New York

Ashley Bickerton

Sonnabend Gallery

Meant as double entendres that reference traditional genres (landscape and self-portraiture) and then loop back to comment critically on the emptiness of these categories, Ashley Bickerton’s flirtations with ecology, nature worship, self-identity, and sexuality have as much to say about the displacement of desire as about the refusal of art to placate those desires. One myth after another has fallen victim to Bickerton’s hard-core, cynically high-tech demystifications: nature as a preeminent force and the veracity of autobiographical data as a genuine reflection of personal experience have served as so much dead cargo loaded aboard Bickerton’s menacing “terminator” vehicles. Truth and fiction are interchangeable in his work, deployed in the service of contradictory and slightly schizophrenic impulses. The empty tropes he reinhabits are mobilized convincingly enough to tug at our sense of nostalgia for some primitive paradise or to provoke our desire to possess the artist’s life vicariously, but they are also deployed with enough savvy to direct these libidinal instincts to a series of “real” truths about art, concerning economic exchange, value, and meaning.

In Bickerton’s new work he suppresses the esthetics of hard high-tech in favor of the handmade and orchestrates a grand-opus merger of personal identity, sexuality, and landscape. Various containers and contraptions, which seem designed for mobility and basic survival, give the impression that their bricoleur manufacture has occurred in some place remote from an industrial center, perhaps resourcefully recycled from high-tech components. From one work to another, a neo-Gauguinesque narrative of return to simple, lusty pleasures amidst some Edenic paradise emerges. “Susie,” his personal logo and feminine alter ego, makes an appearance, this time stenciled on a pair of fiberglass flotation devices in Seascape: Floating Costume to Drift for Eternity I (all works 1991). Here a man’s business suit, sealed under glass, is ready to be launched into oblivion. In Wallowing Piece, three aluminum canisters are stenciled with chic menu selections such as “marinated salmon under a drizzle of tomato and balsamic vinegar dressing”; its netted pouch contains a cache of photographs of genitalia (like so many specimens collected on a field trip), suggesting the rewards of a proverbial “back to nature” simplicity. The theme is repeated in various totem works. BISJ Poles I is a series of four glass-fronted, wall-mounted boxes, each stenciled with the logo “HOT DANK STEAMING TROPICAL NIGHTS” and packed with several bottles of white wine and tightly cropped photographs of male and female genitalia casually taped into place on the mirrored backs of the four poles. The theme of heterosexual love and lust fulfilled amidst explosively beautiful surroundings finds its apogee in Sexy Babe/Hunky Dude I, in which a gorgeous theatrical paradise, painted on a large unstretched canvas grommeted to the wall, is emblazoned with the words “PURPLE THUNDERING SKY” and mounted with a pair of mirror boxes respectively labeled “sexy BABE” and “HUNKY DUDE.”

Bickerton lets up a little on the “adventures in paradise” theme with several works that playfully exploit local sexual fantasies. In The Limits of the World I, a grid of photographs of various male art-world personalities (including the artist himself) are altered with nose brackets from which hang pudendal sacks, each labeled with personal ad-style descriptions of someone’s desire to engage in kinky sex. Obliquely printed on the edges of the photographs are the names of various “disciplines” referring to specialized areas of knowledge (philosophy, biology, anthropology, etc.). Of course, we are no more to presume that the “person” in the photograph and the description of perverse desire are equivalent than we are to surmise that the Gauguin who disappears to one or another fantasy island with companion(s) and enough libidinal energy to enjoy all those endless shores and eternal nights is, in fact, the heroic and flamboyant artist/traveler Ashley Bickerton. This ground has been well-trodden in past works wherein Bickerton’s pseudo-persona was portrayed in a series of “logocentric” self-portraits, in the mock Dewars profile, and, of course, as Susie, the embalmed transsexual.

Bickerton’s preoccupations could be thought of as an avocational anthropological investigation into the curious mating habits of our species, but the memorabilia spelling out libidinal desire and the many hand-painted unstretched canvases serving as backdrops make more sense as commentary on art and its institutions. As for the frenzied sexuality and issues of gender, representation, and personal revelations that animate much current art, Bickerton seems to reply (as he has steadfastly) with the admonition that the expression or perception of the artist’s personal experience, particularly of a libidinal nature, is a matter of style and nothing more; ditto for virtuoso painting and ecstasy about the artist’s hand and craftsmanship. These denuded poses exist only as live bait. His contraptions, rigged up and taped together, labeled and adorned as both specimens and fetishes, enact a bankruptcy in which we all partake—“no body” gets out alive, including the artist’s.

Jan Avgikos