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Where does Gareth Sansom sit in the batting order?

Artist John Kelly visits the National Gallery of Victoria’s Transformer, a retrospective of Melbourne artist Gareth Sansom, an influential teacher — and once a handy leg spinner for Essendon — whose work has frequently alluded to the game of cricket. 

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I was a student when Gareth Sansom opened an exhibition at RMIT University in the early ’80s. He produced a cheap shiny cricket ball twirled it in his fingers and postulated, to the bemusement of the academic arty audience, that the ball was of test match quality and the exhibition in cricketing parlance was a ‘googly’. Painting and cricket share a history, think The Cricketers (1948), by Russell Drysdale, or Cricketer (1955), by Fred Williams. Then there is Brett Whiteley’s The Cricket Match (1964). Internationally Francis Bacon sometimes clad his figures in cricket pads, but what you ask is a googly?

The googly, also known as the wrong’un, is the surprise ball of the leg spinner. It’s the one that goes the other way. The leggies stock ball uses the wrist to impart spin making the ball turn sharply from leg stump to off (right to left). However, with a slight variation to the wrist the bowler can impart spin in the opposite direction (left to right) – if delivered with enough disguise it leaves the batsman bamboozled. The leg spinner is the cricketer who, when on song, beautifully elevates cricket to the sublime but when awry can be comical to watch. When conditions are right, especially on the fifth day of a wearing Test pitch the leggie can turn the tables, where ‘David’, who up to that point has been dominated by the bat, slays ‘Goliath’ with guile and cunning.

Cricket may be a key to understanding this enigmatic artist who is always on the Victorian team with the NGV buying its first painting in 1965.

Gareth Sansom was a handy cricketer, a leg spinner for Essendon, and over the years a number of the artist’s works have alluded to the sport and his art often leaves viewers bamboozled. Cricket may be a key to understanding this enigmatic artist who is always on the Victorian team with the NGV buying its first painting in 1965 and they have continued to select him, 35 works collected, or one every 18 months.

He is also well supported by other respected institutions both in Melbourne and interstate and a regular on the Australian biennale circuit. The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) blurb introduces the artist as; “A pre-eminent figure of the Australian avant-garde for over 50 years…” If true, this is indeed an incredible if unlikely achievement, akin to opening the batting for the baggy green for five decades consecutively. It reeks of over the top spin that is just a little wide of the stumps.

I am not thinking about cricket but Brett Whiteley as I approach Samsom’s 1964 painting, He sees himself, one that the NGV recently juxtaposed against Whiteley’s, 10 Rillington Place. At this time Sansom is a student at RMIT and possibly still playing cricket at Windy Hill, the following year the NGV will buy this painting.

The early imagery is very British in origin, Sansom tells us he was introduced to British Pop in 1962 through Ark, The Royal College of Art magazine and the same year to Francis Bacon through Studio International. David Hockney’s The Second Marriage (circa 1963), entered the NGV collection in 1965, the same year as Sansom’s was bought. Given its figurative collage technique one suspects the young artist may have been seen as the local version of this international ‘Pop’ phenomenon as The blue masked transvestite’ (1964) also relates strongly to Hockney. Sansom was also enamoured with Whiteley’s Christie series and Whiteley was heavily influenced by Francis Bacon. Whiteley was: Already noted as one of the London art scene’s rising stars in 1964, Whiteley pitted himself against its kingpin, Francis Bacon, with the Christie series”.

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‘He sees himself’ (1964) oil and enamel paint, pencil, crayon, polyvinyl acetate, chalk and gelatin silver photograph on composition board 167.8 x 137.0 cm

Sansom and Whiteley’s 1964 paintings have an uncanny resemblance with their suggestion of violence to the abstracted figure, the use of collaged photographs and also their obvious reference to Bacon. This devotion is reinforced by Country Cricketers (1966) which mimics Whiteley’s brilliant 1964 cricket painting whilst also quoting Bacon. Or take a look at Sansom’s Yes? (1976) and see how it riffs on Whiteley’s, 10 Rillington Place with the formal placement of a line of photographs at the bottom of the picture whereas Whiteley’s similar composition device moves across the top. Other British painters who come to mind are Michael Andrews and Alan Davies.

