London Bridges

Linda Yablonky at Ashley Bickerton’s first UK retrospective

Left: Attorney Cherry Saraswati Bickerton and artist Ashley Bickerton. Right: Artist Damien Hirst. (All photos: Linda Yablonsky).

DOES ANYONE REMEMBER when the social fabric of contemporary art had just a few threads, nearly all sewn in New York? When the same handful of people showed up for every opening at the few galleries worthy of the name? When everyone knew everyone else from the same bars and nightclubs (or beds)?

Last week, London felt a bit like that. It was just after Easter, before Art Brussels and Gallery Weekend Berlin. People were conserving themselves for the Frieze New York–Venice Biennale–Documenta 14–Skulptur Projekte Münster–Art Basel gauntlet ahead. The city was quiet. Prime tables at popular bistros like Noble Rot in Bloomsbury were a snap to obtain. It proved an opportune time for out-of-towners to take the stage.

One was Martine Syms, the “conceptual entrepreneur” from Los Angeles. The night before the April 19th opening of her 2015 video installation A Pilot for a Show About Nowhere, at the Camden Arts Centre, collector Valeria Napoleone held a dinner for Syms and the Contemporary Art Society, which bought the work, in her Kensington Palace Gardens home.

Left: Artists Gary Hume and Angela Bulloch. Right: Artists Ashley Bickerton, Celia Hempton, and Eddie Peake.

Syms is getting to be a familiar face here. Londoners first got acquainted with her just a year ago, when the nearly thirty-year-old artist had a solo outing at the ICA, organized by its recently departed curator Matt Williams. Now she was back to accompany Pilot for the Contemporary Art Society, which, through the platform Valeria Napoleone XX, is buying work by women for the collections of regional institutions lacking the financial clout. CAS director Caroline Douglas explained how it worked at the dinner, also attended by a supportive flock from Camden, 2016 Turner Prize finalist Anthea Hamilton, and Williams, who sat with 2016 Hugo Boss Prize finalist Nicole Wermers.

Museums felt almost like one of the private clubs that rule London’s social life—especially the one that kind of is. That would be the Newport Street Gallery, established two years ago by Damien Hirst to mount exhibitions drawn from the three thousand–plus works in the Muderme Collection, all belonging to him.

The contemporary renaissance man—artist, publisher, restaurateur, collector—had just returned from Venice and, depending on your degree of snobbery, the triumph or disaster of his multipart “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable.” That gave him a day or two to oversee the installation of “Ornamental Hysteria,” the title he chose for the first retrospective in the UK for the work of his surfing pal Ashley Bickerton.

“Thinking I could do Venice and this show back-to-back was totally mental,” he noted, during the NPSG’s ultra-exclusive Wednesday night preview for fifty or sixty invited guests—a welcome change, perhaps, from Hirst’s previous week’s spectacle on the Grand Canal.

Left: Camden Arts Centre development chief Neil Debnam, artist Martine Syms, and Jenni Lomax. Right: Collector Valeria Napoleone.

He was relaxed and happy throughout this family-size affair, which included Hirst’s mother, architect David Adjaye, onetime bassist for the Clash Paul Simonon, former YBA teacher Sir Michael Craig-Martin, and a reunion of YBA compatriots Gary Hume, Angela Bulloch, and Tim Noble. “But,” Hirst added, “I think this is the best show I ever did here.”

It looked amazing in the white-on-white cubes of the half-block-long building in Vauxhall, once a South Bank scene-painting shop for West End theaters. The former neo-geo star was excited. He has been exhibiting regularly in New York over the twenty-five years since he pulled a Gauguin and set up in Bali, but London hasn’t seen him since 2009, the year of his last show at White Cube, which no longer represents him.

“Can you believe it?” Bickerton said. “It took Damien to realize my first solo museum show ever!” To celebrate, he’d brought his wife and teenage son from Bali, along with a whole new body of work for the show’s finale. They were sculptural “Wall-Wall” grid paintings of Day-Glo rocks, raucous paintings of his signature Blue Man, a life-size mermaid riding a carved wooden boat and carrying a hammerhead trophy, and cabinets containing beachcombed flotsam arranged behind beautifully etched glass. Life in the Pacific clearly has inspired him.

“I think the new ‘Susies’ look even better than the originals,” said dealer David Maupin of the encased raft-like assemblages approximating the artist’s body and framed by large, colorful pontoons with the name Susie writ large on the sides.

Left: Curator Jeanne Graff and MAMCO director Lionel Bovier. Right: Contemporary Art Society director Caroline Douglas and Camden Arts Center development chief Neil Debnam.

One standout gallery, quickly dubbed “the shark room,” was designed and installed by Hirst, a past master of shark art. Bickerton’s sculptures are not stuffed so much as irradiated by bright color and hang from the cathedral-high ceiling by fishing line strung over the grotesque “5 Snake Heads,” 2009. The green heads, which contort Bickerton’s face into Messerschmidt-esque expressions, top wormlike spears that curl toward the ceiling.

Dinner was upstairs in Pharmacy 2, the museum’s Hirst-designed, Mark Hix–helmed restaurant. The menu included delicious salads and thick slabs of perfectly cooked steak. “This is the best table,” Bickerton crowed. “It’s the monkey table,” he added. “All artists.” He’d done the placement, with Hirst at the head, between musician Antony Genn and Hume, and himself at the other end, between Jim Lambie and Noble.

“I think Ashley’s in his Marlon Brando phase,” Genn observed, correctly. With his silvery hair and pattern-on-pattern jacket, shirt, and tie, Bickerton looked very Mutiny on the Bounty.

His dealer from Gajah Gallery in Singapore was at another table, along with his old friend from Hawaii, filmmaker Roddy Bogawa, and longtime Hirst business associates Hugh Allan and Harland Miller. Miller entertained diners with a few Richard Prince–like jokes. (“Doctor, what should I do about these yellow teeth?” Simple. “Wear brown shoes.”)

Left: Journalist Georgina Adam and collector Anna Yang. Right: Curator Matt Williams, Nissa Matthew, and Nicole Wermers.

Bickerton didn’t wait for a toast. “I’ll do the Oscar thing and thank God first, who’s sitting right there,” he said, raising his glass to Hirst. “Showing with a gallery is one thing. This is different. Working with Damien is like sambaing with a psychopath. It’s transporting.”

Hirst didn’t attend the following night’s private view, which was populated mostly by young people, artists Eddie Peake and Celia Hempton among them. “I’m like a fanboy,” Peake told Bickerton, who was hosting a reception for friends in a private room. “I love your work.” Hempton was turned on by Bickerton’s surreal play with the beautiful and the grotesque. They bought the Hirst-designed catalogue.

The after party was at the Groucho Club, scene of many a past debauch. First, however, I joined Peake and Hempton for dinner at nearby Dean Street, and when we reached the Groucho’s door, Bickerton was just leaving. “Something evil just went down in there,” he said, declining to elaborate. “But go on up. It’s fun.”

The following day was the Queen’s ninety-first birthday, a good sign for Bickerton. Whatever else London does, it definitely champions longevity.

Left: Tim Noble. Right: Artist Jim Lambie.