Gareth Sansom: Transformer

December 30, 2017
Gareth Sansom, 'The Seventh Seal (i) (2007)

Invited to nominate a masterpiece for a Radio National interview, Gareth Sansom decided to talk about Ingmar Bergman’s movie, The Seventh Seal (1957), which he first saw when he was 18 years old. Decades later he was still thinking about the film, making it the subject of large-scale paintings in 2007 and 2013. The Grim Reaper also has a cameo in Mr Art meets Mr God (2011).

At the age of 78 it may be entirely plausible that an artist should be reflecting on a story in which Death has a starring role. Yet, as always with Sansom, there are multiple motivations. The Seventh Seal is one of the most famous arthouse movies ever made. It was a demonstration that the cinema could transcend mere ‘entertainment’ and tackle the big existential themes with the same depth as works of literature or fine art.

Gareth Sansom, 'Mr Art Meets Mr God' (2011)

Gareth Sansom, ‘Mr Art Meets Mr God’ (2011)

Sansom is eager to associate himself with these big themes because his pictures are so cacophonous, so crammed with garish colour and riotous imagery that he wants us to know there is a serious core beneath the surface. He 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. Maybe it all began with The Seventh Seal, which itself harks back to the Book of Revelations. It starts with silence and progresses onto thunder, lightning, earthquakes and the blaring of trumpets.

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.

This is an experience that should help crystallise visitors’ tastes in art. One may be exhilarated by the extravagance or, like me, feel increasingly dismayed by the absence of form, structure and composition.

Sansom would probably argue that all his works are tightly plotted and constructed, but the logic is so idiosyncratic, so much a function of the unknown algorithms zipping around in the artist’s mind, that he allows few points of public entry. We stand back and go “Wow!” or “Argh!”, but the images remain completely hermetic.

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.

Gareth Sansom, 'One of Us Must Know' (1966)

Gareth Sansom, ‘One of Us Must Know’ (1966)

Sansom’s subcultures are drawn from both the realms of high art and popular culture. Like Brett Whiteley, he was besotted with Francis Bacon – both through his paintings and his legendary Bohemianism. The painting, One of us must know (1966) even features a collaged photo of Bacon’s face.

These early works are also filled with debts to artists such as R.B.Kitaj and David Hockney. In paintings of the 1970s such as Yes or Frame me soon, Sansom included numerous photos of himself dressed in makeup and women’s clothing. He claims to have been inspired initially by Barry Humphries’s comic transvestism and by the heroines of film noir movies.

Gareth Sansom, 'Yes?' (1976)

Gareth Sansom, ‘Yes?’ (1976)

At the same time he draws on the androgynous style of glam rock, exemplified by David Bowie and Lou Reed. It’s a calculated riposte to the machismo of Australian society, just as the busy, chaotic surfaces of Sansom’s paintings and collages were an affront to the exaggerated purity of Colourfield and Hard-Edge Abstraction.

All Sansom’s engagements have a vicarious element, as if he prefers dalliances to convictions. Like God, it often seems easier to define Sansom by describing what he isn’t. Chiefly, he is not a true believer in any tendency or movement. His tastes and enthusiasms are too various, his desire to stand out from the crowd too strong. He is a candidate for that favourite contemporary art adjective: ‘subversive’, but it might be more accurate to call him ‘mischievous’.

Sansom is not a terrorist who wants to destroy western culture, he’s more like a hyperactive child who keeps yelling: “Look at me! Look at me!”

Neither is it easy to reconcile Sansom’s shape-shifting persona with the fact that he spent 14 years as Head of Painting, then Dean, of the Victorian College of the Arts. Around the turn of the century he seemed to become aware of these contradictions and buckled down to some serious grunt in the studio. As a consequence his paintings of the past decade-and-a-half have been his greatest achievements. Works such as A universal timeless allegory (2014) and Bates Motel (2011), are as bizarre and electrifying as anything he has ever produced – although best viewed in isolation, not in the midst of a sprawling Sansomfest.

Gareth Sansom, 'Sweeney Agonistes' (2005)

Gareth Sansom, ‘Sweeney Agonistes’ (2005)

To say, as Sebastian Smee does in a catalogue essay that Sansom’s Sweeney Agonistes (2005) is “I believe, the greatest Australian painting of the past twenty years”, is egregious hyperbole. No painting needs to carry that burden, however superfically flattering. It’s equally startling to read Tony Ellwood’s throwaway claim in his foreword that Sansom has been “a pre-eminent figure of the Australian avant-garde for more than 50 years.” What sort of avant-garde stretches for half a century?

There’s something about Sansom that makes sensible people say silly, over-the-top things. It may be because his constant game-playing and mask-switching renders his work both spectacular and illegible. His paintings give the impression of encyclopaedic content and hidden profundity, but no-one – perhaps even the artist himself – can untangle their knotty scenarios. As with mystics throughout the ages, in the absence of clarity the only solution is to make a virtue of obscurity. Where analysis fails, lyrical effusion comes to the rescue.

Gareth Sansom: Transformer
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne,
15 September, 2017 – 28 January, 2018

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 30 December, 2017