Ashley Bickerton emerged as an artist in New York City in the 1980s, gaining significant recognition by challenging the parameters of art-making through the use of cultural and commercial signifiers. From the very beginning, Bickerton’s practice foreshadowed both the aesthetics and the topics that we see so prevalent in contemporary art today.
When he decided to leave New York for Bali, in 1993, the art world drew a comparison between him and Paul Gaugin. But Bickerton has always deemed this parallel to be a lazy interpretation of exoticism, and antiquated considering the fast-paced urban development that he experienced in East Asia in the past three decades. His tongue-in-cheek response consists of a series of works that combine photography, painting, and mixed media, to depict stereotypes of ex-pats as blue-men placed in exotic colorful landscapes and often surrounded by nude nymphs. A double-edged sword, this complicated position came rather naturally to Bickerton as he was born in Barbados, grew up in Hawaii, and moved around the world as a child due to his father’s job as a linguist scholar of Creole and pidgin languages.
In this expansive interview for Living Content, Bickerton talks to Adriana Blidaru about the evolution of his work. He describes how his practice has always been, on one hand, intertwined with and representative of the socio-cultural developments of our time, and, on the other hand, an attempt to capture an intangible and poetic reality.
With a practice transcending the label of any one movement, Bickerton rose to prominence in the early 1980s New York’s East Village scene. In 1993, Bickerton left New York for Bali, Indonesia where he lives and works to this day. Since his move, Bickerton has observed and experienced radical changes on the island which is reflected through his work, exploring the fantasy of a tropical island paradise and its reality as a de-cultured touristic locale that has been reconstructed to feed the westernized paradise ideal. Bickerton's works feature in the public collections of MoMA, NY; the Whitney; and the Tate Britain, UK amongst others.
Adriana Blidaru: Let’s start with your current exhibition Heresy or Codswallop at Gajah Gallery in Singapore. This brings together works created in the past couple of years, that are part of larger series that span over decades. How does it feel seeing your work side by side in this way?
Ashley Bickerton: Lately, I've been taking a rather overarching and retrospective view of my whole career. This possibly comes out of the show I had at the Flag Art Foundation in 2017, where we just let things sort of sit next to one another in ways that I thought would be jarring; I thought the show would end up looking like a somewhat dysfunctional group show.
This show was right on the heels of another exhibition I just had at the Newport Street Gallery, Damien Hirst's private museum in London, where we went through the work chronologically. Since I have just done a very historically measured show, a run-through my entire body of work with Damien (he owns over 90 pieces of mine), with Flag Foundation I decided to let things that were apparently and screamingly unsuited for one another, to just sit next to each other. And I was quite shocked by the result: it made an odd kind of sense. That was the last time I was afraid of doing that.
One thing I have been very certain about was that, for all my stylistic infidelity, the underlying engine of the work has remained remarkably constant, no matter what floral drag I'm wearing. In the end, there's not that much difference between the (apparently) expressionistic-looking work from certain Bali periods, and the colder, more industrial work, from the late eighties. That's where I'm at right now: I'm trying to find that point, much more directed and concerted effort to bridge these past schisms.
AB: I was looking at the work The Bar, from 2018, included in this current show - and I found a striking similarity with an earlier work of yours: a photograph, called The Expats, from 2004, where the same scene is unfolding. Two men are sitting down at a table, surrounded by beer bottles, and two half-engaged women are surrounding them, starring straight at the viewer. It’s interesting to see the same scene transformed, over 14 years, from a photograph to a painting oversaturated with color: the scene becomes somewhat of an allegory. Can you tell me more about this transition?
Ashley Bickerton: Firstly, let's address the subject itself: the image was just sitting out there, I've seen it a million times. After living in Asia for over a quarter of a century, I thought that I should probably have the last word on the subject, as I felt a kind of responsibility as a long time observer of Southeast Asian expatriate life. There's that, and there's the blue man, who is actually based on the central character in a film I made in art school called The Love Story of Pythagoras Redhill.
A painting is just a starting point. I come out of conceptual art so I don't care much about being an accomplished painter. In fact, I often find realist painting utterly maddening. When you're working on the same painting 18 hours a day, for so long you see a third full moon rise, you just want to put a gun to your head. This is not art. This is donkey work. So that led me to work with photographs. I often mix photographs and painting: I just want to get the image up there, the technical prowess of my hand being of no significant interest. I'll sometimes use the same photographic source in more than one painting, but use it in an entirely different way. Because if an image works, and it offers the right gestalt, conjures the right triggers and signals, I'll just use that image again in different contexts, and sometimes in whole other mediums.
AB: I was reading in a previous interview that the characters you are depicting are “images of character production” or that you consider your paintings to be “stand-ins for paintings”? Can you say more about that?
