The swirling detritus that makes up Gareth Sansom’s bizarro oeuvre could well include out-of-date medicine, medieval castles, stiletto shoes, amyl nitrate bottles, bondage masks, crucifixes and odd love-aids. Invited to this carnivalesque Feast of Fools are God, Ingmar Bergman, the occasional Grim Reaper, Hannibal Lecter, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Jimmy Page, Richard Wagner, the infamous ‘erectile pencil’, Paul Klee, Jim Carrey and Howard Roark.
Overall, it is a diary of sorts: at times convoluted and downright crazed, at others lucid and amusing. During some moments, we may fear for the artist’s – and our own – sanity. During others, we smirk as we understand the irony and clarity of his pointed social observations.
With a massive, impending retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in 2017, audiences will still only get a glimpse into this maverick’s journey. Curating such a show would be akin to juggling mercury while herding feral cats. The themes run from the Homeric to the deliberately puerile. The influences – although at times clearly stated– become slippery, from Francis Bacon-like figures to Paul Klee abstractions, hints of Op Art clash with tinctures of Constructivism. If Sansom weren’t so clearly ensconced in the upper echelons of the art world, he would be best defined as an ‘outsider artist’. But even that term, coined by critic Roger Cardinal in 1972 as an English synonym for art brut (the phrase utilised by Jean Dubuffet to describe art created outside the boundaries of ‘official’ culture), is clearly a misnomer. For all his anarchistic wielding of colour and form, critics, curators and collectors embrace his Imp of the Perverse with relish.
Equally odd, and almost disturbing, is the Dorian Gray-like agelessness of his work. Born in 1939, Sansom paints and draws like a youthful enfant terrible. In 2009, at the age of 70, Sansom named a painting Skateboarding punk video shit – a title one might expect from a rebellious young student trying to appall his or her lecturers. At a period of life when most artists – indeed, most people – have grown mellow and introspective, Sansom is pricklier than ever, seeking sensory input of any and all nature(s). One could be tempted to imagine that he was simply out to shock for shock’s sake if it weren’t for the finely honed visual language that has emerged over the last several decades.
That is not to say that there is not an element of introspection at play in this exotic melee. Mortality is a growing theme. But when he depicts the Grim Reaper, he holds up a middle finger, and when he paints God, it is a self-portrait.
His most recent suite of works – which were shown this year at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney and Milani Gallery in Brisbane – blazed new trails from an already staggering body of work created during the last decade. With a searing palette, Sansom sheers from sincerity and whimsy to mortality and timelessness. Popular culture and historicism fight a tumultuous, apocalyptic battle on these canvases. There are moments of biographical insight. A painting called Academic features a blundering, masked fool, referencing, no doubt, those he came across during his years as Dean of the School of Art at the Victorian College of the Arts, while another, PhD (2014), features a malformed head clearly preparing to explode.
His fascination with popular culture is explicit in such paintings as Dumb and Dumber (2014) – a reference to the classic, 1994 filmic expression of American crassness – and Head on a Stick (2013), which takes the form of an allusion to a horrific moment in the 2005 Australian film Wolf Creek. References to art and artists abound, ranging from AubreyBeardsley to the aforementioned Paul Klee, and his fascination with underground gay and fetish culture and the iconography of sadomasochism, remains a cornerstone in such works as Coming Out (2014). Indeed, the myriad of subjects adds to an already encyclopaedic breadth of subjects and ideas expressed throughout Sansom’s oeuvre.
His 2017 NGV retrospective is a sequel, of sorts, to the 2005 exhibition Welcome to my mind – Gareth Sansom, a study of selected works 1964–2005 presented at the Ian Potter Museum of Art at Melbourne University. Few were prepared for the dervish-like diversity that ended up on display. The gallery’s then director, Dr. Chris McAuliffe, suggested in the catalogue that Sansom’s output was “living proof of the triumph of the larrikin over the wowser”.While the sentiment of this statement is impossible to deny, the term ‘larrikin’ cannot help but suggest hints of indifference to rules. And herein lies another contradiction: for all the seemingly anarchistic drives at play, Sansom is also a workaholic. While the rules may be of his own devising, he sticks to them with a Protestant stubbornness. Days and nights can go by without him emerging from the studio, and even when he does – to stop and watch a film or play Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir at full belt for instance – it is still research, still grist for the mill.
Critical response to Sansom’s work has been almostunfailingly positive. When he was featured in an exhibition at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2007, then art critic for The Australian Sebastian Smee made the claim that Sansom was “for my money, the most exciting painter in Australia today”. “Sansom, as ever, stands apart,” Smee continued in the piece. “His paintings may be beautiful, in a mercurial kind of way, yet beauty is but one of their many strengths. These are urgent works of art that dare to describe the workings of the mind. They are large, cacophonous, unstable and sometimes quite terrifying.” Smee, accurately, recognised the artist’s balancing act between chaos and order, citing specifically two of Sansom’s undisputable masterworks,The Keep and Sweeney Agonistes (2005). Two years later, also writing in The Australian, critic Edward Colless would recognise the miasma of influences that Sansom unashamedly lets loose in his phantasmagorical commotion, from Hieronymus Bosch and Francisco de Goya, to Jean Dubuffet, Francis Bacon and Pablo Picasso. But he also accurately noted the whimsical element running through the oeuvre – the hints of Dr. Seuss, Ren and Stimpy and Robert Crumb. “Sansom whips pugnacious graffiti gestures through vaporous, somnolent colour harmonies so that mature, darker psychological moods of reflection see the with youthful, electric anger,” he wrote. To this list, one could add the use of text and photography and the references to Christianity and Buddhism, bondage and transvestism, poetry and cinema that infuse his work.
