PRINT Summer 1988


I just wanna get radical!
—Matt Archbold, professional surfer, 1987

I want my future work to operate in the interchange between Robert Smithson’s unfinished project and Michael Jackson’s face.
—Ashley Bickerton, 1988

IN FRANCE THEY CALL them enfants terribles. In Italy you might hear duri. Here in America, we call them bad boys. We find them in our movies, we find them in our literature. Rock music, since its inspired invention back in the ’50s, has perhaps been the most comfortable home for our bad boys. Its thesis is one of giving it all—chills, thrills, passion, and pathos—and bad boys and bad girls are best at that. Look at Elvis, Mick Jagger, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Patti Smith, and Prince at the height of their powerful youths. And look at the 1987 video by R.E.M., “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”: a young Turk—he can’t be more than 15—alone in a Gordon Matta-Clark-like house postures, gesticulates, gyrates, throws himself around, flings his possessions all over the place in an act of reckless abandon. As master of his own world, this kid is making all the rules just to break them. He isn’t angry; he’s got no chip on his shoulder; and he isn’t even sweating. His performance is our future, seen through the eyes of the present as an ode to the past. His attitude is devil-may-care: the attitude of attitudes.

If he were an artist, we’d say his process informs his project as strongly as do his intentions; we could say that about Ashley Bickerton too. Ever since his works first hit the walls of New York’s alternative spaces in 1984, Bickerton’s communications have been insinuating and provocative in the tradition of the bad boys of rock. Just as Prince, with his strutting and preening, has objectified himself as a parody of the pop star, Bickerton’s paintings have been winking and blinking at us off the wall, flaunting their own grand assertions about the stroke of genius, the masterpiece, and simultaneously defying these notions through an intentionally outrageous ambiguity. Thirty years ago, Frank Stella labored to drain the painting of everything that was supposed to make it great or beautiful. Now, Bickerton installs everything but the kitchen sink, and in the process recalls every attempt at the redefinition of painting in the last four decades. Hell-bent to discover a new paradigm for both the belief in and the negation of painting, Bickerton has been willing to give it a go without conforming to the specifics of the art, not the least of which is paint itself.

It began with the simplest definition: occupying a space on the wall, and then coloring that space in. In Bickerton’s earliest works, from 1982 through 1984, his thin Masonite sheets took care of the former, and his fanciful renderings of words and nonwords like COWBOY, BOB, and REG BOT on their surfaces fulfilled the requirements of the latter. These sardonic comments on a mass-media-saturated America, with their reduction of the language of painting to the lowliest of utterances, were, ultimately, gestures toward a more ambitious project that had yet to find its proper vocabulary. If Bickerton was really going to take on the heavy-weight spectacle of painting and all its implications, his works would have to bulk up; they would need Presence with a capital P. The theme song of Bickerton’s Masonite works could have been Elvis’ coitus interruptus “Hound Dog.” His next works would be brash and over the top: the Butthole Surfers’s brutally orgasmic “22 Going On 23.” These new boxlike constructions jutted out from the wall. Their surfaces, plastered with blustery red, yellow, silver, and gold bas-relief rock motifs, and ersatz decoration, looked like something Wilma Flintstone and Betty Rubble might drag home from the local Bedrock flea market. The heavy metal brackets that affixed these works to the wall were something out of Robert Ryman; but with souped-up surfaces and bright primary colors, the boxes looked like Donald Judds that some kid got his hands on. As time went on, the structures themselves, increasingly bulky and decorated, became more and more prominent, as if the artist were removing the painting’s face to adhere its “picture” to its sides. Works like Guh, Gug, Ugh, and Ugohk from 1985 and ’86 used these rude grunts as the basis for elaborate volumetric renderings of futuristic circuitry, blobs, and appendages. This vocabulary served Bickerton the way a series of pelvic thrusts and grinds serve James Brown or Johnny Rotten on stage. Bickerton himself referred to them as “the symphonies of a thousand public restrooms or so many coital blurts.” These preliterate signifiers that dictated no specific meaning, that remained open to multiple interpretations, epitomized the language of abstraction itself.

The Bickerton works of these years were at once amusing and annoying in their cocky self-assurance. If they seemed intended for a generation more interested in admiring the decals on a new surfboard than contemplating the zips on a Barnett Newman painting, that went just fine with the nothing-is-sacred persona Bickerton was busy inventing for himself. The press release for his 1986 exhibition at Cable gallery, penned by the artist himself, was chock-full of dandy tidbits. He announced that he scribbled “jokes, rebuses and cartoons” on the back of his works “for the amusement of shippers and movers,” that he pasted the inside walls “full of parking tickets, discarded underwear, and cryptic personal imagery,” that he filled their hollows with “marbles, chick-peas, broken glass and Ethiopian incense [to create] a terrible crashing and rattling when the objects are moved.” Jabbing at the cherished myth of artistic inspiration standing in opposition to commercial production, Bickerton came up with an invented manufacturer’s name—SUSIE—to replace his own on the painting’s face. SUSIE, he declared, would serve curators and art historians as the “Index/Name Brand/Artistic Signature” for the easy cataloguing and archiving of his work. SUSIE was soon to have a logo, a catchphrase (CULTURE-LUX), and a snappy motto (“The Best in Sensory and Intellectual Experiences”). With the choice of a decidedly diminutive and feminine nickname, Bickerton poked fun at the macho underpinnings of so much contemporary work, and at the same time, of even his own project.

