The influences of Gareth Sansom
Gareth Sansom - A Master's Memories
Understatement is not something usually associated with Gareth Sansom's distinctive œuvre. So when one of Australia's most renowned artists drily remarks, "I understand the philosophy of how to make a painting, I just don't make them the way other people do", it understandably elicits a chuckle.
In a career spanning over six decades, Gareth Sansom has garnered the reputation for being something of an iconoclast. Despite the perception that has clung to him for much of his career, Sansom was never interested in being recognised as some sort of provocative 'bad boy', he simply doesn't place that much importance on the judgements of others. Such a posture might have long exceeded its usefulness, or settled into a stale contrivance preserved by an artist past their prime, whereas Sansom's formidable output continues apace with a robust and almost obdurate vigour.
Indeed, at 82, both the man and his works remain expressive of the same conviction and ferocious dedication as ever. Sansom's desire to provoke a visceral response from the viewer is evident in both his bracing approach to colour and the often-turbulent subject matter of his works. "I'm interested in the bizarre, I'm interested in things that are unsaid", he agrees. Sansom's schematic-style paintings are more like stage sets across which various philosophical and psychological themes play out; audacious and, on occasions, incendiary.
Sansom's complex imagery follows a rather surrealist approach, and his use of collage serves to further disrupt and disorient; leaving the viewer to decode the narrative inferences. For an artist who doesn't plan paintings, or make preparatory drawings, Sansom relies on his subconscious iconography to resolve pictorial challenges. "I draw on anything that will make the picture better. That would be, many times, a change of style, a change of technique, a change of approach, something out of left-field that will just give the picture an edge that makes it somewhat more unpredictable", he explains. "I’m happy if my work jumps all over the place if it comes up with a new solution".
Sansom served as Head of Painting at the Victorian College of the Arts (1977-85), and was then appointed as Dean of the School of Art (1986-91). Since his departure from higher education and the resumption of his studio practice full-time, Sansom has been the subject of several major surveys including Welcome to my mind (2005) at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, Alternative Persona (2012) at the Art Gallery of Ballarat, and the comprehensive Transformer (2017) at the National Gallery of Victoria. Sansom held his first solo exhibition in 1959, although paintings previous to his third show in 1965 proved difficult to locate in any depth. Nonetheless, Transformer presented some 130 works, vitrines of personal mementos, and marshalled several of Sansom's largest compositions together for the first time. These included the bombastic multi-panel Gotterdamerungerdungerdumbergungerdung! (1981-82), Friendship's road II (1985-87), Family trust (1990), a collaboration with the Australian Tapestry Workshop, and the triptych Sweeney Agonistes (2005).
Based at his Sorrento studio throughout the cycle of pandemic lockdowns in Victoria, Sansom began to sort through his large archive of personal ephemera as a way of processing the enforced isolation and subsequent melancholy it induced. The resulting suite of plywood works revisit pertinent images, drawings, and even slides from Sansom's past like a tableau of memories. "They’ve been quite complicated to make, but through covid I think I needed something else. I couldn’t just go into the studio, and have linen canvases all ready to move into position to start painting", he admits. "Covid affected me in the sort of way where I’ve got to get a lift in some way, a psychological lift... artistically I needed something that would give me a blast, and motivate me to get into the studio in a new way, and it’s achieved that".
Sansom is determined to resist privileging personal content, so works like Memories (2021), Let's Dance! (2021), and Nostalgia (2021) are more about quiet reminiscence. "It’s probably even a little bit cathartic when I see a photograph of a situation, or a relationship, that I’ve just totally forgotten, and that makes the work, for me at least, quite poignant. But that catharsis doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to rub off on any viewer in an art gallery. That’s not enough to make a legitimate artwork in my view. So you’ve got to incorporate it in such a way that the work still functions as a piece of art... putting them into different sorts of artistic contexts", he contends. "If you open up your life in an autobiographical way it can just be selfish, self-indulgent, and over-sentimental. The work is just going to slide off the canvas, or the plywood, and drift onto the floor, metaphorically, because it doesn’t stand up aesthetically. I’ve got very high standards, and always have, irrespective of what viable work might be, or what the process might’ve been. It always has to pass my 'test of existence' to leave the studio".