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‘Yes?’ 1976 gelatin silver photographs, enamel, pencil, fibre-tipped pen and crayon on cardboard 82.0 x 102.0 cmUnlike Whiteley, whose prodigious facility in drawing rivalled Shane Warne’s spinning fingers, Sansom relies on the photographic collage to imbue the recognisable,

 

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’10 Rillington Place’ 1964, Brett Whiteley, oil and graphite on canvas on plywood, charcoal on paper, gelatin silver photographs, cord, cup, object, wood and glass, 150.0 × 137.2 cm

We recognise that Sansom is essentially a studio painter whose reference material comes via other artists and media. Like Bacon, he uses photographs for source and struggles with descriptive drawing (very few Bacon drawings were ever found). Unlike Whiteley, whose prodigious facility in drawing rivalled Shane Warne’s spinning fingers, Sansom relies on the photographic collage to imbue the recognisable, to bring his abstractions back from the decorative. In the provincial milieu of Melbourne in the ’60s, one can imagine the battle in the young painter’s mind given that the Dobell case, the Ern Malley Affair, the Angry Penguins and the Antipodean Manifesto all still hung heavy in the air as the hubris of American abstract expressionism and Minimalism began to filter through to Oz. It was Pop that threw Sansom the lifeline as he was able to add elements of collaged photography to resolve the figure. It was either serendipity or a strategic route given it coincided with the NGV incorporating British Pop into its collection.

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‘The blue masked transvestite’ 1964, oil and enamel paint on composition board, 167.5 x 136.6 cm.

Sansom also became the inheritor of Sidney Nolan’s painting technique (via Len French) with his use of Ripolin, whose properties of free-flowing paint could be easily edited given its industrial covering power. His 2007 painting, Junior’s Brush with Vorticism can, like many of his paintings, be read as an abstracted neck and head and strongly relates to Nolan’s Railway guard, Dimboola (1943).

For a young Sansom, the fusion of British Pop, Nolan and Bacon/Whiteley provided a third way between the divide of figuration and abstraction, but in exhalted company like Whiteley’s early work, Sansom’s young years look earnest, overworked and short of a good-length.

In my earlier days it was always firmly about being anti-intellectual and beating my chest. It seems somewhat foolish now…I’ve realised you have to raise the bar and part of that is intellectually.”

Ashley Crawford’s recent essay tells us;

Over the past decade Sansom has returned to earlier themes in his paintings by inserting digital photographs of himself in various guises, wearing latex horror masks, bizarre female masks, latex prosthetics and faux rubber vaginas. These photographic incursions act like mind grenades, deliberate diversions for the casual viewer to stumble over, methodical tools for psychological disorientation.”

We can trace the origins of this ‘cross dressing’ to an early experience; “… Iʼd just been to my first couple of exhibitions ever…One was Len French and one was Barry Humphries in drag where he showed at the Vic Arts Society. There was this strange woman at the opening and I went up and said, ʻWhereʼs Barry Humphries?ʼ and he said, ʻMy darling, I donʼt knowʼ.”

To trace Sansom’s ‘drag’ imagery back to Barry Humphries is a revelation because back then Humphries was very much a cutting-edge performance artist, not the slick international megastar we now know. It also helps with the realisation that Sansom work is possibly an affectation confirmed by the source of the idea not being from a lived necessity. One only needs to look at Leigh Bowery and it makes Sansom’s work come across as slight. The NGV tell us that;

 Bowery communicated through his blatant sexuality, his extreme physical exaggerations, and his outrageous dress codes. Bowery was not simply dressing up; it was his lifestyle and commentary on the mundane...”

It would be hard to describe Sansom’s work in the same way as that of Bowery and Sansom himself describes this work as being a disguise rather than about his own sexuality, therefore making it a distinctly performative act. One might also make a comparison to Juan Davila, whose paintings deal with sexuality in a way that spin, grip and bite, compared to Sansom’s deliveries that land on a good length but struggle to beat the bat.

The NGV introduction suggests that Sansom only really moves into his own territory when he has left the security of his teaching position over the past two decades. It’s true that his works get larger, more refined and executed with the skill of an artist in control of his ‘line and length’, but they also evolve into seductively decorative paintings. If we read Malcolm Gladwell’s, David and Goliath we come to an understanding of Sansom and that his biography is just too privileged, too advantaged and safe to be labelled avant-garde which would seem to undermine the very premise of the exhibition.

Whereas Sansom sought security in the institution, Bowery, Whiteley et al let rip on the world.

Sansom’s work of the early sixties might have seemed radical but it was  young interpretations of an emerging pop culture imported via magazines from London and bought by the NGV because the institution itself was setting out on a similar ‘modern’ course. This serendipity set Sansom on his way and twelve years later in 1977 he is Head of Painting (later to become Dean) of the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA). However, in a 1978 interview with James Gleeson, Sansom reveals his conservative psyche;

“I was conscious of security and firm roots and foundations in life, like most people my age were in those days. So I, in fact, did a trained primary teachers certificate course, and began as a primary teacher…”

A trained primary school teacher leading the avant-garde might be a peculiar Melbourne thing and it led to Sansom becoming influential in the ’80s and ’90s given he was in a position to admit and pass students, adjudicate prizes and fellowships and procure staff at a time when the VCA was physically integrated into the NGV itself. It allowed Sansom to become incredibly influential to a large population of younger artists, writers and curators during a time when contemporary art expanded significantly. It’s where he might be regarded as a true transformer for many.

