Various Small Fires is pleased to present an exhibition of new works by Ashley Bickerton (b. Barbados, 1959, lives in Bali, Indonesia) and the artist’s first solo show with the gallery.
Bickerton, while known as an American artist, has lived and worked on the south coast of the island of Bali for the past 27 years. He grew up moving between a series of islands in several oceans, and across four continents. Deeply influenced by the legacy of his father’s nomadic career as an internationally acclaimed scholar in anthropological linguistics, Bickerton’s peripatetic childhood was critical in shaping the conceptually based and autobiographical practice that he has become known for today. After graduating CalArts in 1982, Bickerton wasted little time moving to New York City and establishing himself as one of the seminal figures in a group of artists coming out the the then explosive East Village scene, a group variously referred to as Neo-Geo or Commodity Art, and that included the likes of Peter Halley, Haim Steinback, Allan McCollum, and Jeff Koons. The works that ensued from this hotbed, while borrowing liberally from the language of earlier modernist developments in 20th century art, including minimalism, conceptualism, and pop art, shifted those dialogues dramatically to create a critical practice that raised questions about the commercialization of contemporary cultural consumption and the commodification of the art object itself.
An avid lifelong surfer and fervent anti-conformist, Bickerton followed his instincts and left New York permanently after 12 years, taking with him his singular approach and vision to the antipodean reaches of the Indian Ocean. His most recent body of work on view at Various Small Fires includes three new series that collectively take us back full circle to a much earlier phase of the artist’s career. Indeed, this newest body of work can be seen as the natural progeny of the artist’s Landscapes and Seascapes series from the late 1980s— first shown with critical acclaim at Sonnabend Gallery in New York during the same era. Encased in packing cases and travel modified vitrines, these works quote liberally from the historic traditions of landscape and reference an array of artists that range from JMW Turner to Milton Avery and Albert Pinkham Ryder. Bathed in both organic and acid hues, and dissected by undulating lines of ocean borne flotsam and detritus, these works, like traditional Chinese landscape do not so much describe a place, as trigger the experience of immersion in landscape itself. Bickerton himself has described this series thusly:
“When I think about these pieces, I think of words and terms like flotsam, borderless oceanic detritus, seascapes, culturescapes, swirling cosmologies of micro plastics, fragments of human narratives, residues of lives lived, of vestiges of human presence now swirling in great molecular vortexes. Landscape and seascape is where I have always been happiest. I long for great silence”
Bickerton is particularly intrigued by the great gyres, or so-called “trash islands”, the Texas sized and decades long swirling accumulations of non degradable plastics that today occupy vast tracts of our open oceans. While some might see these works as a lamentation of the planet’s demise, Bickerton takes a decidedly different, perhaps almost gleeful approach. He sees this ‘garbage’ as a thing of beauty, as much a part of the natural order as the ingenious adaptations of microbes as they take to a new host species. If these works may or may not direct us to consider the destruction of our planetary home, as ‘landscapes and seascapes’ they certainly throw into question our complicated relationship with the natural world. There is a strange futuristic and celestial lyricism to the work that serves to underscore a dark humor that drives it all, or as the New York Times Critic Holland Cotter put it, “It’s easy to forget what natural-born moralists American artists are until you encounter someone like Ashley Bickerton. His work doesn’t just wag a finger or propose reform. It offers a worldview that is basically an end-of-the-world view, beyond solution, beyond revulsion, blissed-out on the terrible wonder of it all.”
The often sleek and polished exteriors of the Vector and Ocean Chunk series in this exhibition are a longtime hallmark of Bickerton’s aesthetic, and as has often been noted, recall the so- called “finish fetish” of the California minimalists of the 1960s, an influence Bickerton attributes to growing up in the related surf culture of Hawai’i. The reflective glass surfaces of the Flotsam and Vector works serve a seemingly anthropological or scientific purpose, preserving a taxonomy of detritus in hermetically sealed displays that conjure an eerie version of the museum vitrine. With the glass faces also alluding to a storefront showcase window, we see a classic play of multi-edged Bickerton relativism, drawing unflinching attention to the art object’s status as a temporally fixed commodity object, while at the same time making fun of itself as a mute philosophical provocation in the face of the eternal.
Two works from the Ocean Chunk series are included in the exhibition, one in the project room and another taking its position centrally in the main gallery. Bickerton claims to have conceived the series back when he lived in New York after enduring one grueling North Eastern winter too many. He says, “All I wanted to do was swim.” These are surrogates for the balm of warm tropical water. They are an attempt to give flesh to the unattainable, a symbolic facsimile of a piece of ocean and its relevant bathymetry– a visual pill that can offer momentary transportation, a repository for all longing.
Along with the floating Ocean Chunk, a collection of Bickerton’s Wall-Wall works line the walls of the project room. He sees these ‘visual tautologies’ as literally snap on walls to sit on walls, to fill space with color and meaning, to essentially stand in for and act as ‘real’ paintings. Bombast and hyperbole are the operative terms here. Resembling both a technicolor rock wall and a carefully arranged constellation of shiny candies, some of the works are adorned with short, poem-like snippets of text— running like subtitles at the base of the works. If these small paragraphs purport to narrate the glossy assemblages above, they also fail to provide any conclusive “solution” to what we’re looking at. Like the rest of the artist’s oeuvre, this is what makes Bickerton’s work most engaging: his works are endlessly inquisitive, exploding forth with a fusillade of questions, but offering precious little in the way of any kind of tangible answers.
Ashley Bickerton (b. 1959, Barbados, West Indies; lives and works in Bali, Indonesia) received a BFA from the California Institute of the Arts and continued his education in the independent studies program at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Recent solo exhibitions of his work have been organized at Newport Street Gallery, London; The FLAG Art Foundation, New York; and Palacete del Embarcadero, Autoridad Portuaria de Santander. Select group exhibitions include FLAG Art Foundation, New York; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Le Consortium, Dijon; Museum Brandhorst, Munich; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Tate St Ives, Cornwall; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; Victoria and Albert Museum, London; New Museum, New York; Tate Modern, London; Milwaukee Art Museum; and the Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. His works are in numerous international public and private collections, including The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo; Vancouver Art Gallery; Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and the Tate Britain, London.