July 26, 2019


‘Shaun Gladwell: Pacific Undertow’ at the MCA

By Miriam Cosic

Shaun Gladwell, Approach to Mundi Mundi, 2007. Installation view, Shaun Gladwell: Pacific Undertow, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, 2019. 2-channel digital video, colour, silent, 3:50 minutes (Dawn), 4:40 minutes (Day), edition 2/4. Image courtesy the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia © the artist, photograph: Anna Kučera

This survey presents the work of an idiosyncratic artist in its most brilliant light

“Watching the inexorable rise of Shaun Gladwell over the past decade makes me feel like the only teetotaller at a drunken party,” the inimitable John McDonald wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald four years ago. Those videos of skateboarders in the driving rain, or of a man on a motorbike riding with arms outstretched like a leather-clad Christ in the red centre of the continent…

Considering Gladwell’s constant dialogue with art history, it’s a wonder that a sense of being in the know doesn’t appeal to all critics. And yet, another critic for the even more conservative British Daily Telegraph, by contrast, was struck by Gladwell’s work as early as his 2009 participation for Australia at Venice. “If I had to pick the single young artist in this Biennale destined to future greatness,” the critic wrote at the time, “it would be the Australian Shaun Gladwell.”

Strolling through Gladwell’s retrospective, which has just opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, a possible reason for some critics’ resistance to his work occurred to me. Despite its iconoclasm, Gladwell’s work isn’t presented as pyrotechnics: it is neither striking in colour and form, nor is it aggressive in its dialogue with the viewer. Rather, one has to let each piece unfold, to sink into it, to suspend the idea that skateboarding or surfing holds no interest and examine what the artist is trying to say, and what the piece in itself is saying, via the medium and subject matter chosen. The works don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves, but demand attention to momentum, gesture, space and historical reference.

Famous and not so famous works are in the retrospective, titled Shaun Gladwell: Pacific Undertow. There’s the celebrated Venice Biennale video, Approach to Mundi Mundi (2007), following the lone motorcyclist down a highway, all red dirt and blue sky in the far west of New South Wales: a meditation on time, on Mad Max, on Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man. Everything is grist to Gladwell’s mill and, though the works have an immediate attraction, the more one knows of his intention the more one has “Oh, yes!” moments in viewing them.

There are his historic figures, made between 1998, when he first started playing with a new tool called Photoshop, and 2002. To create them, he downloaded jpegs of portraits by the 18th-century English painters Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, elongated them electronically, and then used the results as models, mostly headless, to paint from. His master’s thesis was on Australian colonial landscapes so, though we now think of Gladwell as a high-tech artist, his intellectual roots are in traditional, mimetic art. Drawing remains a touchstone practice for him.

Indeed, a small painting in the exhibition makes a fascinating leap from his early days to now. Called Study for an Art Gallery with Staircase and Lift Access (1998), it is a peach-tinted cloud in a sky a variety of blues, said lift and staircase descending to a shadowy yellow earth that could be either the red centre or drought-stricken regions. At the media briefing, Gladwell made reference to the irony of the painting today, when so much information, artistic or otherwise, is held in the cloud.

Many of his videos are nominally about skateboarders or surfers, but they are far more expansive than that. They are studies of man in the environment (and most of his subjects are men) in the way that Caspar David Friedrich, for example, used the style and subject matter of his era to contemplate existential questions about the individual in the landscape. Some are slow and minimalist: Gladwell acknowledges the influence of the American school of minimal music, including composition by John Cage, Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Philip Glass. So Storm Sequence (2000), a video of a skateboarder on an almost monochromatic stormy Bondi boardwalk speaks more to the solitude of the rider and the mood of the environment than it does of kinetic technique.

Skateboarders vs Minimalism (2016) is made up of three videos side by side. In each a skateboarder – trans woman Hillary Thompson, American Jesus Esteban and one of Gladwell’s adolescent heroes, Rodney Mullen, all proficient riders – make their jumps and slides across sculptures by masters of the American school of minimalism in the visual arts, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin and Carl Andre, in plain white rooms. Here the skateboarders’ technique is fascinating, but so too is the question of what they are doing in those spaces with those objects.  

Elsewhere, there’s a series of photographs depicting men standing in front of monuments in Britain and Italy; some are upright, some upside down. Gladwell says he thought to link them by their respective horizon lines, though a few had no visible horizon, but the curators of the show came up with the more intriguing idea of calibrating them by the position of the feet. The effect is riveting, more so than any individual picture would have been on its own.

Other works are intriguing, like the video of a woman practising capoeira, making her moves in a deserted petrol station at night. Gladwell didn’t let her know where the camera was hidden so she couldn’t play to it. Titled Woolloomooloo Night (2004), the result is, again, meditative, as though we’re secretly breaching someone’s privacy, watching her doodling around in movement with nothing better to do. In a dual-screen projection, however, Gladwell’s work with Australian soldiers in Afghanistan, in a project for the War Memorial, was less absorbing on the wall than it was via YouTube on a laptop.

My favourite from that sequence is a rare image of a woman, in camouflage and shot (as it were) from behind, a neat blonde plait hanging below her helmet. Gladwell’s focus on male subjects is the probable result of growing up close to a brother near him in age, on an army housing estate with a father and grandfather who were soldiers. His increasing use of women as subjects presents their bodies in space exactly as he presents men’s. Women in his work aren’t sexualised, a great relief for women viewing art.

More abstractly beautiful is a video titled BMX Channel (2013). In it, a man slowly turns his pushbike around a Victorian-era boardwalk, all white-painted colonnades and a bandstand, on the English coast. Again the weather is shocking and seagulls wheel in the rain while the man wheels on the ground. A Union Jack flies prominently from a flagpole: apparently there was some discussion about whether or not to include the work in the show, in case the shenanigans of Brexit and its nationalist supporters injected a political inflection and distracted from the purely aesthetic reverie of the work. Fortunately, it stayed in.

Gladwell has been increasingly working with virtual reality, and here the audience is invited into a virtual recreation of the gallery space that holds the reconstruction of the 18th-century paintings and Gladwell’s video, Pataphysical Man. The VR experience is the most challenging part of the show, and some audience members were both interested and reluctant being fitted up for it. The minute you don the gear, other people in the room disappear and the works come and go as the camera scans the empty room, stopping here and there with strange spoken declamations, the grid sometimes swooping and heaving. I ducked more than once. The only part of yourself you can see are your white-gloved hands: in the finale, a skull recedes through the air and I reached out to catch it, making my own white hands pursuing a white skull an involving part of my experience.

The curators, Natasha Bullock and Blair French, have created an ideal hang. Allowing a lot of white-walled space between the pieces, they also have allowed for spacious thinking and uncluttered comparisons. Having seen many of these pieces separately in the past, I’ve always thought Gladwell’s work patchy: quite brilliant at its finest, humdrum at its worst. This exhibition, which deliberately avoids chronological order, is so well organised, however, it forms a consistent overview of one of the most imaginative and idiosyncratic Australian artists at work today.


Shaun Gladwell: Pacific Undertow is at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, until October 7.

Miriam Cosic

Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist and author.

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