Gareth Sansom, An Idea of Thee, 2015–16, oil and enamel on linen, 72 × 66 1/2".

Gareth Sansom, An Idea of Thee, 2015–16, oil and enamel on linen, 72 × 66 1/2".

Gareth Sansom


Gareth Sansom, An Idea of Thee, 2015–16, oil and enamel on linen, 72 × 66 1/2".

Gareth Sansom’s extraordinarily eccentric paintings are composed of overpainted and underpainted images—palimpsests of body parts, numerals, words, cartoonish faces, collaged photographs, and feces-like smears. As they sprawl toward their edges, these agglomerations are beaten back by borders of precisely painted, brightly colored abstractions that look at first sight as if they’ve been carelessly assembled from a late-1960s mail-order catalogue of modernism’s formalist tricks. That’s exactly when Sansom started making paintings like this, which have earned him his position as one of Australia’s most inventive and influential artists.

The easy way to decode Sansom’s paintings has been to imagine a messy, menacing id (his squishy, indeterminately erotic shapes) regulated by the bright, clean armatures of the ego (the grids underlying his vast collages of the ’70s and ’80s). It would be convenient to imagine that Mortality, 2015–16, is a mind map and the conglomerations of advancing red numerals—74, 75, 76—the notations of an aging, anxious self, for Sansom was born in 1939. The bright, perky squares and crisp lozenges at the edges of An Idea of Thee, 2015–16, repel Robert Crumb–esque figures adrift in murky brushstrokes, their arms reaching for post-painterly abstraction’s safe shores. Sansom’s snaps of himself in drag—ubiquitous in earlier paintings but only vestigially present in this show at the lower-left corner of Crabtree’s Pharmacopeia, 2015–16—have over the decades diverted attention from his main game, but then, a blond wig and high heels on a man are now mainstream.

However, the idea of autobiography is no way to understand An Idea of Thee. Parading himself in his paintings is, more likely, a form of self-mockery that is also signaled by silly captions (the WOOP WOOP of the 2015–16 painting of that name, or the THE of The Antipodean, 2015–16). In a 1978 interview, Sansom explained that his method was “a chaotic thing where from time to time the chaos . . . is almost touching the edge of order.” And therefore The Antipodean takes an art-historical memory, the notoriously ugly paintings of outback explorers’ heads by postwar Australian artist Albert Tucker. Sansom updates the memory to make his version better than the original. He strips it of its stereotypical nationalism (while knowing full well that the oddly cosmopolitan Tucker had lived in Europe for years after the war, hobnobbing with Alberto Burri and the like). Tucker’s crude Antipodean heads were familiar to every young Australian artist in the ’50s and ’60s. Although Tucker did not participate in the scandalous 1959 exhibition “Antipodeans” at the Victorian Artists’ Society, Melbourne, which arrived with an anti–Abstract Expressionist manifesto calling for the revival of humanist figurative painting, his work exemplified its atavistic paradigm. So the apparent chaos of Sansom’s messy facture is underpinned by his long, retentive grasp of history, especially the art history of Melbourne, his own city. This is true even though everything in his abject tableaux is depicted with such graphic insistence that mere recognition of historical sources is undercut by the artist’s evident, irritated contempt for allegory and learning. Thus the simultaneously faux-genuine savagery of his The Antipodean—because over a long career, Sansom has mastered a particularly passive-aggressive method that distracts the viewer from the historically informed, radiant, magisterial authority with which he pushes paint.

Charles Green