Whereas Sansom sought security in the institution, Bowery, Whiteley et al let rip on the world. You might think it a harsh comparison, however this retrospective is selecting Sansom’s work for a Test Match and when tested, one might say that the artist has had a brilliant ‘Shield’ career.  Place his work up against some proven test performers like Nolan’s Kellys, Whiteley’s Christie series, Bowery, Humphries and Davila’s biting commentaries and Sansom’s deliveries seem to need more spin.

Gladwell might suggest that the artist has never come up against an adversity or disadvantage that might have given the work a more meaningful edge. For instance, if we compare Sansom’s work to an artist like Gordon Bennett, given both mash up diverse imagery and painting techniques and quote other artists extensively, we recognise the drivers of Bennett’s work come from a much more visceral place relative to Sansom’s, which is the art of a privileged conservative individual disguising himself in drag that becomes east-Melbourne punk in gaudy pink Bacon! Some of the late paintings colourful ‘Vorticist’ elements begin to remind one of the children’s illustration Elmer the Elephant and intellectually they are not saved by pretentious and meaningless, titles such as Wittgenstein’s brush with Vorticism.

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

But Sansom’s bowling spell is not finished. He is late into the game, the fifth day on a wearing pitch and he has bowled some fine deliveries. There is still a chance of a match winning spell, a 10-wicket haul before bad light stops play and he will be on the post-ashes tour, but no matter how great the spin, questions will always remain as to whether he really has been at the forefront of the avant-garde, or as one suspects, his place may be much further down the batting order.

John Kelly writes on visual art for Daily Review. In July he was nominated for the inaugural Walkley Award for Excellence in Arts Journalism for his writing in Daily Review.

Kelly will give an Artist Talk at the NGV International on October 4 at 6.30pm titled “From Dobell’s Cows to Moo Brew”.

The Sansom Transformer show is at the NGV Federation Square gallery until January 28.

Main image: Sansom’s Transformer 2016–17, oil, enamel paint, graphite pencil and vinyl record on canvas 213.4 x 274.3 cm

27 responses to “Where does Gareth Sansom sit in the batting order?

  1. A provocative and selective opinion. As we get older we have more time to share opinions. Mine included. Ha. (East melb punk jibe, Implication – how could a Primary teacher be avant garde etc.. Sounds like London Calling to me.
    Sansom = Smart – earns money, survived, did not drop dead from a drug overdose.
    As expected the article I recently found, spilt over into the comment section as a pencil sharpening competition. It’s easier to stab someone from the front because you can see their heart beating.
    John I don’t understand why you would want to diminish your own accomplishments with some comments made in your article.
    P.s. I have not included my cv because no one gives a shit and in the future half a shit. I also want to spend the last few gasps of air smoking the art industry.

  2. WOW!!! THAT was fun. I haven’t seen the Roslyn Oxley story, but will now search it out. I’ve referred to the MCA as the ‘Roslyn Oxley9 Annex’ :) for some years, so it sounds like something I should read! As for the above, I can see both sides of the argument and it’s all a bit parochial, which is a trap many seem to fall for, the VCA isn’t the only art school in the world, in fact some successful artists never studied at ANY art school. We all know it’s about luck, and being in the right place at the right time, some of us weren’t. Does it really matter? Just keep working …

  3. The Australian art world for a long time has preferred the press release to actual criticism. I suppose that’s a result of the fact that it is now more a business model than a cultural endeavour. But I’m surprised that an artist as intelligent as Gareth, and one who has always come across as the tough guy, should suddenly get all petulant over a mildly critical bit of writing when he should have been pleased at seeing so many column inches. And what is this newly invented “artists shouldn’t grass each other up” ethic? We all know that the art world is a hot bed of gossip, knavery and betrayal. If John broke any rule it was that we stab each other in the back rather than the front, it helps reduce awkward social encounters if the victim is less certain exactly who did them in.

