Gareth Sansom: Welcome to my mind - Art Collector

Issue 34, October - December 2005

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With two major exhibitions planned for october, Gareth Sansom is preparing to burst back onto the scene. As he toils over a final, crowning work Ashley Crawford gazes into the maelstrom psyche of this most compelling artist.

Gareth Sansom is taking us on a journey. Sansom isn’t the kind of artist to give us much choice in the matter. You can go soothed by the more pastel elements of his palette, or you can go kicking and screaming all the way. But go you will.

With a massive survey show at the Ian Potter Museum of Art at Melbourne University and a concurrent exhibition at John Buckley Fine Art, October will be the month of Sansom. To those who know either the work or the artist, this can be both a delight and a terror. Sansom is a somewhat larger than life figure in Australian art. With a shock of now white, but occasionally dyed hair and a regal, almost arrogant bearing, Sansom is an imposing figure who sometimes turns downright gladiatorial late in the evening. He is both pompous and generous, cynical and romantic, cutting and kind. There have been many times in his oeuvre where his work has been far more punk than poetic, with garish colouration, torn montage and gruesome, surrealistic figuration. Bodily forms are distended and mutilated, wordage is grafittied, part-Dada, part-Basquiat. If there are any rules in this practice they are from Aleister Crowley when he stated: “Do What Thou Wilt Shall Be The Whole of the Law.” Indeed, in his 2004 painting, Bohemian philosophy, a line of text proclaims: “In Life Try Everything Once.”

The survey has been curated by Bala Starr, who worked closely with the artist to select paintings and drawings covering the period 1964-2005. The location is also apt. Sansom was Artist in Residence at The University of Melbourne 20 years ago, in 1985, and the work from that residency featured in the exhibition – Gareth Sansom: Paintings, 1956-1986, curated by Frances Lindsay, at the University Gallery in 1986.

Many of the works in this exhibition have never previously been shown in Melbourne; in fact Sansom himself has only recently seen some of the works for the first time since they were placed in storage in 1983.

Sansom has shown widely and was Visiting Artist at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1982 and represented Australia in the 1991 Seventh Triennale of India. He has been represented by some of Australia’s most respected and prestigious commercial galleries, but in other ways Sansom has remained an outsider, clearly refusing to pander to a market or a commercial style. Indeed this survey will come as a shock to those who are not prepared.

It is a maelstrom of strange colours and even stranger subjects. Time is in total flux here; there are little mis en scenes that may have occurred 20 years ago or 20 minutes ago. There are nods to Surrealism, to gestural painting and to minimalism, but none presented in a purist way… in fact this group of work is seriously impure, occasionally bordering on the vicious and then swerving wildly back to the poetic.

A survey of Gareth Sansom is a psychological tsunami. Many of these works seem to be teetering on the edge of a psycho-sexual 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, an element of the emotive that could either lash out with awesome physicality or simply become a bark of harsh laughter.

The shifts in Sansom’s career are intriguing, but in the last five years there has been a distinct refinement. The lashings of pseudo expressionistic paintwork have been reigned in, almost forcefully restrained. Each of the varied elements has tightened; the lunatic-fringe calmed… at least to an extent.

It is July of this year and the artist has been toiling day and night for weeks for one final, crowning work. While there may be a devil-may-care appearance to his work, there was no doubt that this massive painting was a seriously considered endeavour. The result, Sweeney Agonistes, is unusual in Sansom’s career, not so much in appearance, although it is arguably the most resolved painting he has achieved. It was unusual in the intellectual and reflective musings it had inspired.

Sweeney Agonistes is a triptych in more than one sense. Most certainly it is a three-panelled work, inspired in structure by the first tryptichs of the Flemish painters, Bosch and Breughel. It is a triptych in its more literal inspirations; TS Eliot, Francis Bacon and memories of the young artist Sweeney Reed. (Sweeney Reed was the certain son of artist Joy Hester and possible son of artist Albert Tucker. He was raised as the adopted son of art patrons John and Sunday Reed.) But it is also arguably a triptych of three more corem elements; belief, security and mortality.

