gareth sansom

John Buckley Gallery, Melbourne
17 June – 4 July 2009

It is a cliché to say that reproductions do not do justice to paintings. In the case of Gareth Sansom, however, it is worth reiterating. Not only are the colour reproductions in the exhibition catalogue horribly out, but the surfaces of Sansom’s paintings are often flattened by the thin and tinny consistency of offset printing. Let’s hope that the printers do not get this far back in the magazine.

There is something else that concerns me about reproductions of Sansom’s work. Much of the work in this exhibition seems to be concerned with controlling the effects of paint, and many of these effects can only really be observed ‘in the flesh’ (for instance, the shifts between gloss and matte paint finishes). Allowing the viewer to neglect these formal characteristics, photographs of the work tend to narrow attention on the ‘Sansom set-piece iconographic symbols’1 (the artist’s words, not mine) which they contain.

It is not to say that this iconography is not significant—in this exhibition, genitals and crucifixes, acute teeth-like shards of white, and even a rather cutely Gothic little grim reaper silhouette rendered in purple, all speak to a preoccupation with sex and death. Sansom’s bodies resemble a sort of psychic automatism, and like the drawings of André Breton, they carefully combine abstraction with bodily referents: hollowed torsos, heads and limbs, all read without too much imagination.

In Jack’s Back (2008), the recurring colour combination of watermelon pink and vivid jade green combines Op Art inspired horizontal stripes. This provides the proscenium arch for a dramatic explosion of killer’s knives, ripping through the canvas like an axe through a door. In Alchemy (2008-2009), the drippy figures with alien-like heads wear red triangles like hats, and sprout hands and machine tube-like extensions. Standing either side of a ‘strange looking altar’2 (as the catalogue essay describes), Sansom rounds out his mortality icons in this work with a crucifix and a clock stuck at 5.30pm.

Some would have these sort of references as the subject of Sansom’s art, but I am not so sure. This is not to deny the social content of these pictures—the artist is undoubtedly no recluse from popular culture—but shopping lists of edgy and cross-generational allusions seem to undermine the predominantly formal tasks that this artist undertakes in each picture. The painted spaces in which these references are deployed, seem to me to be as much, if not more, the central content of Sansom’s art.

A smeared and overworked underpainting comes through to varying degrees in all of the works in this exhibition. Often recalling the squeegeed surfaces of Gerhard Richter, combinations of black, rust, greens, yellows and mustard golds anchor Sansom’s canvases with a warm and earthy complexity. This initial layer of his work is painted wet on wet until, according to the artist, there is a ‘dense mass of stuff on the canvas.’3

To varying degrees, Sansom then cuts into this mass with solid colour. InDer Blaue Reiter (2009), a stand-out picture in the show, not the least because of its uniquely cool palette, an abstract form emerges from the centre of the canvas, threatening to be flooded by the cerulean sea that encroaches from all directions.

Several works also feature overpainted patchworks of plastic colour dominated by lolly pinks, orange and white. These faceted patterns take on a sculptural, almost architectural appearance—like a glimpse of colourfully tiled roofs through a slither of window. Previous colour decisions and the brushwork grain of impasto are visible beneath the final pattern; the hard edges of now-removed masking tape slice across the picture plane.

Sansom’s cuts in paint become a whole lot more tactile in his collage and mixed media drawings. These works have a lightness and experimental immediacy that sets them apart from the paintings. They combine figures with collage elements with a predominantly medical bent: phrenology diagrams, a medical imaging scan and a whole bunch of packaging from prescription medication.

While many of the pictures in the exhibition contain bodies, and the drawings are practically portrait-like in their format, Sansom is at his most virtuosic with the abstract. Alien Colour Theory (2008) is one of the more abstract pictures in the exhibition, and among the strongest. Its fleshy pink and orange impasto is reminiscent of Willem de Kooning, but without the orgy of limbs, and is graphically masked in black with shards of yellow to create a dramatic flaming miasma of heat.

A stripe of squares runs across the top of Alien Colour Theory, appearing distinctly like the colour control bars on a printers proof. To say that Sansom’s colour is controlled is an understatement. I cannot help but wonder whether this graphic is a provocation to the printers (apparently, a new monograph is in planning stages), asking them to show the same control at the press as he does on the canvas.

notes: 

1. Robyn McKenzie, ‘Interview with Gareth Sansom’, Welcome to my mind: Gareth Sansom, A study of selected works 1964-2005, p.28.

2. Ashley Crawford, ‘The Garden of Alchemical Delights’, Gareth Sansom (exhibition catalogue), 17 June – 4 July 2009, p.3.

3. Robyn McKenzie, ibid, p.28.