That “anger” that Colless noted is central to Sansom’s work, but it is invariably balanced with a wry, albeit dark, humour. His central figures seem to cry out for some form of physical animation, imbued as they are with a powerful sense of (arguably tragic) personality. They dance and writhe and scuttle and strut their way across the canvases, each on some kind of arcane mission. The notion of them actually emerging from the canvas evokes thoughts of a terrifying lysergic acid trip enhanced with a hefty dose of amyl nitrate.
As Smee wrote, Sansom’s work “stands apart”. It is far from easy to pigeonhole. Modernist influences are abundant, but rarely expressed in purist forms. There are nods to Vorticism, pure abstraction, Expressionism and Surrealism in abundance, but they are far from literal – they have been pushed through the meat-grinder of the artist’s mind. Sansom hails from a period where the Modernist and Postmodernist concerns blur, but he confounds purist notions of either. As Fredric Jameson, the author of what arguably remains the definitive text on the subject, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, posits, “the postmodern looks for breaks, for events rather than new worlds, for the tell-tale instant after which it is no longer the same…” While Sansom indisputably embraces breakage, he is also very much in the business of creating ‘new worlds’. Similarly, while there are multitudinous references to popular culture, they are not of the nature of ‘classical’ Postmodernism (the Marlboro references of Richard Prince’s work as an example). Sansom throws signposts and cultural referents as something of a guidebook into his strange worlds – from Plato to Kubrick, Wagner to Hitchcock – but never in a literal, easily digestible form. They are martinis of the mind, cocktails of a cornucopia of cultural consumption, grenades of granular perception moulded into an unruly whole.
‘World-making’ is rarely in the purview of Australian art. During an earlier period of his career, Dale Frank perhaps began to achieve that accolade, but has since surrendered to commercial imperatives. An artist breaking his or her own rules is sadly a rarity in general. It is, perhaps, a sign either of arrogance or amusement – both difficult readings but, in Sansom’s case, decidedly applicable.
Writing in the catalogue for Welcome to my mind, Terence Maloon introduced his essay with references to the word ‘cosmos’ which, he notes, stems from the Greek Kosmos which, he pointed out, “meant not only for the entire world or the totality of the universe, but also other kinds of orderly and elegant arrangements”. 'Cosmos’, he noted, was born from ‘chaos’ and indeed both terms apply. Whether the terms orderly and elegant are applicable is clearly open for dispute, but in a strange way Sansom’s assorted visions create an overall wunderkammer – a cabinet of curiosities, a collection of images – that enthrals and bewilders, irritates and amuses. Regardless, one is immersed into this seething, ectoplasmic world, and unlikely to escape unscathed.
Vault Magazine Issue 10 July 2015
This new suite of works is blazing new trails in an already staggering output during the last decade. With a searing palette, Gareth Sansom sheers from sincerity and whimsy to mortality and timelessness. Popular culture and historicism fight a tumultuous battle on these canvases. There are moments of biographical insight (a painting called Academic features a blundering, masked fool, referencing, no doubt, those he came across during his years as Dean of the School of Art at the Victorian College of the Arts). His fascination with popular culture is explicit in paintings such as Dumb and Dumber (a reference to the classic expression of American crassness, the 1994 comedy) and Head on a Stick (an allusion to a horrific moment in the 2005 Australian film Wolf Creek – but also, no doubt, to his own extensive travels through the Australian bush in recent years). References to art and artists abound ranging from Aubrey Beardsley to Paul Klee and his fascination with underground gay and fetish culture remains a cornerstone in such works as Coming Out. Indeed, the myriad of subjects alluded to adds to an already encyclopedic breadth of subjects and ideas expressed throughout Sansom’s oeuvre. One of the few truly original voices in contemporary Australian art, Sansom has always remained a hard-core iconoclast. Eschewing his traditional love of montage, here the artist relies on eccentric mark-making and belligerent colouration. To make his point, Sansom has called this exhibition Just Painting. “Essentially this show of recent work does not use collage at all,” Sansom states. Instead, he says, it: “Concentrates on everything I have learned about painting going right back to 1956 when I began painting in oils.” With a major retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria slated for 2017, Sansom is clearly refusing to slow down. Over the last 10 years alone he was the subject of a career survey titled ‘Welcome to my mind: Gareth Sansom, a study of selected works 1964-2005’ at the Ian Potter Gallery at The University of Melbourne. He was the recipient of the $100,000 John McCaughey Prize in 2008 and the Dobell Drawing Prize in 2012.
Ashley Crawford, 2015
Roslyn Oxley9 exhibition 2015