Hope Is At Hand (2020-21) was commenced during Melbourne’s second lockdown. "It sort of had landscape connotations, and this is still before the words went on, I developed the abstract rectangle structure that floated around in the middle of the painting. It also reminded me of New York when I was younger", Sansom recalls. "Sometimes you’d be walking around in the middle of the night and there’d be neon signs on top of old buildings down in the Bowery like ‘Christ Saves’, and stuff like that with the lit-up cross. So I was thinking of that when I put on the side a kind of slogan if you like, and I put it on to maybe relate to the idea of that I was hopeful, I wasn’t giving up. I was going to keep making work whether it got onto a wall or not, or whether a show went ahead or not, I would still make the work".
Neon, and the slightly fuzzy affect looking directly at it has on the retina, also informs Muse (2021), although the yellow skull could also be interpreted as a fleeting nod to the optical illusion in The Ambassadors (1533) by Holbein, the Younger. Rather than a reference to the visual tropes within a momento mori or vanitas work, here Sansom uses the skull in terms of it being an object for literary inspiration; the gaining of wisdom rather than the passage of time.
It hovers like a mirage, almost fluorescent against the crimson background and stark white lines. "It’s intentionally painted in a kind of vague way... the irony in the painting because that’s a key figurative image at the top, and the bottom half becomes geometrically hard-edge abstraction in a totally different way that is in opposition, or out of context, of the figuration that’s going on above it, a kind of imaginary horizontal line through the work", Sansom comments.
These works are included in Sansom's latest exhibition at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, which represents another milestone. He was the first artist to show with the Gallery forty years ago with Paintings... Drawings... Photographs, 1965-1982. "Making a commitment to a large, survey-style exhibition for the Gallery's inaugural show was a reputational risk for the artist", Oxley says. "As I have found out, this preparedness to take risks is very much in character for Sansom and his art. It is very much in keeping with the description that his artworks are uncompromising and idiosyncratic in nature".
In the 1970s, Sansom established a darkroom in his Richmond studio and began to include role-play and performative aspects within his works. Using costumes, masks, and prosthetics he produced self-portraits in various disguises and adopted a range of personas. These images reflect his love of film noir and avid engagement with popular culture, but also manage to subtly disconcert the viewer. Sansom describes himself as 'gay friendly', and his interest in drag, gender identification, and duality serves to explore the transgressive undercurrents coursing beneath social mores and gender conventions. The stereotypical scenarios he creates, and the poses he adopts, sometimes veer into the realm of camp. Sansom's wry social commentary embraces ideas of the aberrant: disorder barely contained within the accepted order.
Another aspect consistently present in Sansom's work is ambiguity, and the challenge this might pose to particular social codes or cultural orthodoxies. The new exhibition Queer: Stories From the NGV Collection includes his work Delicious (1989). It was one of many watercolours produced during Sansom's residency at Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi, ahead of his participation in the Seventh Triennale India (1991). The text across the top of the work asks, 'If I'm in India, where is my mind?', as six figures clad in party dress, and some in fetish wear, congregate below. In fact, Sansom's mind had drifted back to memories of the vibrant Melbourne club scene in the 70s and early 80s when he used to attend 'themed' nights with his then girlfriend. The work has a queer subtext, but principally reflects Sansom's wistful appreciation of the exuberant nightlife and the relative freedom it represented during that period.
Throughout his career, Sansom has been preoccupied with the intuitiveness and legitimacy of the creative process: of finding a means to propel his work further, to locate an inner core of significance, and coax forth its resonance. He continues to wrestle with the frustration, waywardness, and potential failure inherent to art making; between initial chaos and finally getting the disparate elements to coalesce. "I would hate if I felt- and I’d never do it- if I had to change my approach... if I couldn’t sell a picture to make an income. I don’t paint to sell, but you know I’m hoping that people will respect what I do, and paint something they like. Not just because it’s who I am, but I don’t want to be one of those faded artists", Sansom asserts. "Artists can’t stop working... I think contentment in life is having something like that, that continues to provide a real itch if I’m not doing it".
Gareth Sansom (2-26 March, 2022)
Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery,
8 Soudan Lane,
Queer: Stories From the NGV Collection (10 March-21 August, 2022),
National Gallery of Victoria (International),
180 St Kilda Road,
Victoria, 3000: www.ngv.vic.gov.au
Artist site: garethsansom.com.au
Gareth Sansom is represented by
Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Paddington, NSW: www.roslynoxley9.com.au
STATION, South Yarra, Victoria: www.stationgallery.com.au
Milani Gallery, Brisbane, QLD: www.milanigallery.com.au
Issue 10 July 2015
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.
Critical response to Sansom’s work has been almost unfailingly 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.
RoslynOxley9 exhibition 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.