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Gareth Sansom at the NGV: a psychological tsunami

Melbourne artist Gareth Sansom (b.1939) has been producing his wild and luridly coloured collages and watercolours for 60 years based, curators say, on a “personal iconography that includes imagery of a sexual, satirical and philosophical nature”.

A retrospective of 130 works opens at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne this week titled Gareth Sansom Transformer. Ashley Crawford writes below that Sansom was transgressing the masculine tradition in Australian culture long before it became it was accepted by the mainstream.

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Gareth Sansom has made the art of montage into a lifelong gesamtkunstwerk. A gigantic cinematic storyboard for a film that can never be filmed, so fractious, rampant and manifold are its components. One could try, of course, to cast the thousands of cameos required and determine the settings, which would range from plague-ridded medieval European mountains to the dark denizens of Gotham’s underworld. But, at the end of the day we must realistically suffice with Sansom’s mesmerising ‘stills’, this ongoing tumult of visual references, this kaleidoscopic and hallucinatory assault not only on the senses but also on the very logic embedded in the ‘normal’ making and viewing of works of art.

Sansom, throughout his massively energetic career, has clearly made no secret of his fascination with popular culture, his references ranging high and low with such strange bedfellows as Ingmar Bergman and The Flintstones. Rock, punk and disco have bopped in and out to spend the night with the Vorticists, Situationists, Abstract Expressionists and Surrealists who have been, at alternating moments, invited to join the fray. At times, this has seemed extremely prescient. Sansom’s embrace of the once outré notion of transgender extremes came well before its acceptance into mainstream culture and, at the time, was clearly a substantive transgression of the masculine tradition in Australian culture, particularly in painting, seen in the likes of Albert Tucker and others of his ilk.

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Gareth Sansom’s ‘Wittgenstein’s brush with Vorticism’ 2016, oil and enamel paint on canvas, 213.4 x 274.3 cm.

Well before theories of postmodern appropriation opened the gateway to wholesale plundering of images, Sansom had already helped himself.

If there was a rule or a law to be had, from the beginning Sansom set out to break it. By montaging crude polaroids – then a fantastically new technology – of himself in trans regalia onto the surface of his early works, the artist seemed to call into question the insistence on painting as a purist pursuit. While those around him in the late 1960s and burgeoning 1970s were besotted with American minimalist abstraction, Sansom was heading hell-bent into uncharted waters.

These stylistic divergences in fact made perfect sense when Sansom’s extraordinary cargo-cult sensibility was taken into account. From the very earliest, Sansom was attuned to all and every form of imagery within reach. Well before theories of postmodern appropriation opened the gateway to wholesale plundering of images, Sansom had already helped himself.

Born in 1939 – the year that marked the beginning of the Second World War and the Hollywood premiere of The Wizard of Oz – Sansom embraces history and the contemporary with equal passion. He relishes absorbing the life stories of postwar artists at the same time as being an early adopter of new technologies, from HTML coding to Facebook to Instagram.

The post–Second World War period was the era of the Surrealists and the accompanying reincarnation of such figures as Hieronymus Bosch in popular culture. It was inevitable that as a teenager Sansom would become aware of Bosch and the likes of Salvador Dalí – imagery that had become the stuff of T-shirts and posters – and hints of Surrealism remain in his work to this day.

Auspiciously, Sansom turned twenty-one in 1960, at the beginning of a decade of creative and social flux. For a mind such as his, this was both a blessing and a curse. The sheer voltage of imagery and sounds – from a man landing on the Moon (ironically televised in monochrome in the age of psychedelia) to the neon-noir of Vietnam to the vibrant shenanigans of Woodstock and the violent mayhem of Altamont, where a Hell’s Angel murdered an audience member during the closing chords of The Rolling Stone’s ‘Under My Thumb’ – assailed the youthful artist from all sides. He began studying art at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) in 1959, which at the time was the domain of Melbourne’s corduroy and tweed intelligentsia. Social realism à la artist Noel Counihan was the order of the day and the palette was one of beige and Missionary Brown. Sansom did not exactly fit in. As a kid from the Melbourne suburb of Ascot Vale, although he’d been an avid cricketer, Sansom was already restless and ‘fitting in’ did not come naturally. Even then, the young Sansom was storing away images and ideas for future reference. A case in point was his first viewing of Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal (1957) at the old Melbourne Savoy cinema in 1962 with fellow budding artists Robert Jacks and George Baldessin. The experience would re-emerge fifty-one years later in Sansom’s The Seventh Seal, 2013, an enormous painting of medieval and gothic imagery.

While the morass of images in Sansom’s work may seem inscrutable, there is in fact a central theme at play; the questioning of what it means to be human.

