New York

Ashley Bickerton

Sonnabend Gallery

“Just Another Shitty Day in Paradise! (A Travelogue)”: clever, smirking, weary and depressed, this title announces Ashley Bickerton’s latest exhibition of sculptures. We find ourselves amid the wreckage of a South Seas debacle. Sharks and manta rays made from transparent materials have been outfitted with odd leather vestments. Wall-mounted cartographic whimsies like Islands and Ash’s Atoll (all works 1993) highlight such tropical hot spots as “Failed Expectation Shoal,” “Sordid Solitude Rise,” and “Cheap Sexual Gratification Key.” Headless and limbless buddhas of perversity like Fat Body Totem and Little Orange Fat Body look a little like the Venus of Willendorf, minus the fecundity. And just in case you’ve missed the point and think that we’re in for another of Bickerton’s eco-riffs, check out the various self-portraits—totemlike assemblages crowned with the artist’s head rendered in lovely rubber sprouting miniature palm trees.

Bickerton’s career has followed a clear although not necessarily predictable path. The works of his “Neo-Geo” phase were perhaps the most concisely sarcastic integrations of Pop and institutional critique in a sarcasm-rich period. The individual subject (the artist himself in most of these pieces) was defined entirely through overlapping networks of commodities, institutional affiliations, and financial transactions. In his next phase, Bickerton dramatically shifted emphasis from the operations of the art system to those of the eco-system. The vivid contrast between the fragile remnants of the natural world and the impressive, Darth Vaderish containers that Bickerton fashioned for them suggested that something else was at work besides a well-meaning Let’s-help-save-the-rainforest stance—something less blandly P.C., something about the artist’s ego.

In “Just Another Shitty Day in Paradise,” we find the artist in a frayed yet resilient state. Perhaps it is simply the formal bravura of Bickerton’s work that asserts that resilience. Certainly the thematics of the work have moved into an inconsolably depressed territory of emotional deprivation and squalor. We can’t help wondering, What’s the real story? Something about a man and a woman in the tropics, real or imagined. Bickerton writes in his press release, “This body of work represents a fictitious journey through an archetypal tropic. The individual pieces refer to psychological states, anecdotes, and plain observation or some amalgam of the above. There is no moral in tow only an admixture of memory, desire, and dread.” Looking at this show, I kept thinking of waif-model extraordinaire Kate Moss in the latest round of Calvin Klein perfume ads staggering around on the beach mumbling “obsession” in a weak voice. Obsession’s not always, not usually, such a nice thing. Despite the persistence of an exotic locale, Bickerton’s recent work harks back to the cunning self-involvement of his Neo-Geo phase rather than his Sierra-Club-Club-Med phase. The difference is perspective: rather than seeing the individual subject as no more than the sum of his outward affiliations, Bickerton dwells on the pure interiority, at once luxurious and horrifying, of “memory, desire, and dread.” The cynical technocrat’s other face is that of romantic pessimist: Ashley Bickerton as Leopardi.

David Rimanelli