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

Sansom Agonistes

Gareth Sansom has made the art of montage into a life-long gesamtkunstwerk. A gigantic cinematic storyboard for a film that can never be filmed, so fractious, rampant and manifold are its components. One could try, of course, with the thousands of cameos required, the settings, which would range from plague-ridded Medieval European mountains to the dark denizens of Gotham’s underworld. But, at the end of the day we must realistically suffice with these mesmerising ‘stills,’ this ongoing tumult of visual references, this kaleidoscopic and hallucinatory assault not only on the senses, but the very logic embedded in the ‘normal’ making and viewing of works of art.

Sansom, throughout his massively energetic career, has clearly made no secret of his fascination with popular culture, his references ranging Hi and Lo with such strange bedfellows as Ingmar Bergman and The Flintstones. Rock, Punk and Disco have bopped in and out to spend the night with the Vorticists, Situationists, Abstract Expressionists and Surrealists who have been, at alternating moments, invited to join the fray. At times this has seemed extremely prescient. His embrace of the once outré notion of transgender extremes came well before acceptance into the mainstream culture and, at the time, was clearly a substantive transgression of the tradition of the masculine in Australian culture, and particularly painting, seen in the likes of Albert Tucker and others of his ilk.

If there was a rule or a law to be had, from the very earliest Sansom was out to break it. By montaging crude polaroids, then a fantastically new technology, portraying self-portraits in trans regalia onto the surface of his early works, the artist seemed to also call into question the insistence on painting as a purist pursuit. While those around him in the late 1960s and burgeoning 1970s were besotted with American minimalist abstraction, Sansom was heading hell-bent into uncharted waters.

These stylistic divergences in fact made perfect sense when Sansom’s extraordinarily cargo-cult sensibility was taken into account. From the very earliest, Sansom was attuned to all and every form of imagery within reach. Well before theories of postmodern appropriation opened the gateway to wholesale plundering of images, Sansom had already helped himself.

For a man born in 1939 – the year that marked the beginning of World War 2 and the Hollywood premiere of The Wizard of Oz – Sansom embraces history and the contemporary with equal passion. He relishes absorbing the life stories of post-War artists while also being a maddingly early adopter of new technologies, from writing HTML to Facebook to Instagram.

Post WW2 was the era of the Surrealists and the accompanying reincarnation of such figures as Hieronymus Bosch into popular culture. It would be inevitable that as a teenager Sansom would become aware of Bosch and the likes of Salvador Dalí, imagery that had become the stuff of T-shirts and posters, and hints of the Surrealists remain imbedded in his work to this day.

Auspiciously Sansom turned 21 in 1960, a decade of creative and social flux. For a mind such as Sansom’s this was both a blessing and a curse. The sheer voltage of imagery and sounds – from a man landing on the moon (ironically televised in monochrome in the age of psychedelia) to the neon-noir of Vietnam to the vibrant shenanigans of Woodstock and the violent mayhem of Altamont with a Hell’s Angel murdering an audience member during the closing chords of The Rolling Stone’s ‘Under My Thumb’ – assailed the youthful artist from all sides. He began studying art at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in 1959, which at the time was the domain of Melbourne’s corduroy and tweed intelligentsia. Social realism a la Noel Counihan was the order of the day and the palette was one of beige and Missionary Brown. Sansom did not exactly fit in. As a kid from suburban Ascot Vale, although he’d been an avid cricketer, he was already restless and ‘fitting in’ did not come naturally. Even then the young Sansom was storing away images and ideas for future reference. A case in point would be Sansom’s first viewing of Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal (1957) at the old Melbourne Savoy cinema in 1962 with fellow artists Robert Jacks and George Baldessin. The experience would re-emerge 51 years later with Sansom’s Seventh Seal (2013), an enormous painting of medieval and gothic imagery.

Sansom’s ‘montagerie’ perpetually reflects the times in which he paints filtered through a prism of an encyclopedic historical memory. Punk music, reflected in his imagery of the early ’80s, gives credence to the horrors of the Middle Ages. Here Nick Cave meets Plato’s Cave replete with abundant shadows. His early references to gay and drug cultures were filtered through an awareness of AIDs and ODs. There is a sage-like awareness of context and ramification at perpetual play.

