Gareth Sansom at NGV: the colourful chaos of our darker selves - Sebastian Smee
Gareth Sansom’s paintings are nasty. Look away from them and the suspicion grows that if you were to turn around without warning, you might be met by the demented eyes of Jack Nicholson in The Shining, or some bestial, hallucinatory figure squatting atop the painting’s surface — Goya’s Seated Giant, perhaps, or some equally obliterating monstrosity out of Hieronymus Bosch.
The fear is psychological. It is a response to Sansom’s subject matter, certainly. But since the subject matter is at first (and often enduringly) obscure, it is also a function of form: Sansom’s paintings so deftly juggle dissonant scales and registers that they constantly burst open their containers.
His pictures combine miniature graphic scuffles with diabolic enlargements, and muddy meanderings with drenching expanses of pure colour.
All this gives them the feel of dreams. Not of Salvador Dali’s or Max Ernst’s illustrations of dreams (“fake news” from the unconscious); more like dream work — enactments, in paint, of the mind’s frantic scrabbling and ceaseless unspooling; its loose threads, tangled knots and brisk switches between slack and taut, indolent and torpid, ecstatic and contemptuous.
He paints directly on primed canvases, without preparatory drawings, and his primary energies go into solving pictorial problems. “The best ones work,” he says, “when they’re on the brink of failure.”
The “nastiness” in Sansom’s work derives from the artist’s obvious feeling for — and bracing lack of sentimentality about — our darker natures; for the parts of us that idle along during the day, purring harmlessly beneath the surface of our charming, careful, mildly anxious social selves, but that intermittently growl, bark or stare inappropriately; that come out at night, and are liable to erupt in spasms of desire, violence and teeth-baring, and are tempted by self-annihilation.
“LAST NEW YEAR’S EVE HE STAYED UP ALONE … SNIFFING AMYL,” reads the text on the left panel of Sansom’s masterful 2005 triptych Sweeney Agonistes. Suicide, stupidity and isolation are all conjured by this work, which combines references to Sweeney Reed (the troubled son of Albert Tucker and Joy Hester, who was adopted by patrons John and Sunday Reed), TS Eliot, artist Francis Bacon, Bosch, chemical bliss and the world-altering agony of crucifixion. I believe it is the greatest Australian painting of the past 20 years.
If one were to try to account for the palpable step up in ambition and conviction in Sansom’s works since about 2000, one would have to attribute the advance in large part to his brilliant embrace of colour.
Sansom’s palette is so intense and strident that the mind wants to associate it with shop signs, billboards and graphic advertising rather than fine art.
Consider the blue ground of Academic or the orange of Beardsley (both 2014), two recent triumphs. The colours are not used commonly in such drenching quantities and at such high degrees of intensity.
Bacon, a long-term influence on Sansom (in ways that extend far beyond colour), may have provided a key precedent in this sense. In his great period, from about 1962 to 1976 (Sansom met him in London in 1967), Bacon contrived powerful contrasts between his blurred and bleeding figures and their bright, clean, geometric backgrounds, which he laid down in sumptuous colours that deliberately appeared commercial and arbitrary. The hues he favoured suggested purchased luxuries and plastic commodities — the whole artificial sphere that was, in Philip Larkin’s memorable phrase, “natureless in ecstasies”.
Although the palette of Sansom’s work of the past 15 years is different from Bacon’s, it is, like his, thrillingly artificial. “I’ve always hated the look of pictures that come out of an oil tube,” he has said, explaining his preference for sophisticated combinations of enamel, alkyd resin and oil. It is also lighter and brighter than Bacon’s (perhaps showing the influence of India: Sansom visited the old Pink City of Jaipur, among other places), and it is more active.
Where Bacon’s expanses of saturated colour remain as backgrounds, Sansom’s large, monochrome fields aggressively hem in the frenzied shapes they surround, flooding the field here, abruptly cutting out there or dissipating into drips and runs elsewhere. In this way Sansom complicates Bacon’s dramatisation of the tension between self and other, flesh and container. His pictures are less overtly theatrical and, in a sense, more lifelike.
Coloured squares and other geometric shapes stacked to resemble colour charts, or tweaked to suggest degrees of three-dimensionality, recur in many of Sansom’s recent compositions — including Daisy-chain (2016), Alchemy (2008-09), and the very recent (and brilliant) Wittgenstein’s Brush with Vorticism (2016). So do cartoonish outlines of distorted heads filled with abstract shapes and frenzied brushwork.
As often as not these complex and often quite hilarious mash-ups are surrounded by large expanses of bright, smooth, flat colour. Crosses, eyes, masks, drips and writing in various scripts also recur. Sometimes the writing is a quote or graffiti-like blurt, other times it is the work’s title: Pius IX, for instance, or Latex.
