Artist Gareth Sansom speaking to a spellbound audience about his life, influences, friends, lovers and paintings at Melbourne’s Ian Potter Centre, NGV soon after the opening last September of his much-anticipated retrospective, Transformer, is an unstoppable force. Just how he gets away uninterrupted with so many random thoughts, that come together mysteriously into a coherent and fascinating narrative is something beyond the reach of most storytellers. This no doubt provides a valuable insight into Sansom's painting practice and this collection of over 130 of his seminal works.
It is evident as Sansom speaks about his art that those present on this unusually warm September evening – including as he mischievously points out, his “two wives” – one former, one current - deliriously breathless. Walloping the viewer as Sansom points out is his work’s purpose, intended or not.
And it obviously works. Sansom remains a provocateur, a dominating presence over avant-garde Australian and international art movements. This survey exhibition stands as testament to his long career as an artist, teacher, photographer, printmaker, collagist, comedian, writer and much more.
Art critic and author Sebastian Smee and Gareth Sansom in conversation at the Ian Potter Centre, Melbourne on 18 September 2017 Photo: Andrew McIlroy
Yet Sansom acknowledges, "I can't give you an intellectual narrative about a painting. It's just intuitive ... don't be misled by titles. People ask, 'what's going on in the painting?’. And I simply say, ‘I don't know’.”
Despite this distinct lack of guidance, it is impossible to dismiss these works as all punch. Their madding intricacy and whorish vibrant colours draw you in. It is apparent then on closer inspection that Sansom’s art goes much deeper.
One is compelled to try to unravel these works in pursuit of some understanding. But standing in front of an enormous Sansom canvas one invariably asks whether it even possible to enter or trace the trajectory of these mesmerising, vibrant and chaotic paintings without at least some insight into this artist’s psyche.
Born in 1939, Sansom grew up in working class Ascot Vale, often escaping a Calvinistic Melbourne to his local cinema, where his love of Hollywood film and glamour took hold of the restless young man.
Sansom studied art at RMIT between 1959 and 1964 and came to prominence in the 1960s as a radical convention-breaking painter, with influences ranging from Picasso and Jean Dubuffet to Francis Bacon and British pop art. He was Head of Painting, then Dean of the School of Art, at the Victorian College of the Arts between 1977 and 1991 before retiring to concentrate solely on his art practice. (Source: NGV website)
The New Ascot Cinema, Ascot Vale Photo: Ken Roe
Cinematic classics through to modern Arthouse films continue to feature in his paintings, particularly his favorite, ‘The Seventh Seal’ - a 1957 Swedish epic historical fantasy film written and directed by Ingmar Bergman.
Speaking to the works about him Sansom gives up this snippet. “I‘m more interested in the warped; I’m graphic design gone wrong. I’m not a social realist. I’m not spelling it out for you - you have to get the clues. If you can join the dots, you’re a better person than I am.” (Kylie Northover, ‘Lunch with Gareth Sansom: I want to wallop the viewer’, The Age, 1 December 2017)
Critics are quick to acknowledge that Sansom’s work of the last decade or so stands out as a culmination of all that has come before. Whilst not presenting in a chronological survey format, this exhibition clusters Sansom's paintings 'around key tendencies in his practice'. At first glance this appears unusual, but Sansom has always been unconventional.
Warming to the task, Sansom tells his audience in September, "I'm not afraid to have a war with form and structure. If my late work looks polite, for God's sake tell me" he protests to his interagator, visiting New York critic and writer Sam Sebastian Smee.
"That's an insight into the mess of painting. Wonderful”, responded Smee. “So autobiographical then? How much do you want us to know of you?"
Not expecting this reply, Smee looked somewhat taken aback. "Nothing!" exclaimed Sansom.
Without faltering Smee to his credit continued the interview with his loquacious subject, "So how do you come out with that menacing feel?"
Sansom explains two influences that come to mind: "Firstly, it's Catholicism! My mother was Catholic and married a Mason. Oh, the arguments. I was brought up Church of England", he adds hinting at the seemingly dominant influence of his father. Catholicism is the spark. Secondly, there was Ingmar Bergman ... in The Seventh Seal" - evidently another strong and lasting influence on the artist, It seems in Sansom’s mind anyway weaving these life influences together among others into a single narrative provides some explanation for the juxtaposition, and perhaps haunting nature of many of the his paintings.
Reviewing Transformer for Fairfax Media renowned Australian art critic and author John McDonald delves deeper, “(Sansom) is hinting that the scrambled appearance of his paintings conceals a deeper engagement with life and mortality – if only we take the time to decode his visual puzzles”.
Anybody wandering unprepared into the retrospective, Gareth Sansom: Transformer, at the National Gallery of Victoria, is likely to be overwhelmed by its sheer, crazed abundance. Part funhouse, part warehouse, the show is bursting with paintings, collages, photos, objects and memorabilia. There are veins of pure kitsch, grotesquerie, dark eroticism and a kind of giggling naughtiness. At first, it seems grossly narcissistic but Sansom is constantly stepping outside himself and assessing every move. One layer is added to another until it's hard to imagine a starting point.
Transformer is a slightly infuriating show. Some will find it intoxicating in its willingness to break rules and construct montages that are more like LSD trips than conventional narratives. I've enjoyed this aspect of Sansom's work over the years but this retrospective made me realise that the enjoyment has come in small doses. Wandering through this exhibition is like gorging on sweets or drinking on an empty stomach.
John McDonald, 'Review: Gareth Sansom's recent work is bizarre, electrifying and his greatest achievement', The Age, 17 December 2017
Gareth Sansom, Sweeney Agonistes (2005), inspired by Francis Bacon's painting of the same name
Sansom’s work can be polarising. McDonald straddles this divide. “One may be exhilarated by the extravagance or, like me, feel increasingly dismayed by the absence of form, structure and composition.
To my mind this is the central paradox of Sansom’s unorthodox approach to his art. Observing Sansom’s practice, it can to me be best described a flowing from a stream of his consciousness. Form and composition are challenged Sansom admits. I feel structure is evident, mostly by the way in which the works are composites. A kaleidoscope. A puzzle. Despite perhaps the artist’s best efforts, his many years of training and teaching cannot be easily discarded afterall.
Certainly I agree with McDonald that the initial point of entry to a Sansom painting is hard to find. Sansom admits himself that at times a painting in progress will not let even him in, with eventually the use of his instinctive way of approaching his practice forcing the painting to make way.
Installation view of Gareth Sansom's exhibition, Transformer
Once inside one is enveloped in a fantasy, and at times subversive, world of grotesque imagery, iconic figures, glam rock, cultural references, familiar cartoons, and chaos. As McDonald surmises,
Sansom is a one-man subculture within Australian art, whose career reflects the paradox of all subcultures: that in striving to assert your individuality and non-conformity, you adopt all the signs and symbols of another group, leading to a new conformity.
Sansom's subcultures are drawn from both the realms of high art and popular culture … The painting, One of us must know (1966) even features a collaged photo of Bacon's face (One of Sansom's heroes).
This is an experience that should help crystallise visitors' tastes in art.
Given the prolific output of this artist of late, I suspect the work of the last 60 years is just Sansom warming up his audience for more extraordinary things to come.