While it may, at times, seem to be an inscrutable morass of images, there is in fact a central theme at play; the questioning of what it means to be human. Philosophers throughout the ages have pondered this fraught question, from Thomas Aquinas to the science fiction author Philip K. Dick. Clearly, for Sansom, there is an element of experience involved; if he did not actually experience certain elements he portrays, he most certainly witnessed them first-hand in some form or another. This is an artist who does not turn his gaze away from reality and his works achieve their greatest potency when they confront the great existential motifs: God and Death.

The artist seems to consider plowing the imagery of The Flintstones into the context of a Bergman film via The Myth of Sisyphus to be a given in his plight to reconfigure the cultural memes around him. It is an exercise in time displacement, a montage of gut-punching imagery blended into a new, warped world. If it is cinematic in vision it is also classical in composition; strangely, in this anarchic world, each element is impeccably balanced.

This was a lesson learnt from Caravaggio. But while Caravaggio taught balance, Bosch taught mayhem, Mondrian gave swing to anarchy and jazz, Malevich to minimalist voids, de Kooning to flamboyance, Rauschenberg and Warhol to quotation, Cindy Sherman to deformed self-portraiture and Bacon to torture. That list, as always, goes on. The difference is that Sansom refused to accept one mentor, one ‘quote’ to build upon. He added authors and filmmakers and poets and his own experience to confuse the mix, taking as a given the old Isaac Newton maxim: “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” Or, perhaps more aptly, with his alchemical mix of figuration, abstraction, graffiti and text, Sansom has concocted an unruly cocktail that may better recall the words of English occultist Aleister Crowley when he stated: “Do What Thou Wilt Shall Be The Whole of the Law.”

With Sansom’s massive survey exhibition at the University of Melbourne’s Ian Potter Museum of Art in 2005 it became rapidly apparent that the artist had spent the 1990s rewriting his own rules as well as those of others. It also revealed that circa 2000 a new confidence in colour and hints of minimalist fields began to dominate his oeuvre. A more contemplative artist emerged from the fires of a punk-aesthetic overdrive.

Welcome to My Mind was a frighteningly apt title for that survey. Sansom’s myriad fixations were on full exhibitionist display, but they were by no means cut and dry. Where most artists’ surveys tend to display repetition, Sansom’s suggested crazed restlessness. It didn’t matter if it was Caspar the Ghost or Tom of Finland, Grimm’s Fairytales or Pierre Klossowski, Australia’s Angry Penguins or the De Stijl movement. Welcome to My Mind revealed an artist who has tirelessly plundered the detritus of both Hi and Lo culture, pushing his aesthetics towards an almost demented, heretical notion of bad taste.

Sansom admits he was once aggressively anti-intellectual about painting, but by the early to mid-2000s there is a clear sense of almost academic pillage at play. Where earlier works were cluttered, a form of painterly goulash with colours and forms melding and muddying, the later works have a strange formality to them. They display the same exuberance and energy, but are rendered with a sense of rigid self-control.

The Ian Potter Museum of Art’s then director, Dr. Chris McAuliffe, suggested in the catalogue for Welcome to My Mind that Sansom’s output was “living proof of the triumph of the larrikin over the wowser.” While the sentiment of this statement is impossible to deny, the term ‘larrikin’ cannot help but suggest hints of indifference to rules. And therein lies another contradiction: for all the seemingly anarchistic drives at play, Sansom is also a workaholic. While the rules may be of his own devising, he sticks to them with a Protestant stubbornness. Days and nights can go by without him emerging from the studio, and even when he does – to stop and watch a film or play Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir at full belt for instance – it is still research, still grist for the mill. Nothing escapes the black hole of his curiosity.

Sansom’s tactic is a form of bricolage and détournement, a kidnapping of unrelated elements to form a surreal empire. In many respects he is the arch Postmodernist in his collation of cultural references, but not in the way theorist Frederic Jameson envisioned it. Jameson argues that:

We are left with that pure and random play of signifiers that we call Postmodernism, which no longer produces monumental works of the modernist type but ceaselessly reshuffles the fragments of preexistent texts, the building blocks of older cultural and social production, in some new and heightened bricolage . . . 1

By contrast, Sansom does indeed build monumental works. Over the last decade he has begun to utilise his minimalist planes as a kind of ‘blue screen,’ a site for accumulated action and narrative. Indeed, one feels compelled to ‘read’ his canvases, recognising his cast of characters even though they are playing their roles in a context never before imagined.

