BY Neal Brown in Reviews | 03 MAR 00
Featured in
Issue 51

David Shepherd

BY Neal Brown in Reviews | 03 MAR 00

David Shepherd is one of the most financially rewarded painters in the UK, but his critical status is less than negligible. Although considered the supreme master of Bad Art, Shepherd has brought pleasure to millions, as seen on the many table mats, posters and commemorative plates that bear his work.

The paintings in this show are of wildlife, the principal subjects being the animals you might associate with grandeur and romanticised sentiment, such as lions, tigers and elephants. Shepherd's animal royalty are hardly ever allowed anything other than a formidable dignity, made monumental by the artist placing them head on with the viewer, and by his almost uniform use of a low viewpoint and pyramid compositions.

The paintings combine a superficial photographic realism with an impressionistic flurrying of brush marks, and are usually dazzlingly bright; shadows are painted dark and hard, to theatrical effect. Shepherd paints to shamelessly formulaic excess, although it is difficult to criticise him when so much other art practice employs a similar approach to repetition.

The initial impression of accomplished painterly professionalism reveals, on closer examination, unexpected degrees of subtle hesitation and distortion. Working Sketch for a Painting of a Tiger (undated), illustrates this well. Its clumsy shadow areas and odd asymmetries hang together in a successful accord that is greater than the sum of its parts. Shepherd's appeal may be because of this strange tension between ability and inability, and - improbable as it may seem - this imperfection lends a genuineness to what would otherwise be superficial technique.

While Shepherd's work is appreciated with a heartfelt resonance by his huge public for its painterly craft magic and uncomplicated sincerity, the artist has further endeared himself with his sarcastic criticism of contemporary artists. This has increased the pleasure of his more cynical audience of art world ironists, who delight not only at such criticism, but at the sugared emotions in his work and at the (sometimes literal) tears the public shed in response to them.

It's not too much of an insult to consider Shepherd as a supreme innocent - a very talented Naive or Primitive artist. While it is obvious that the artist is sincere, his sincerity exceeds his ability; the evidence for this is not necessarily conspicuous, but is nonetheless present below the threshold of usual visual awareness.

It is Shepherd's shortcomings that make him interesting - the point at which his technical and artistic abilities fail him - and which provide a point of access for a more gainful appreciation of his work. Taking the paintings on their own merits, and disregarding received opinion, they have considerable energy and strength, and, although modestly sized are powerfully commanding of the space they occupy. Storm Over Africa (1999) is a representation of a threatening bull elephant, painted with ludicrous melodrama but to magnificent effect. There is something exciting about the artist's extreme over-confidence and unabashed sentiment, and, in spite of working within a tradition of such art, something frighteningly authentic. Considered as an innocent, (and paradoxically, considering his success, even as an Outsider of some kind), Shepherd gains stature; a stature beyond simply being a marketing phenomenon, and which engenders the expectation that his work will enjoyably endure.

Neal Brown is an artist and writer based in London, UK.