All this is plainly visible. What is harder to convey is the alloy, in Sansom’s best paintings, of impenetrable psychic goo and spastic body rushes of beauty. The isolated mind, they suggest, is a run-down, hunted, tatterdemalion thing; but coupled with the world — with imagination, chaos, colour — it can spawn wild, barefoot, cackling progeny. Look out!
The Australian August 29, 2017
Gareth Sansom: Transformer is at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, September 15-January 28.
Gareth Sansom – Transformer: visual ambushes, black humour and naughty pleasures - Sasha Grishin - The Conversation
Gareth Sansom is a rare and an intimidating phenomenon in Australian art – an artist who thinks deeply, is fiercely independent, is visually literate and has mastery over an extensive range of skills.
His retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, Gareth Sansom – Transformer is bold, provocative, exquisitely crafted – and simply brilliant. Sansom is an artist who takes no prisoners, breaks all of the rules and leaves you spellbound.
Sansom was born in 1939, the same year as George Baldessin and Brett Whiteley - a generation that took pleasure in risk taking and had little reverence for the conventions of the old order.
Like Baldessin and Whiteley, he too was besotted with Francis Bacon, explored the dark side of the human psyche, and was prepared to work across mediums, splicing and collaging images like the montages in film noir that so appealed to all three artists. However, unlike his two contemporaries, Sansom has been blessed with longevity and continues to work at the peak of his powers with some of the strongest, toughest and most uncompromising pieces amongst his most recent.
Sansom creates complex, multi-tiered narratives in his paintings, drawings and collages. There exists a seductive temptation to decipher the story and the artist willingly provides clues from his personal biography, art historical anecdotes and other lures and traps for the viewer. Many of these clues are brought together in the excellent accompanying catalogue edited by the exhibition’s curator, Simon Maidment.
In some ways, one can become engulfed in this semiotic quicksand, which is instantly gratifying in the same way as gossip may be an antidote to curiosity. We learn of the artist’s juvenile fantasies, obsessions and possible sources, but these are all largely beside the point.
Knowing that the cross-dressing Barry Humphries may have inspired the artist to do the same or that he used a room at home to stage and photograph a scene from the Bates Motel may satisfy some of our curiosity, but it adds little to the understanding of his work.
Sansom, for all of his transcultural references, is not, in the final analysis, a literary artist – an illustrator of verbal ideas – and for all of his reading and immersion in film and popular culture, his art is the triumph of visual intelligence. It speaks to us on a visual level that bypasses the verbal decoding. Like an alchemist, Sansom will mix a scene that can be traced back to Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal or Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, but he throws all of this into a creative cauldron in which image, text, difficult colours and, those painful to the eye, plus a mass of other unexpected, startling imagery is brought together to shock, surprise and delight.
Sansom has been doing this for 60 years and I have been viewing it for about 40 years and he has never failed to shock and surprise me. I have always thought that his work was good, but never realised it was this good. From those very early collages of the 1960s through to the monumental paintings of the last few years, there is an enormous consistency, emotional intensity and a generous dose of whimsy in his art.
Although we may have all now become somewhat resilient to being shocked through depictions of explicit sexuality, brutal violence, graffiti and the extreme manifestations of pop art, Sansom’s work can also seduce and emotionally disarm us before visually ambushing us.
This exhibition has about 130 such visual ambushes and intellectual naughty pleasures. From early show stoppers, including He sees himself (1964) and The blue masked transvestite (1964), through to much more recent pieces, such as Wittgenstein’s brush with Vorticism (2016) and Transformer (2016-17), they are all works that contain a fair amount of humour – often black humour. There is also a cringe factor at play, as if the artist has caught you in the act of enjoying his work and for this you must be humiliated.
For all of the notes of anarchy and praise of the temporary and the ephemeral, throughout the exhibition you also become conscious that you are looking at complex, sophisticated and well-structured works that are built to last.
Where does this exhibition place Gareth Sansom? Much of this work – particularly that from the past 20 years – would look good in any international company. Although not shy of the fact that it is made in Australia, the imagery is definitely not made for Australian eyes only or as an export commodity that is stamped “Made in Australia” for outside consumption.
Just as Anselm Kiefer bears the impact of his German origins and Jean-Michel Basquiat of his emergence within the New York punk scene, Sansom is a Melbourne product, but has a unique and unmistakable artistic voice. He can comfortably take his place as an internationally significant contemporary artist.
Gareth Sansom - Transformer, National Gallery of Victoria, Federation Square, Melbourne, 15 September 2017 – 28 January 2018