Shaun Gladwell – ‘the (Sydney) Magazine’, SMH


Artist profile

Watch This Face…


Sport and art, a little like oil and vinegar, don’t seem to mix; but for Shaun Gladwell most of his career has been spent pursuing both these passions. Gladwell comes from a family of “huge sportsheads”, which is probably what drove him as a young video artist to film extreme sports.

A competitive skateboarder at the age of 14, as well as a teenage graffiti artist, he was verging on joining the professional circuit, when an “injury blow-out” demanded that he finish high school instead. Putting his sporting ambitions to rest, studying art at university seemed the only other option that interested him. At art school, Gladwell discovered video art, a medium which fitted his talents like a glove.

“I grew up with video” says the artist, “and I’ve been shooting it for as long as I remember. Whereas my parents would get out the Instamatic, instead I whip out the digital camera. It’s a very accessible medium. The idea of something like video being on a par in popularity with something like painting now is great.”

Whilst studying art history he also became acquainted with the work of French artist Yves Klein: “He was the first kind of extreme sport artist” remarks Gladwell, “because he’d do wild things like leap off buildings, paint with fire, ink up women’s bodies and roll them across the canvas. But for me it doesn’t become interesting just because it’s extreme, there has to be a kind of poetry in the activities that I love.”

The young artist began shooting footage of skateboarders or his fellow sports mad brothers performing motorbike stunts around the outer western suburbs of Sydney. “I’d ask them to do things that would challenge them as bikeriders; things they wouldn’t normally do, like jump over paintings and do all sorts of crazy stuff.”

Gladwell’s videos have earned him a strong following in the art world. In the past few years, he has made a stellar rise, from showing in independent artist-run galleries to exhibiting in large public institutions like the Museum of Contemporary Art and The National Gallery in Canberra and recently was snapped up by the prestigious Sherman Galleries in Sydney.

A recipient of the Samstag art scholarship, he recently completed a two-year Master’s program at Goldsmiths College at the University of London, as well as a three-month studio residency at the Cite Internationale des Arts in Paris. In Paris, he went skating down the city’s elegant boulevards and was inspired by a rollerblading police unit that operated along the Rue de Rivoli, not the typical preoccupations of a serious young art student.

Mixing high culture with popular street culture, Gladwell’s latest video involves him performing his own aerial tricks. In ‘Tangara’ he was filmed in his trademark dungarees and sneakers spacewalking upside down inside the cabin of a Sydney commuter train. No-one can say this guy isn’t a risk-taker.

Nevertheless, Gladwell spurns the macho associations of skateboarding. Poetic and almost balletic in nature, his videos are the antithesis of the MTV model of extreme sports film making:

”If people see extreme sports on television it is fast cut, furiously edited, with a blaring soundtrack and actually that’s not what it’s all about. The type of skateboarding I’m involved in is much more technical and graceful; it’s more associated to dance.”

What is remarkable when considering the breadth of this 32-year-old artist’s work is his extraordinary range of skills and talents. In earlier exhibitions, he demonstrated as much enthusiasm for oil painting and nineteenth-century British portraiture as for digital media. He would meticulously recreate ‘Penguin Classics’ book covers or portraits of British aristocrats, but then present them headless, in a cheeky form of post-colonial subversion.

The artist comments that:

“I love painting and I love referring to historical periods of art. Oil painting on an easel all day is very intensive; which is so different from having no studio at all and tearing around the streets with a digital camera on a skateboard or bike.”

He continues: “Visual artists are more fluid now. There’s this theory in art that we’re in a post-media age, that artists move between different mediums freely. Throughout history, there are these wonderful artists that have always been multi-tasking; the big kids like Leonardo.”

For now though, Shaun Gladwell is sticking to video. He is currently making a 30-second video on breakdancing, commissioned by SBS for their forthcoming ArtTV series. Who knows what medium or subject this talented artist will tackle next. In the meantime, if you happen to see a guy in dungarees fast-tracking through Sydney’s streets on a skateboard armed with a handheld camera, chances are you could be an unwitting extra in his latest art project.

Sydney Arts writer and editor Victoria Hynes
Artist profile
Shaun Gladwell, The Sydney Magazine, by arts writer and editor Victoria Hynes