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Shaw, Peggy - 1970.22

Peggy Perrins Shaw

Great Barrier Reef 1970
gouache and crayon on paper
78 x 58 cm
Gift of the artist 1970

Part of a suite of works on paper that Peggy Perrins Shaw donated to Monash University in the 1970s and 80s, Great Barrier Reef describes the rare splendour and living energy of Australia’s remarkable coral gardens, which stretch more than 2000 kilometres along the Queensland coast. An artist primarily concerned with the natural world and its abstract, painterly possibilities, Perrins Shaw presents the vibrant minutiae of the reef, narrowing in on a small section of a coral cay and evoking its modest looseness and charm. At the same time, as the title implies, the image tilts towards its part in a vast ecosystem; the sponges and sea anemones jostling across the full breadth of the picture plane suggest the crowding fecundity of a much larger entity. As with her earlier drawing Marine Life 1963, also held in the collection, the artist takes us directly to the reef’s aqueous environment and impresses upon us the quotidian rhythms of its plant inhabitants.

Perrins Shaw came to art later than most of her generation, having commenced her training at the National Gallery School in Melbourne in 1948 under the postwar training scheme, when she was in her early thirties. She continued studying until 1964 in Sydney, London and Paris, including at the Atelier André Lhote, the alma mater of a number of significant Australian women artists. In 1956, she married historian Alan Shaw, an eminent author and lecturer, and later professor at Monash University. The couple’s circle of friends included artists John Brack, Fred Williams and John Olsen, the last two of whom surely informed Perrins Shaw’s animated and gestural painting technique and preference for the fluid, mutable medium of gouache.

Perrins Shaw also shared Williams’ and Olsen’s deep affection for the myriad forms of nature. In the early 1970s their tendency to organicism was somewhat at odds with the vanguard push towards post-object art and interests in conceptualism, process and performance – a backlash against the formal and political terms of late modernist painting and sculpture. This period saw Perrins Shaw widen her approach and further develop the abstract qualities of her art. From hereon she moved between styles, her imagery ranging from tautly articulated and brightly coloured motifs to freely poured, spattered and blotted forms born of instinct and real world knowledge.

Throughout her career, however, and ‘in whatever mood’, as Patrick McCaughey has observed, there is a genuineness to Perrins Shaw’s art, a ‘sense of flow, of naturalness’[1] derived from close observation and a desire to convey the beauty of everyday and felt experience. While Great Barrier Reef might have appeared as a celebration to its original audience in 1970, it may equally serve as a cenotaph or commemoration to the contemporary viewer, as the twenty-million-year-old reef – one of the seven natural wonders of the world – weathers the deleterious effects of global warming and pollution.

Lesley Harding is Artistic Director at Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne.

[1] Patrick McCaughey, Peggy Perrins Shaw, exh. cat., Georges Gallery, Melbourne, 1978, n.p.