Mark Sheerin reviews Cycles of Radical Will by Shaun Gladwell at DLWP
The most iconic feature of Bexhill’s modernist pavilion poses a new problem which architects Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff could never have foreseen. Turn up on a dry day this Spring and chances are that at some point you’ll see local young folk carrying BMXs or skateboards up the two flights of spiral stairs. Follow them, clinic and your impression of the streamlined building may shift again. The terrace roof, order which has in recent times hosted sculpture by Antony Gormley and Richard Wilson, now houses a pair of criss-cross skateramps.
It is part of an exhibition by Shaun Gladwell, Cycles of Radical Will, and despite bitter cold on the opening weekend, it was already being put to good use. Health and safety fears must have abounded, the two half pipes being enclosed in a cage like rig with netting to prevent boards, bikes or riders from flying over the edge. Meanwhile rows and rows of benches provide space for the public to sit and spectate. And indeed, if you haven’t come to thrash the ramp, this piece has the character of a zoo. Feeding an inmate with a question, one skater reveals his thoughts about the construction. “It’s quite mellow, a bit small. The weather doesn’t help either.” But when the sun does shine, this will at least be the skate ramp with the best views in Britain.
So that’s one way to bring new audiences into a cultural institution and DLWP is doing everything in its power to bring them back for more. May sees a collaborative event with a local BMX store: a chance to come see some of the world’s best riders. Five days are given over to fanzine workshops. And to cap it all, the gallery is offering creative writing classes to an exclusive audience of motorcyclists. Visitors may also notice that the shop is brimming with books on street art and street culture. It may be Shaun Gladwell’s largest show in the UK to date, but word of mouth should tip him hotly.
But there’s more to this exhibition than the show stopper on the roof. Four major video works can also be found on the first floor and ground level of the venue. In brief, these feature a BMX display on the Bexhill sea front, a portrait of the artist making spray can art beneath Hastings pier, a fictionalised road journey by a mythic local figure and a two channel video combining beatboxing and street dance. Three from four of these were filmed in Sussex and it is to this London-based artist’s credit that he has made himself at home in the county. And never mind the fact that this stretch of coast is not the most urban of environments.
Gladwell takes this in his stride. His Planet and Stars Sequence (Hastings Pier) video finds him juggling aerosols on the beach as he completes a series of abstracted paintings. The artist wears an industrial gas mask and the wind carries the paint away in tiny red puffs. Both details offer spectacle and you might stop and watch were you passing along the sea front. But in a gallery this vision of the artist at work is less interesting. The boards he works on are largely out of view. Two results of his alfresco studio are on the wall as you enter the show, one a pleasing night sky. This heavenly vault is at odds with the tools of graffiti and takes street culture back to nature, which is the show‘s most compelling idea.
A similar connection is made next door, where the artist gets togged up in greenery and foliage for a two stage ride on local country lanes. First he is on a Lambretta and then, at a hazardous bend in the road, he hops on a Triumph. This figure represents Jack-in the-Green, a traditional celebrant of May Day in Hastings. But the less than suggestive title for this piece is Jack in the Green (Lambretta-AGS 195 to Triumph-GVL2MXD). So a very bare structure ties folky Jack to a pair of youth movements with local roots in Brighton. Fans of 1979 film Quadrophenia will recognise something of Jimmy’s final journey in the Sussex landscape. But the connection between Jack and Jimmy is a bit tenuous. Modism may be alive and well in 2013, but it is an urban (or at least urbane) not a rural phenomena.
It has to be said that beat boxing and break dancing are happier bedfellows. So no great juxtaposition is at work in the most ambitious piece in the DLWP show. This is Broken Dance (Beatboxed). It is a two channel work given plenty of space to breathe, in which giant screens face one another and dancers respond to beats from vocal percussionists opposite. One can tell that a lot of work has gone into this piece, but maybe not an equal amount of forethought. The footage is well-produced but performances of similar impact can be found on YouTube. Gladwell’s performers are talented, but surely have no need of an art show for validation. In this case, the artist seems content to celebrate youth culture for what it is, bringing very little extra to the mix.
Fortunately, the first floor gallery does play host to a work that’s not just well-executed but also well-conceived. This is BMX Channel, a slow motion panorama in which a BMX rider performs tricks on the stretch of seafront opposite the Pavilion. It has recently rained, the sea is dismal and the skies are grey. The scene is flanked by two genteel rotundas and a Union Jack flies at full mast right behind his unlikely arena (unlikely, because many of the older residents of Bexhill would no doubt frown on this anti-social use of their beach). But as the stunt rider stands to his full height on pegs either side of his front wheel and slowly pumps arms in the air, you get the feeling that here, at last, is a powerful and poetic statement, a vision of the sublime remixed to appeal to the streets. An ambient drone makes the soundtrack and only adds to its hypnotic appeal.
A well known online encyclopaedia describes Gladwell as both an “Australian contemporary artist and freestyle skateboarder”. However De La Warr’s exhibition notes make no mention of this second string to the artist‘s bow. The Australian is surely the most streetwise of artists, am inhabitant of two distinct worlds. But some visitors to this inclusive show at DLWP may go away wondering if that was enough. A skate park on the roof of at Bexhill is a thoroughgoing intervention, playing havoc with perceptions of the town. But one wishes that Gladwell could wrap his passions in a bit more artistry. This show is a bold gesture, putting youth culture in the gallery and teasing out its Romantic appeal. But where results fall short of his vision it can seem imagination was in short supply.