Where in his earlier works a blob of paint was a blob of paint, now it is a highly calculated punctum, a blob articulated as a Rorschach test bouncing the eye to another zone within the frame in a game of optic pinball. While we may ‘read’ Klee and Kandinsky, TS Eliot and Francis Bacon or Bergman and Kubrick, Sansom in fact alludes rather than quotes. There is a self-awareness to this tactic in a way that is not dissimilar to Brian de Palma’s referencing of Hitchcock, but Sansom does not rely on his references – he invites them into his party/orgy/apocalypse, but they remain under his whimsical rule. The Grim Reaper, Hannibal Lecter, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Jimmy Page, Richard Wagner, Paul Klee, Jim Carrey, Jean Dubuffet, Piet Mondrian, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Mario Bava, Dario Argenta, Howard Roark but also of painters of the 1950s who are no longer so well known, such as Alfred Manessier, Constant Permecke and Vieira da Silva all play to his tune and his alone. As the artist he is also the strict composer and rigorous conductor, although not without a devilish sense of humour.

He is also their Pied Piper and clearly music plays a role here. One can see it in the moments of lyricism; smatterings of jazz through to the arch requiem and then zig-zagging manically into be-bop and swing through to the stringent, unruly tonality of rock and punk. Each canvas here seems to come with a sonic belt.

But if Sansom’s is a form of narrative, it is also one of Glossolalia or the Speaking in Tongues inspired by religious fervor and indeed, his works have over recent years seen potent moments of religiosity and literal scatterings of word-usage. Crucifixes, coffins, holy mountains, the Devil and even cameos from God himself have made themselves apparent. The theme of the Grim Reaper is accompanied by a sense of quest or journey; figures on the move through dark landscapes reminiscent of a New Orleans funeral or a death march in barren, medieval European landscapes.

While Sansom’s earlier works were dominated by the secular – latex and Amyl, false breasts, bondage and transvestitism – beginning circa the mid-’00s with such works as The keep (2004), based in part on Michael Mann’s superbly creepy 1983 horror film of that title, Sweeney Agonistes (2005) and The Seventh Seal (2007) not only is there a stylistic shift, but also one in content. The prior devil-may-care approach is tempered with a stronger sense of narrative planning. Ironically, if anything, the result is a distinct ramping of voltage Sweeney Agonistes (2005) is a triptych in more than one sense. A three-paneled work, inspired in structure by the first triptychs of the Flemish painters, Bosch and Breughel, it is also a triptych in its more literal inspirations; Eliot, Bacon and memories of the young artist Sweeney Reed, the adopted son of art patrons John and Sunday Reed. It is also arguably a triptych of three more core elements; belief, security and mortality.

Sansom had taken a photograph of the young Reed in 1975 and kept it in his horde of potential source material. He had been reading Eliot and came across his 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 that resides in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC and was also inspired by Eliot’s writing.

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. With 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 Flintstones-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.

In Sansom’s Sweeney Agonistes anarchy is aplenty, from the literal reference to Amyl Nitrate to the sci-fi fantastical in the forms of floating vehicles and the deliberately gothic moments of gnarled trees and barren mountains.

To say that there is a hint of Jekyll and Hyde in these works may be an understatement. Indeed, alongside the cinematic references alluded to, one can discern a myriad of literary allusions, from the King James Bible to Shakespeare to Milton to Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) the Comte de Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror (1868) and many others. Sansom’s work, like Jekyll and Hyde (or the more contemporaneous The Hulk) ranges from the beatific and calm to the savage with the sweep of a brushstroke. On a more corporeal level, like Wilde’s character, Sansom seems to have physically paused at some indiscriminate age while his pictures are the adverse to Dorian’s portrait – if anything they are getting more vital and youthful as years go by, more determined than ever to challenge the here and now.

He has, over the last decade, returned to earlier themes in his paintings by inserting digital photographs of himself in various guises using latex horror masks, bizarre female masks, latex prosthetics and faux rubber vaginas. Sansom’s photographic incursions act like mind-grenades, deliberate diversions for the casual viewer to stumble over, methodical tools for psychological disorientation. The viewer, comfortably enjoying a poetic sweep of colour, is confronted by a lurid dose of an alternate reality and flung headfirst into a trans glam punk potpourri. Sansom had, unsurprisingly, been informed by one of his former gallerists that this tactic was somewhat inappropriate for healthy sales. This did not dissuade him.

