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Gareth Sansom: Transformer

27 Oct 2017
14 Sep - 27 Jan 2018

The Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Sebastian Smee barely got a word in during the Q & A held soon after the opening of Gareth Sansom’s retrospective at the NGV. Sansom, just about the ultimate alpha-male for all of his cross-dressing, entertained the audience with tales of his early cricketing prowess, his father returning home after the war without a limb, his encounters with the last of the Antipodeans and his ill-fated meeting with his artistic hero Francis Bacon while in London in the 1960s. But it was a story he told concerning his painting Sweeney Agonistes (2005), hung in the same room as the talk, that was perhaps the most revealing.

The work, a triptych, is an allusion, filtered through poetic precedent, to that ill-fated son of the Australian art world, Sweeney Reed, child of Joy Hester and Albert Tucker, adopted by John and Sunday Reed, who became for a while an art dealer before overdosing on pills in 1979. In Sansom’s depiction we have two darkly staring eyes, a cross and the letters INRI that Pontius Pilate inscribed over the head of the crucified Christ. All of this Sansom described to us on the night with pedagogic clarity. But the real revelation was his description of how he came to make the work. In fact, for all of its seeming indifference and cack-handedness, it took him a long time. For a good while, Sansom explained, he had only the central and right-hand-side panels, but after much reflection he decided they didn’t work. Then suddenly – undertaking it in the rather melodramatic words of the painting, “Last New Year’s Eve He Stayed Up Alone Sniffing Amyl” – he realised the answer was another panel to the left. It is only at this point that Sansom felt the painting was complete.

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