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A Visit With Ashley Bickerton

ASHLEY BICKERTON, Joan and the Cosmos, oil, acrylic, and pencil on wood, 47-14 x 37-1/4 x 2 inches, courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

"Ashley Bickerton"
September 23rd - December 16th, 2017
The FLAG Art Foundation
545 West 25th Street, 9th Floor, New York, NY 10001 

By BARRY N. NEUMAN, NOV. 2017 

Between Bali and Brooklyn there is an island called Manhattan. It is where I have had the pleasure of seeing Ashley Bickerton’s work over the past thirty-one years.

Previous exhibitions of his work at Sonnabend Gallery and at the Whitney Museum Of American Art readily come to mind for me. Currently, a survey exhibition of works produced by Bickerton since 1982 is on view at the stately and modern FLAG Art Foundation, New York, and it will surely be memorable, partly because I was afforded the opportunity to preview the show with the artist as it was being installed. 

And mostly because it provided me with the rich experience of being in the presence of an extraordinary range of remarkable and vibrant works.

“People talk about the earlier work and the more recent work," Bickerton said before pausing and continuing, “as if they are two different things.”

ASHLEY BICKERTON, Wall-Wall SnS-S 2, 2017, Oil and metal flake on resin and fiberglass on plywood with aluminum, 73 x 61 x 8, inches Private Collection

“In this exhibition, I am speaking with one voice,” Bickerton candidly yet modestly stated, as he extended his arm and, in a mindful, sweeping arc of a motion, indicated how his box-shaped works and his ultra-vivid hyperrealist paintings all resided on a singular horizontal plane. And, with pride and humility, how they all originated from one source.

The works were not sequenced in chronological order, Bickerton indicated, as he chose to juxtapose them according to the poetics of the space. Or, more specifically, spaces, as the exhibition is presented on the 9th and 10th floors of the Chelsea Arts Tower. 

As he oversaw the installation of the show, Bickerton noticed that there were opportunities for creating new contexts for the works. In one instance, he said he placed two of the box-shaped works facing each other on opposite walls in a moderately narrow passageway. A visitor walking between them, Bickerton suggested, may be reminded of the Marina Abramović work through which a visitor must pass between a pair of nude performers.

ASHLEY BICKERTON, Famili, 2007, Acrylic and digital print on canvas in carved wood, coconut, mother of pearl, and coin inlaid artist frame, 76 x 72 x 7 inches, Private Collection

"Space," I asked, "is important. Isn't it?" Wouldn't a lifelong surfer, such as Bickerton, have a special relationship with dimensionality from riding the waves and from observing the world of the ocean from beneath the surface of the water, I wondered? The artist's response was indirect. However, it was instructive, as he demonstrated by example what he'd meant throughout the tour of the installation-in-progress.

Pointing at the black tape strips, that formed an 'X' on the floor, Bickerton said, "This is where the shark will go."

This particular mobile, "Solomon Island Shark," which I would see days later, suspended from the ceiling, comes from a New York collection. All of the other sharks, the artist pointed out, are owned by Damien Hirst.

The presence of the yet-to-be placed sculpture could be felt, much like how the imminent arrival of an actor could be anticipated in John Waters' series of "Hit Your Mark" photographs.

As we stepped away from the center of the room and moved towards a wide aperture, which led to another space and revealed a born-in-Bali painting and a yet-to-be reassembled floor sculpture, Bickerton spoke about Hawaii and Hirst.

During his teen years in Hawaii, Bickerton was a member of a "surfing outlaw" group, "The Pipeline Underground." Without revealing anything more specific about this oceanside society, he recounted details about the surfing life of the 1970s. Bickerton and his contemporaries rode through what he described as "gigantic white ovals." Reefs were commonly visible. And, when a surfboard got away from a rider, it was necessary to swim to the shoreline to retrieve it, as there were no ankle leashes tethering a board to a surfer back then. When one reached the water's edge, one could see 300 girls on the beach.

Still, the dynamism of "roaming the water," navigating through aquatic space, and "riding the tube" within a "spinning liquid vortex" while "utterly ensconced in the natural world" was only a part of the experience. The "spiritual core" of the sport manifested itself as one was sitting on a board in silence, regarding the horizon and "staring at emptiness."

ASHLEY BICKERTON, LH 17, 2007, Oil and digital print on canvas in carved wood, coconut, mother of pearl, and coin inlaid artist frame, Courtesy Jennifer Mills McSweeney

As for Hirst, Bickerton said that he had jokingly suggested to the London-based artist/collector/museum operator that they are both "marine artists," referring to the recent exhibition in Venice of Hirst's faux treasure trove of fictitious, ancient works found, as the elaborately imagined story is told at the bottom of the sea. The two were reunited this summer in London, where Hirst, in his Newport Street Gallery, presented a retrospective exhibition of Bickerton’s work and, through his Other Criteria, published a doorstopper of a monograph about Bickerton and his work.

Earlier in his career, Bickerton had met Hirst and a number of the other members of the Young British Artist generation in New York. He was relatively closer in age to many of the YBAs than he was to two of the other Neo-Geo artists, Peter Halley and Jeff Koons, and many of the YBA's  admired his work and Jeff Koons' work.

As a British-American, Bickerton was welcomed into gallerist/curator Clarissa Dalrymple's New York art salon of fellow Britons. Dalrymple, who had co-directed Cable Gallery, the first commercial gallery at which his work was shown, "curated," as Bickerton recalled, remarkable guest lists for outstanding dinners that she herself had prepared of French-Japanese macrobiotic health food.