  4. 1. NGV never collected me from art school – the 1964 painting (not an art school painting) was purchased in 1965 from South Yarra Gallery.
    2. When that painting was purchased by Eric Westbrook (reserved initially), the NGV would have made no connection to British Pop Art. (Eric Westbrook’s wife Dawn Sime simply loved the painting, and that may well have influenced Westbrook.)
    3. Most of my works in the NGV collection are donations. (Perhaps you might consider that approach)
    4. Whether VCA would have you now is irrelevant and why would you possibly care about such a notion?
    5. Naturally I have views about your work, especially your last two exhibitions in Melbourne, but I am inclined to keep them to myself, as I hold apparently an old fashioned view that artists shouldn’t bitch about fellow artists.
    6. And to use a cricketing term – keep trundling John, and I continue to wish you well in your endeavours ….(That cricket ball was indeed a 2 piece ball rather than a 4 piece ball, and that was an error on my part back in the day – but it wasn’t cheap when purchased from Melbourne Sports Depot – I certainly remember that…)

    1. PS Re NGV support:
      NGV purchased one painting in 1965, 4 works on cardboard in 1980, one painting in 2014, and 6 works on paper 2009.

    2. The NGV state that “Gareth Sansom studied art at RMIT between 1959 and 1964…” The painting in question is dated 1964 – One could hardly describe it as a mature work!

      Regarding Mrs Westbrook loving your painting I can only say what a fabulous collecting policy back in the day! Has it changed?

      As you are well aware donations under the ‘Cultural Gifts Program’ are tax deductible so have a monetary value to whoever is donating.

      Regarding the VCA; you raised the matter and I agree it is irrelevant.

      I’m not sure when this rule about artist’s not discussing other artists came into play. From my reading of history artists have always written about other artists. I think it is quite offensive to call a 2000-word essay that puts your work into an historical context a ‘bitch’! You sound like Trump!

  5. This all sounds a little sour grapes from Mr Kelly , who seems to place a lot of emphasis on how many works by Sansom are held in the NGV collection, it should perhaps be noted that that same highly regarded institution holds no works by Mr Kelly in their collection at all!

    1. Hi Claire

      My mentioning the number of Gareth Sansom’s works in the NGV collection was;

      1) To show that Sansom’s work was collected from art school.
      2) That the collecting of Sansom was in relation to British Pop Art entering the collection.
      3) That the NGV continued to collect/support the artist work throughout his long career.

      The above facts make it hard to reconcile the NGV proposition that Gareth Sansom’s work was/is ‘avant-garde’ for it has been institutionalised from the outset.

      The collections my art reside in/or not would seem to be irrelevant to the above argument.

      John

      1. Hi John,

        I think given that you are a practicing artist, and have chosen to write so critically of a peer, there may appear to be an element of jealousy in your attitude. Perhaps this is something you should address? By writing in such a public forum you leave yourself open to scrutiny after all.

        CMP

        1. Gareth is not my peer, being nearly 30 years older.

          It is the role of younger artists and writers to question those who have gone before us. In doing so it is also our role to question the art institutions, if we don’t we risk stagnation. That I choose to do it publicly does open my work to scrutiny and it is one that I welcome for I want to live in an art world/society whose institutions are alive to critical debate and discussion, not one where I am told what to think or ostracised for not being agreeable.

          I ask that you address the issues in my essay rather than making unfounded assertions.

        2. John Kelly was nominated for a Walkley award for excellence in Arts writing this year for his brilliant and gutsy article on Roslyn Oxsley’ influence and the function or really disfunction of Sydney contemporary art scene and the ripple effects to the Venice Biennale.
          The role of the arts writer is to be in a public forum.

  6. Gareth is very good but not as good as others. I find the new works a bit facile even though they are better than 99% of Australian art. Good analysis.

    1. Gareth

      You are correct, I did not get into the VCA.

      What I did do is complete a degree and a Master’s degree (with distinction) at RMIT, received a Queens Trust grant whilst doing so, received a Samstag scholarship to study at the Slade School of Art, studied at the Slade School of Art, received an OZCO Barcelona studio, exhibited a monumental bronze on the Champs Elysee in 1999, exhibited another at the Monte Carlo Sculpture Festival in 2002, exhibited at the MAMAC Museum in France 2007, exhibited at the 2008 Guangzhou Triennale (Guangdong Museum), exhibited at the 2011 Goteborg Biennale, have played Glastonbury with my monumental sculptures (2005/07), have been represented by the Piccadilly, Agnews and Redfern Galleries in London. Have travelled to Antarctica on a Fellowship to paint, have written for the Guardian, Art Monthly (UK and Au), Circa (IE) and Daily Review (Au) and recently was nominated for a Walkley Award for Arts Journalism.

      Do you think the VCA would have me now?

    1. I do like the spirit of Kelly’s original article, but am disappointed by the retreat to the cv in defending himself against Sansom’s ad hominem. Its just a little bit sand box. Its natural that Sansom should make a repost, lets not get caught up in that. If we are talking about the institutional context, lets try at least to keep our distance from it, bunch of white men that we are.

      1. I don’t consider it a retreat ! The retreat was Samson’s reference that Kelly had sour grapes as he wasn’t accepted into the VCA.

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