Sansom himself seemed bemused by the aspect of the painting becoming a Sweeney triptych. He had taken a photograph of the young Reed in 1975 and kept it in his horde of potential source material. He had been reading TS Eliot and came across Eliot’s 1932 poetic drama, Sweeney Agonistes: Fragments of an Aristophanic Melodrama. As an admitted fan of Francis Bacon he then remembered Bacon’s 1967 painting Triptych Inspired by TS Eliot’s poem “Sweeney Agonistes”, which resides in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC.

It hadn’t been planned as a cultural musing, and beyond the utilisation of Sansom’s photograph of Sweeney Reed there is no apparent literal reference to these elements. However in mood Sansom’s painting shares much with Eliot. The action in Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes: Fragments of an Aristophanic Melodrama takes place in a London flat at a party hosted by two lower-class women, Doris and Dusty. The title character is convinced that “Life is death,” but is unable to communicate this fatalism to the others, who exchange gossip and small talk. It also mirrors Francis Bacon’s decidedly existential view of the world when he states that: “One just had one’s moments of life and that was it – apart from what certain people have done through their inventions or images of the amazing things that they have done. Life in itself has no other meaning than that.”

The melancholic aspect of Sansom’s work is compounded by the fact that the photograph of Reed was taken shortly before the young artist committed suicide in 1979. In a strange aside, in the mid-1960s the young filmmaker Philippe Mora made a Super-8 film of the Crucifixion on Victoria’s Aspendale beach featuring the daughter of John Perceval as Mary Magdalene and Sweeney Reed as Christ crucified.

Sansom maintains that these various links were discovered after much of the painting was completed. “It became my deconstructionist postmodern painting,” he quips.

But, regardless of these cultural and historical reference points, Sansom’s Sweeney Agonistes is decidedly his own voyage and essentially the compounding of a variety of stylistic explorations he has pursued vigorously over his last five solo exhibitions.

In the first panel a semi-figurative face stares out at the viewer, eyes apparently forced wide in a pose reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, the body emerging from a pool of excrement in a strange, alchemical formation. A text reads: “Last New Year’s Eve He Stayed Up …” and then, lower, “ALONE SNIFFING AMYL.” Lower still, Sansom scrawls “BE MY BITCH.” Where Eliot would more prosaically say: “I’ll be the cannibal”, Sansom is more Eminem, reflecting his ongoing fascination with contemporary slang and the punk-pourri of
current culture.

In the central panel Sansom has inscribed the Latin for King of Nazareth, INRI, which topped the crucifix on which Christ was hung. In bleak Sansom humour, and arguably a stylistic self-questioning, lower in the panel he spells out the letters: “I’m Nailed Right In.” Lower, a flimsy tent covers a figure hanging from its arms. The picture, with a backdrop of a looming mountainous range reminiscent of the bleak landscape of Israel, is dominated by a strange floating structure, both alien spaceship and bizarre portrait complete with eye and mouth. Atop this floating contraption is a Flinstones-like structure, a solid home atop a teetering mass. There are references to gothic landscape utilised in previous paintings over the last five years.

In the right hand panel a monstrous figure strides across the canvas, leaving behind an abstract void. To the Catholic this could be the tomb of Christ. Words read: “But it was there” and then lower, inverted: “It wasn’t there,” potentially an oblique reference to the fate of Christ’s body. The snout of this bizarre creature opens to a black, sucking vortex emblazoned with crimson veils, an almost vaginal, all-consuming visage.

Sansom’s Sweeney Agonistes is a powerful summation of what may be seen as a five-year journey of compulsion, rebellion, rationalisation and crisis, a portrait of personal catharsis. The anarchy is aplenty, from the literal reference to Amyl Nitrate to the sci-fi fantastical in the forms of floating craft and the deliberately gothic moments of gnarled trees and barren mountains.

Welcome to my mind: Gareth Sansom is showing at The Ian Potter Museum of Art, The University of Melbourne from October 22, 2005 until February 5, 2006. John Buckley Fine Art is exhibiting works by Sansom in a show titled some old... some new... from October 29 until November 19, 2005. Sansom’s drawings and small paintings sell for $4,500. Larger paintings range from $16,000 to $40,000.

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