New York

Ashley Bickerton

Sonnabend Gallery

Laboring in Andy Warhol’s long shadow, Ashley Bickerton came of age in the early ’80s as part of a whole new wave of artists that made its own aggressive assault on the art market the focus of its artistic endeavor. Treating the art world as a structure that could be mastered and exploited, they “worked” its mechanisms, coaxing them to visibility at the level of content. Bickerton’s early wall pieces—fitted with handles for easy moving, covers for protection, jokes on the back to entertain the art handlers, documentation of the origin of the materials used and abused in their fabrication, and, finally, digital counters to monitor their ever-escalating value—were virtual repositories of the unspoken information the modern object typically repressed, pointing to their own place in the larger economy of exchanges. The art in these culturescapes was no longer the essence they secreted at their cores, but the register of sustaining interests across their logo-encrusted surfaces; similarly, the self-portraits played fast and loose with the mythology of the unitary subject, presenting the artist/subject as less a privileged interiority than a composite of the products he consumes and the labels with which he identifies. These works reveal no essential Bickerton; he is the artist who brushes with Close-Up, reads the Village Voice, and drinks Deer Park Water.

In the current exhibition, Bickerton presented an inspired finale to the logo series, Commercial Piece #1 (all works, 1989), in which he literally sold off the surface of the work to a handful of upscale advertisers such as Azzedine Alaïa, Nina Ricci, a couple of Swiss banks, and art-yuppie supreme Jeff Koons. (Mark Kostabi is rumored to have been refused space on the grounds that his endeavor was not tony enough. Such is the rigorous admissions policy where a parcel of art-historical eternity is potentially at stake.) The new landscapes and seascapes that comprised the rest of this show propose an update on the traditional genres not so much as a plaintive plea to clean up our collective act, but as a way of asking what these old modes tell us when released into a world in which uncluttered horizons are no longer part of our experience.

In Minimalism’s Evil Orthodoxy, Monoculture’s Totalitarian Esthetic #1, Bickerton presents a series of oblong cement tanks, half-filled with the chief crops of and topsoil from Asia, South America, and Africa. The work proposes an analogy between Minimalism as the crescendo of Modernism’s cultural orthodoxy and what the artist has termed “a modernist view of the planet.” Seascape: Transporter for the Waste of its Own Construction, a work that appears built to withstand several millennia of tidal abuse, features the “waste products of its own making” sealed into a case and supported by floaters. The work proposes an analogy between the local process of art—what is maintained and what is necessarily omitted or discarded in any representation—and the larger notion of living with the, in some cases, fatal residue of our own endeavors. Wild Gene Pool: Ark #1 contains samples of the gene pool from the world’s agricultural crop, visible through rows of glass portholes. A capsule of sorts, the work is a mock measure against the erosion of genetic diversity caused by the intervention of agricultural and chemical conglomerates.

If our natural horizons have lost their power to evoke the sublime, a sealed capsule drifting in the Gulf Stream or barges of refuse coursing up the poison arteries that score the globe do occasion awe by their incommensurability. Precisely because Bickerton’s new work estheticizes this spectacle of our technologies run amuck, many find it politically repugnant. Considering that Bickerton made his reputation packaging, with obsessive, even celebratory slickness, a dispassionate exposition of the collusive rhythms of art and capital, it was perhaps inevitable that his recent foray into ecological figuration would come under fire as a galling instance of yuppie opportunism. Yet while Bickerton’s art and the phenomenon of the yuppie are said to be cut from the same Reagan-era fabric, this assertion obscures the nature of these ecologically global updates of the landscape genre. Bickerton’s art is a reaction both to the dead-end essentialism of Minimalism (as it exemplifies the still potent orthodoxies of Modernism) and to the self-marginalizing efforts of much politically didactic gallery work.

Jack Bankowsky