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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.