Gareth Sansom is one of Australia’s most highly regarded artists. His work is held in major public and private collections throughout the country and internationally. He has created works of major significance within contemporary Australian art. Eclectic and wide-ranging in his approach, he references both high and low culture, forming charged connections via artful juxtaposition. Sansom draws inspiration from a wide range of sources, including art history, popular culture, religion, cinema, sexual identity, and direct personal experiences. His media includes painting, drawing, collage, printmaking, photography – often in combination. So unique is his visual language that it defies easy categorisation. His creative strength is the independence of his uncompromising vision. Now in his eighth-decade, Sansom paints with the energy and brio of an artist in their twenties, but with all the technical acuity that comes from a lifetime’s dedication to his practice. An artist of wide visual intelligence, Sansom has an unerring understanding of placement and composition. He is one of the great colourists of Australian art. Professor Sasha Grishin AM, FAHA, states that Sansom is ‘a rare and an intimidating phenomenon in Australian art – an artist who thinks deeply, is fiercely independent, is visually literate, and who has mastery over an extensive range of skills.’
Born in Melbourne, in 1939, Sansom was early on influenced by Sidney Nolan and Albert Tucker, and then began a formative interest in Abstract Expressionism, which stimulated the young artist to work with loose brushwork and expressive colour. However, he was perhaps more intrigued by the freewheeling, youthful principles of Pop Art, which was gaining currency within Australian Art by the early 1960s. Consequently, figurative elements also featured in his work, jostling with the abstract painterly swathes, as were photographs and other collaged elements. The resulting paintings from this period are a fascinating window into the psyche of a young artist who was even then forging his own markedly original path, quite unique in the history of Australian art.
Throughout the 1970s, Sansom’s work explored sexual identity and the tantalising potential of adopting other personae. The photographic works he produced during this decade are mysterious, disconcerting, comic, sinister. His use of masks, wigs, various prosthetics, and even a WW2 gas mask, call to mind both Old Hollywood and Neo-Eurotrash.
Between 1977-1985, Sansom served as Head of Painting at the Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne. He was subsequently appointed Dean of the School of Art (1986-91). Under his steerage, the college gained the reputation as one of the most lively and interesting art schools in the country. A host of now mid-career Melbourne artists acknowledge being greatly inspired by his example of thinking outside the box. In 1978, RMIT Gallery, Melbourne, mounted a major survey of Sansom's paintings and graphic works covering the period 1964–1978.
In 1982, Sansom was a visiting artist at the prestigious Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. In 1984, he won the Hugh Williamson Prize, at the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, and in 1985 he was Artist-in-Residence at The University of Melbourne.
In 1991, he represented Australia at the Seventh Triennale India. He had spent six-months at the Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi, on a series of large watercolours, making one work per day during this residency. These burst with all the colour, excitement, glorious strangeness, and wonder of being emersed in an alien culture.
In 2005, Sansom painted the large triptych, Sweeney Agonistes, which is one of the many highlights of his career. The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Sebastian Smee wrote of the painting, ‘I believe it is the greatest Australian painting of the past 20 years’. Also in 2005, a major survey of Sansom's work, entitled Welcome to my mind: Gareth Sansom, a study of selected works 1964-2005, was held at the Ian Potter Gallery, at The University of Melbourne. The exhibition consolidated Sansom’s importance in Australian contemporary art.
In 2008, the artist won the prestigious John McCaughey Memorial Prize for his painting, Junior’s brush with Vorticism (2008). The painting featured a heady combination of hard-edge abstraction and figuration. The judge for the Prize, Alex Baker, then Senior Curator of Contemporary Art at the National Gallery of Victoria, suggested that young painters should look to the work as an inspirational mark of where contemporary art should now be heading.
In 2012, Sansom, always acutely conscious of how his environment might be transmuted into his art, produced a large suite of drawings while spending two weeks in the remote Indigenous settlement of Wadeye, south-west of Darwin. Twenty of these works were assembled into a large piece, Made in Wadeye. Full of the artist’s characteristic serious-playfulness, it won that year’s Dobell Drawing Prize, at the Art Gallery of NSW.
In 2017, Sansom was the subject of a major retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria. Entitled Gareth Sanson: Transformer, the exhibition contained work selected from each decade of the artist’s lengthy career. The result was a collection of astonishing depth and scope. Sasha Grishin wrote that the exhibition was ‘bold, provocative, exquisitely crafted – and simply brilliant. Sansom is an artist who takes no prisoners, breaks all of the rules, and leaves you spellbound.’ Sebastian Smee, wrote that Sansom is ‘among the most important avant-garde painters of the 21st Century.’
- Steve Cox