In the barrage of “neo-geo,” and in the context of the much-touted Sonnabend exhibition of fall 1986 that also featured the work of Peter Halley, Jeff Koons, and Meyer Vaisman, Bickerton stood out from the crowd. His works gave us everything we’d seen before—collage, narrative, abstraction, geometry, pattern, expressionism, minimalism, conceptualism, deconstruction—but his version of “history” made it all fresh and exciting again. His Day-Glo rocks, his cliché-drenched narratives, his creepy crustaceans spelling out the word WALL, ran the risk of falling flat as sophomoric jokes. But by taking that risk, Bickerton gave a brand new, exuberant beat to a tired old song. By 1987, his raw poetry took on the steamy seductiveness of a Prince sex ballad. “The smell of sex lingers on our sweating bodies as we lay on the dusty cot at the end of the cabaña,” begins the rambling text, complete with misspellings and bad grammar, that occupies the lower right of Wall Wall #8 (Acapulco). Above, on a white field, Bickerton’s rocks float like some perverse but tempting passion fruits.

Now, with his March 1988 exhibition, it’s clear that a bad boy can grow up without forfeiting any of his youthful energy and audacity. Gone is the tongue-in-cheek patter of those self-penned press releases, the scribblings for the chuckles of movers and handlers, the hidden treasures clanking around inside. But the gusto of those pushy provocations is now incorporated into the actual paintings. Strip these new works of their loud embellishments and you’ve got a minimal object for our time: an austere monument of mute superstructure and urgent projection. Then take a look at those decals, those high-sheen colors, those flashing laser readouts, those plush leather handles and wild doodads, and you’ve got a teenage rock star’s first Ferrari. Then put them together, and you’ve got a tour de force assemblage with the pop outrage of an Andy Warhol, the controlled rhetoric of a Joseph Kosuth, the primal vision of a Robert Smithson, the pumped-up grandeur of a Julian Schnabel, and the quasi-vicious humor of a David Salle. Bickerton’s 1988 Tormented Self-Portrait (Susie at Arles) is a perfect example. Figure it this way: just making a self-portrait in this day and age is an undertaking that bespeaks either total sarcasm or high optimism; in Bickerton’s case, it just might be both. No noble suffering here, no single-eared martyr to private inspiration and public neglect. Instead, the slick, industrial-gray face of Bickerton’s self-portrait is an assortment of corporate logos and decals, a ledger of consumption arranged for optimum readability. I am Surfer magazine, Bayer aspirin, Trojans prophylactics, CalArts, Gusano Roja Mezcal tequila, Integral Yoga Natural Foods, and Citibank, Bickerton baldly states. Choose your own preferred products and you can make your own portrait, is the message here, and like Bickerton’s, yours too will be totally accurate and totally suspect.

And then there were those ominous constructions, those wild hybrids of a mutant beat-box and some weird kind of lifeboat. Set off together in a separate room of the gallery, these black contraptions seemed to have popped out of the wall as if with a push of an ejector button, ready for use. But what use? They might be identity-preservers for a young artist just recently positioned in a major gallery. Little Self-Portrait featured a combination Dewar’s profile and Playmate of the Month questionnaire printed on a yellow plate. “About the Artist,” its headline read, followed by Bickerton’s fill-in-the-blanks vital statistics—birthdate and place, measurements, weight; the last book he’s read (“The Enemy: What Every American Should Know About Imperialism by Felix Greene”); his personal hall of fame (“Malcolm Lowry, Robert Smithson, Thomas Lovejoy III, Martin Luther King, Che Guevara, Edith Piaf”); his turn-ons (“Fevered sweaty dancing to wild Latin rhythms in some distant tropical night”) and turn-offs (“N.Y.C. traffic, bottom-line reckoning, current Administration policies, and trendy brown noses”). A brazen insignia reading TEAM SONNABEND (which Bickerton promises to have silkscreened on black T-shirts soon) was placed alarmingly close to a label bearing the ubiquitous warning FRAGILE: HANDLE WITH CARE. Still Life (The Artist’s Studio After Braque) also bore a legal-sounding printed warning, listing the materials that went into its construction. Though names like quinacridone and linseed vinyltolvene copolymer were bound to be unfamiliar to the viewer, just their phonetic pronounciation was harrowing. In the bottom right corners of several of these works, a small red LED mechanism blinked out their increasing values on the secondary market, registering a penny increase every 30 seconds. (Bickerton assures that the mechanisms can record increases from $400 to $100,000 a year, with a touch of a screwdriver, and depending on their creator’s standing at any particular time in the art market.) The fact that two of these devices that should have been in sync were flashing out completely different figures served to heighten their absurd pretense at any kind of veracity.

These survival kits, complete with oversized leather-covered handles in eye-catching reds, yellows, and blues; large canvas pockets containing white gloves; flaps, buttons, bolts, and gizmos for emergency operations; and printed instructions and announcements that were simultaneously specific and inscrutable, were obviously meant for the viewer’s use too. It would be a little dangerous, but also a little bit fun, to latch on to one of these high-tech, low-language vehicles, like bad boy Huck and his friend Jim did with their raft, and see where it would take you. It’s not hard to imagine that they conceal built-in stereo systems, ashtrays, portable TVs, solar-energy panels, satellite dishes, clock radios, full bars, microwave units, fishing rods, radar and telegraph devices, and a running supply of water—everything we need to make it in a future existence somewhere between wild paradise and grand apocalypse.

Christian Leigh writes regularly for Artforum.