s wry response. His work has presaged the concept of the end of history for forty years now.

Shepherd has had to ruefully accept his position as a contrarian for many decades. At art school in the 1970s whils the neo-expressionists held sway with their feverish, gargantuan canvases (acolytes of Phil Clairmont and Allen Maddox) Shepherd carried a year’s work in the form postcard sized scenes around in his back pocket. He is on record as being called a wanker to his face for his fascination with 17th century oil painting practice.  

However today Shepherd’s position out the back of beyond appears prescient. We are repeatedly warned that we are running out of time, that the future is indeed in peril and only fit for insects.  

In this exhibition Shepherd, with the gentlest of gallows humour, is suggesting that if the future fails there will be ample refuge in the past. 

Michael Shepherd, Suppose the future fails at Two Rooms, 16 Putiki Street, Auckland until December 22 and by appointment in January 

Michael Shepherd will be the subject of a major career survey exhibition at the Waikato Museum entitled Reinventing History Painting from February 23 to June 9, 2019 

Leave a comment