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David Griggs and Shaun Gladwell
Russell Storer, one of the catalogue essayists for David Griggs and Shaun Gladwell 's dual exhibition at Sydney's new Boutwell Draper Gallery, recently wrote in Postwest: 'We've all winced at the overuse of "exploring ideas" and "challenging notions", or whatever. This tendency has got to stop—surely there isn't anything left to challenge.'1
The initial impression of David Griggs's Radio Death Camp and Shaun Gladwell's Covers and Compressions paintings is that, together, they're 'exploring ideas' of identity, anonymity and iconicity. However, once we've given up looking for such 'depth' in these works, something more interesting emerges.
Griggs's Radio Death Camp series of paintings brings together skulls, camouflage, Balaclavas, gothic churches, and B-grade horror- flick text with a graphic quality somewhere between billboard advertising and graffiti. In visual terms this is a death-lite vocabulary of pop culture iconography. However, in both titles and images there is some indication that the artist is concerned with heavy issues of death. For example, in We sport fatigues but not for fashion, a graffiti-rendered figure wears fashion-label fatigues for guerrilla warfare, completing a circular exchange from military camouflage, to fad, to mercenary uniform. Similarly, It ain't all that (Waco) shows a white paint-splatter ghost hanging with its toppled KKK hat lying on the ground. Here Griggs implies that the 1993 Waco siege 'ain't all that' it was made out to be by the FBI and the press at the time. Certainly, Waco is one of a series events that scarred America's confidence in its own government—the monumental blunder that inspired Timothy McVeigh's Oklahoma bombing.
But then again, we know this, and Griggs's stylised, iconic and rhetorical pop-culture rendition tells us nothing new. The same goes with death camps, guerrilla warfare and the US military, which are all present in this series in one form or another. If we're looking for something profound here, the distance between real horror and what becomes mediated as icons of horror invariably stands in the way. The key to finding value in Griggs's paintings, however, lies in titles such as Death Rated G and Camo and Skulls, What else would you expect from a guy who wasn't there? This is death rated 'G', from a guy who, like the rest of us, wasn't there. In the same way that the orientalist paintings of lngres or Gérôme tell us more about European values and perceptions than they do about the East itself, Griggs's images speak volumes about the translation of actual distant events into reductive iconographies that are circulated locally for their buzz value.
Shaun Gladwell 's Compressions works are mostly oil on canvas reworkings of English academic portraits, compressing their subjects to a fraction of their original width. Their heads are painted into a black fade, effectively beheading the noble sitters. Alongside these, Gladwell includes a finely rendered oil painting of The Last Imperial Death Star, from George Lucas's Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. The jarring disjunction between icons of real-world Imperial England and sci-fi can do no damage to the fictitious 'Evil Empire', but shows the aggrandisement in the portraits of Gainsborough and Reynolds to be a similar 'special effect' for the aristocracy.
We could read this as a manifestation of Australian Republicanism, but as with Griggs's Waco image, the job has already been done. What is more significant is that these are images downloaded from the interne!, manipulated in Photoshop and reinvested as art in Gladwell's technically impressive paintings. These reworkings are reductive, both literally and conceptually. Their origin may be whatshisname Gainsborough or thingy Reynolds, but it doesn't really matter. They arrive as immaterial reproductions-pixilated, downloaded, circulated, their iconography absolutely and unrecognisably divorced from the original intentions and meanings of their art-historical sources. Gladwell, like Griggs, is a guy who wasn't there.
In both Radio Death Camp and Covers/Compressions, Griggs and Gladwell play with the culture that is presented to them, manipulating, synthesising, sampling, mixing and distorting, and presenting 'cover versions'-re-renderings that revive the original and are imprinted with the re-creators' marks. Sure, little is challenged or explored, and that's not a bad thing. This isn't 'high art' in the po-faced sense, but it's also not 'low culture '. In its circulation of globalised culture's visual lingua franca, it's the kind of art that the artist and critic Jeff Gibson once labeled 'high pop'.
1. Starer, Russell, 'Questions of Curatorship: Connoisseurs or Cultists?', Postwest No. 16, 2000, p.29.