ASHLEY BICKERTON, Tormented Self-Portrait (Susie At Arles), 1987 - 88 ,Synthetic polymer paint, bronze powder, and lacquer on wood, anodized aluminum, rubber, plastic, formica, leather, chrome-plated steel, and canvas, 89 x 69 x 15-3/4 inches, The Museum Of Modern Art, New York Purchase 1988

He was fortunate enough to come into contact with other notable contemporary artists during the time he lived in New York. After graduating from California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, and coming here to work as an assistant in Jack Goldstein's studio, he met many of the Pictures generation of artists. At Cable Gallery, James Nares, Haim Steinbach, and Christopher Wool were some of the fellow artists who also were shown in an environment that Bickerton described as "clairvoyance diving [into the] cultural veins through the noise." Later, he became friends with a number of Yale MFA's, such as, Matthew Barney, Richard Phillips, and Lisa Yuskavage, who were relatively close to him in age.

An amicably social member of the fine arts community, Bickerton said he received numerous exhibition reception announcements much of the time. At a certain point, though, he received invitations to many more events than he could attend. He was faced with a variety of awkward choices, such as, "Shall I go to this friend's opening or to an opening that features works by the sister of another friend of mine?"

This choice mattered, as the time Bickerton wanted to devote to working in the studio was being challenged. And, the kind of work he was doing involved visiting fabricators and producing what he came to regard as "luxury goods," not "works of art." As he became motivated to "create poetry" - gesturing towards a painting, titled, "The Vlaminkos," and saying this declaration in a sincerely heartfelt manner, Bickerton realized that a change of scenery was needed, and he relocated to Bali.

ASHLEY BICKERTON, The Ideal Collection, 1988, Mixed media construction, 30-3/4 120 x 14-1/2 inches, Collection of BZ and Michael Schwartz

Aspiring to metaphorically "speak like F. Scott Fitzgerald," Bickerton started spending sixteen hours a day in his new studio in Bali. Often, he "rebelliously" worked with an air brush. And, Bickerton didn't shy away from taking risks. 

Pointing to a two-inch-wide hole in the middle of a tableau titled, "L. W. S. 1," Bickerton indicated that he'd drilled the hole after completing a meticulously painted scene of a man, eating at a tablecloth-covered dining table.. It could have all gone wrong, the artist said. However, it didn't, and he drilled additional holes into the wood substrate and, inspired by Tom Wesselmann, he adhered printed matter, depicting a variety of still life, to enliven the composition.

In "Wall-Wall SnS-S 2," Bickerton had his assistants paint an array of rock-like reliefs and, afterwards, have the areas surrounding the relief elements painted in a manner inspired by Thomas Ruff's abstract photographs. There were no signs of one painting task intruding upon the other.

Much can be said about the many approaches Bickerton has taken since relocating to Bali. He's continued to create surrogates for curated spaces. As he'd done with "The Ideal Collection," his 1988 homage to a selection of significant, box-shaped works in contemporary art history, he has produced works that call attention to environmental concerns (e.g., "Water Vector 1" and "Edge Of Things-S. Pacific-") and, in a tongue-in-cheek manner that recalls Charles Wilson Peale, family life in his version the New World (e.g., "Famili"). Despite his previous considerations about having elements of his work fabricated, he has had local artisans produce components that reflect the folk arts and crafts traditions of Bali.

Throughout the time he's lived in Bali, Bickerton has not isolated himself from the world. Before the days of social networking, Bickerton typically called friends in the USA and in Europe on the telephone to stay in touch; while he was merely taking a break from studio work, he discovered that his friends were often being awoken in the middle of the night. As the Internet developed, he found it possible to better keep up with what's going on in the art world. (When I mentioned Pablo Helguera's Facebook feed, Bickerton immediately expressed familiarity with the New York-based artist's work and praised it several times). As he himself frequently posts onto Facebook, the broader art community is aware of his doings, whether they be newly completed paintings of his or a harrowing rescue he'd made of a young couple who faced the possibility of drowning in a sea cave. As the art scene in Asia is thriving, Bickerton is a part of its Pan-Pacific community. He is represented by a gallery in Singapore, and he travels to art fairs and other events throughout the region.

From one stage of his career to the next, Bickerton has moved towards fulfilling his objectives as an art student in California and as an innovative artist in New York and Bali and producing works of great vitality. For those who feel that moving away from New York (or wherever one's home base exerts a strong gravitational pull) is like removing one's playing pieces from a chess board, Bickerton's journey has demonstrated that it is still possible for one to successfully create one's own range and domain in the pursuit of happiness and, hopefully, prosperity. For art aficionados of all stripes, it is highly worthwhile to visit the easily-reachable FLAG Art Foundation and see for themselves what a body of work by a truly independent and accomplished artist looks like. WM

 

Barry N. Neuman

Barry N. Neuman was previously the New York editor of the online edition and an associate editor of the hard copy edition of “Boiler,” Milan. Works of his published in “Boiler” include interviews with Matthew Antezzo, Carles Congost, Christian Flamm, Graham Little, Victor Rodriguez, Lisa Ruyter, and Gordon Terry. He has, as well, guest-curated group exhibitions at Team Gallery, New York, and La Panadería, Mexico City. Mr. Neuman received a M. A. in visual arts administration from New York University and a B. A. in biological sciences from the State University Of New York At Binghamton.

Photograph by Lance Evans 

 

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