Sansom’s ‘montagerie’ perpetually reflects the times in which he paints, filtered through a prism of an encyclopedic historical memory. Punk music, reflected in his imagery of the early 1980s, gives credence to the horrors of the Middle Ages. Here Nick Cave meets Plato’s Cave replete with abundant shadows. Sansom’s early references to gay and drug cultures were filtered through an awareness of AIDs and ODs. There is a sage-like awareness of context and ramification at perpetual play in his oeuvre.

While the morass of images in Sansom’s work may at times seem to be inscrutable, there is in fact a central theme at play; the questioning of what it means to be human. Philosophers throughout the ages have pondered this fraught question, from Saint Thomas Aquinas to the science fiction author Philip K. Dick. Clearly, for Sansom, there is an element of experience involved; if he did not actually experience certain elements he portrays, he most certainly witnessed them firsthand in some form or another. He is an artist who does not turn his gaze away from reality, and his works achieve their greatest potency when confronting the great existential motifs: God and Death.

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Gareth Sansom’s ‘Three figure studies’, 1990 type C photographs, (a-c) 80.0 x 105.0 cm (framed).
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Gareth Sansom’s ‘The blue masked transvestite’ 1964, oil and enamel paint on composition board, 167.5 x 136.6 cm.

Despite its commercial and critical success, Sansom’s work remains stubbornly ‘outside’ much of the mainstream dialogue. While this has been the case throughout most of Sansom’s career, if anything, with his latest works it seems to have been exacerbated. Partly this is because of the scale of his works; they are aggressively large and rambunctious. Another reason for the relative sidelining of Sansom’s works is their somewhat deranged use of colour. The result is that they do not sit down and play well with others. A Gareth Sansom work in a curated show skews other artists’ works into irrelevance. He destroys the level playing field simply though the bright irreverence of his palette and the strange, at times morbid and and/or humorous sensibility at play.

A retrospective of Gareth Sansom is a psychological tsunami. It is a maelstrom of strange colours and even stranger subjects. Many of the works included seem to be teetering on the edge of a psychosexual precipice, and there are numerous hints of Sansom’s darker side. But at the same time it is a balancing act between righteous anger and simmering humour, including an element of the emotive that could either lash out with awesome physicality or simply become a bark of harsh laughter or discursive philosophical provocation. These works shimmer on an uneasy edge between rigorous discipline and all-out anarchy. Welcome to Sansom’s mind.

This is an excerpt from an essay by Ashley Crawford is published in the catalogue accompanying the Gareth Sansom Transformer exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, Federation Square in Melbourne from September 15 until January 28. The catalogue is available from NGV Design Store and online ($39.95 AUD).

Main image: Siccolam 1976, collage of offset-photo lithographs, gelatin silver photographs, fibre tipped pen, enamel paint, polyvinyl acetate and charcoal on cardboard
81.0 x 101.0 cm.

2 responses to “Gareth Sansom at the NGV: a psychological tsunami

  1. Stubbornly ‘outside the mainstream dialogue’ – nonsense! He’s an artist who subverts the plot. The picture was of men producing nice postwar babies in neat bedrooms alongside the cleaner-producer in her curlers, just as now the picture is of the pant, the tee and the throw, the Eames chair, the raw brick wall and the polished concrete floor with a pair of blurred legs walking past the door. What you mean is against pretentiousness. It isn’t Counihan and Tucker and co you should be looking at, it’s Robert Rooney with his quiet middle class subversion vs Sansom with his extroverted pseudopomp – I’ll give you ‘rambunctious’. Deeply funny artists, both of them.

  2. ‘…the masculine tradition in Australian culture, particularly in painting, seen in the likes of Albert Tucker and others of his ilk’ – so who exactly was like Tucker? Nolan? Boyd? Perceval? Each has a version of female representation with the exception of Tucker, non extols a particularly virile or emblematic masculinity. It’s not an Antipodean thing, not really an Australian thing, if one looks back to E. Phillips Fox or Lambert, alternatively to Drysdale or Dobell. And while Tucker’s solitary outcasts are invariably men, on the land, there is no sense of potent masculinity in contrast with say, feminine interiors or cultivation. They are haggard, withdrawn battlers – perhaps swaggies of the 30s and 40s. They are simply persecuted outsiders, to an economy that always favoured the privileged squatter, old school tie and tie-ins. When Tucker returned to Australian in 1960 he was staggered by how affluent it had become, how American. To posit this as some sort of polar opposite of Sansom’s sexual confusions is absurd. Sansom belongs entirely to a different era with a much less local focus.

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