One can clearly see the influence of David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust era or Brian Eno during his Roxy Music period in such works as Siccolam (1976). He had, like many others, become besotted with the effeminate, theatrical aesthetic of such figures and aspired to join their ranks by posing as cute girls on the streets of London out to sell their wares. These visual provocations would reverberate back in the Antipodes. Terry Smith, in Australian Painting 1788-1990, discussing the 1976 work Yes? which featured photographs of Sansom as a trans call-girl, noted that: “Sansom’s initiative opened up a new kind of material for Australian art, one avoided by nearly all other male artists until it was brought to prominence by Juan Davila in the early 1980s.” As Geoffrey Wallis notes in his essay for ‘Gareth Sansom: Alternative Persona,’ (Art Gallery of Ballarat, 2011) with these images he “plays on the idea of the grotesque – more Norman/Mrs Bates (Anthony Hopkins character) from Psycho than a Les Girls cast member – so his work is not about feminine beauty as such but about the untidy and awkward spaces between the sexes.”

Another powerful tool utilised for psychological disorientation is his use of carefully, even obsessively, chosen quotations such as those seen in The Keep where he quotes Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912). The photographs and quotes act as portals, shifting the viewer into new zones of consideration while simultaneously throwing them off balance.

Despite his commercial and critical success, Sansom’s work remains stubbornly ‘outside’ much of the mainstream dialogue. While this has been the case throughout most of his career, if anything, with his latest works, it seems to have been exacerbated. A part of it is the scale of his works; aggressively large and rambunctious. Another element is the somewhat deranged use of colour. The result is that his works do not sit and play well with others. A Gareth Sansom in a curated show skews other artists’ works into irrelevance. He destroys the level playing field simply though the bright irreverence of his palette and the strange, at times morbid and and/or humorous sensibility at play.

A case in point here would be his showing at the 2016 Adelaide Biennial: Magic Object at the Art Gallery of South Australia. Clearly aware that this artist was never going to ‘fit in,’ and going out of her way to make a bold statement, the curator, Lisa Slade, worked with Sansom to dedicate a discrete but large space for his works, for all intents and purposes creating a Sansom Chapel.

Reviewing the show for Artlink magazine, Teri Hoskin commented that: “Sansom’s paintings are euphoric, spirited and playful works by someone comfortable enough with his materials to forget them and mark out patterns of becoming, invocations, and traces of his realities. Sansom chooses Shakespeare’s King Richard III’s plea for moral understanding as the title for his impressive triptych, And thus I clothe my naked villainy with odd old ends stol’n out of Holy Writ, And seem a saint when must I play the devil (2013-15). A massive work of the painful dark humorous joy of a flawed, vibrant and possibly Catholic life, he’s been around long enough to have seen fashions come and go, to have been in the midst of modern–post–modernism, and to have accumulated the material for stylistic quotation and alchemy.”

Sansom was not shy about his fascination with religion in the Magic Object works. Although he would have been painfully aware of walking into the domain of his aesthetic padre, Francis Bacon and his 1953 masterpiece Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, Sansom nonetheless strode into the Vatican for his own papal moment with Pius IX (2014). Pius was the longest-reigning elected pope in the history of the Catholic Church, serving for over 31 years and is depicted here doddering and blinded by his Mitre. Sansom’s clearly cynical depiction of the prior head of the papacy leaves little room for doubt about the artists’ attitude towards organised religion. Bacon’s Pope was suffering the torments of hell, Sansom’s the torments of dementia.

In some ways works such as Pius IX capture Sansom’s entire raison d’être. Throughout this exhibition we see works where paint is applied with an almost brutal exuberance while being subtly balanced and intellectually considered. He is by no means a pure expressionist, but nor is he a purist conceptualist. Sansom’s perpetual refusal to ‘fit into a box’ makes this a celebration of extremes; cerebral, conceptual, imagistic and even spiritual. God and Satan are here, but Sansom may outlive them yet.

A retrospective of Gareth Sansom is a psychological tsunami. It is a maelstrom of strange colours and even stranger subjects. 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 or a discursive philosophical provocation. These works shimmer on an uneasy edge between rigorous discipline and all out anarchy. Welcome to his mind.

1 Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, p.96