Ashley Bickerton: The blue man character series came out of a reaction to the idea that I had run off to some tropical island and because people are often lazy thinkers, they sort of reached out for the easiest of psychic markers. Which, in this case, was Gauguin. They started leveling all these Gauguin comparisons on me which I always thought absurd. I live in 21st century Asia, it's boom boom time here! It's not bucolic groves of coconut trees with teenage sylphs running through the dappled half-light. So I said: ‘okay, so that's what you think I do? That's what you want? Okay, I'll give it to you. But I'm going to give it to you hard, to the point of absurdity.' I reprised the blue man, that had originally been, as I mentioned, a character in this film I made at the turn of the eighties as a student at Cal Arts, and people invariably started asking if he was me. He might reflect certain aspects of me when I want to laugh at myself, but it's not a self-portrait in any real sense at all. Since the comparison to Gauguin has been erroneously leveled at me, the blue man became the sort of stand-in for the classic 19th and 20th-century European male protagonist figure, set against the backdrop of the exotic otherness. I consider him a sort of escapee from all the grand canons of the 19th and 20th century, but now lost and adrift in an alien 21st century, awash in a whole other set of socio-cultural and psychological metrics, ones that he is clearly unable to grasp.
AB: Mysterious sigils written on the side of paintings like T17nEXP or PST2, caught my eye. What do these signify? Can you tell me more?
Ashley Bickerton: I usually add them at the last moment. They come out of whatever's in my head at that moment. In some cases, it's a sort of pseudo-scientific labeling: both a taxonomical index as well as a fiction. There are always multiple references. I don't think anything should be clear; on art, the evocative is probably usually better than the precise.
AB: I see.
Ashley Bickerton: But this always goes back to one more thing: I like to confound, and mostly like to confound myself. I think that if you understand too well what you are trying to do, it ends up too programmatic and too rote, and can never reach the full measure of its power. It's like when you hear a beautiful song in a foreign language and it moves you deeply, it's really beautiful, it haunts you, and you listen to it over and over again. You're transported. You become so interested that you do a Google search to find out what the lyrics mean. And then suddenly you wish you hadn't when you realize it's just 'Oh baby, baby. Yeah. Yeah. I love you baby, yeah yeah.' That sort of kills it. I work with the motivation that I don't want to necessarily understand what I do. To understand something is to ground that thing, essentially to kill it, maybe not completely, but you certainly kill it in certain key respects. A work of art is best when it's first dreamed up in your mind, unencumbered by any physical form, before it has any tangible and restrictive reality to it. When it's just an idea; that is when it is most beautiful, most elegant, it’s floating at its lightest and purest. I try to let the work hold on to a bit of that when it becomes an object in the world. It's nice when it can't be grounded completely, when some part remains ineffable. That's why I will write sometimes the first thing that comes into my head, because I don't even know where it comes from, but I know it relates in some obtuse way.
AB: It becomes a mystery for you as well.
Ashley Bickerton: That would be the idea... I don't like didactic or directed work, the explaining that lays it all out. That's too close to the surface.
AB: How do you see beauty and spirituality at play in your work?
Ashley Bickerton: Some works are not spiritual at all and there's no effort whatsoever to be so. Then, there is also the issue of how do I even describe spirituality? I don't think of myself as particularly spiritual so I was a little surprised when two friends of mine I have known for years here in Bali, said that I'm one of the most spiritual people they know. I don't see it, but spirituality means many things. This morning while I was meditating, I was listening to Krishna Das chanting incantations to Hare Krishna. Am I a believer in the supernatural aspects of what was being conjured up in that song? No, not at all. I am fascinated by the purely scientific aspects of what my body and my mind were going through, and the effects these actions had on my nervous system: the repetitive incantations, the focus, the breathing. I do meditate, and I do yoga, but I have not one new age bone in my body. It's all science-based, but then deep immersion in science has always had a spiritual dimension. In my work, ironically, I'm not that interested in fidelity to the contours of empirical reality, but in my spiritual world (if I have one), I am.
AB: What about The Flotsam series? This seems to invoke the history of the landscape and that of the sublime.
Ashley Bickerton: Yes, I would say that there's certainly a deeper form of mysticism in those pieces. I mean, just doing this interview right now, it is clear that I'm perhaps covering too much ground as an artist. I tend to want to be everything and everywhere, and get very bored and suffocated if I feel any kind of restriction. When I move into the landscape and seascape works, it becomes something else for me. Over the years, I've understood that my work has been divided into two distinct trajectories: the first would be the culture-scapes, which would be the pieces I first made in the mid-eighties, works like the logo and the wall-wall series. This trajectory would be directed, focused, programmatic, working towards a particular end to lay out and unpack some idea about our culture, and about the object as part of that culture. And then there is the inevitable recoil, where I react against that and move to a much less defined mental space that I don't understand. A sort of amorphous, half-lit world, where poetry flourishes, a space with no directives. I did the first body of work from the landscape series at the very end of the eighties. The new Flotsam series is the third incarnation of landscapes I have attempted. I like to refer to them as 'landscapes and seascapes at the end of history'.
While the culture-scapes are coldly analytic as well as both cynical and playful, my internal yearning places me, emotionally, much closer to the landscapes.
Generally, I love and admire many people individually, but I can't stand humanity en masse. I'm sort of overwhelmed by it; by us as a species. We've been a destructive force for tens of thousands of years, wiping out untold species of mega-fauna all across the Earth. Even back in the primordial Eden of our Hunter-Gatherers forebears, we already had the makings of virulent infestation on the planet. I've said before that I don't believe in 400-year cannons, I don't believe that anything I do will ever sit around on a wall like a Caravaggio because I don't believe we have that kind of future. I don't believe it exists. So I see these landscapes as sort of paintings at the end of history, decorating the apocalypse. I'm not cynical in any traditional sense here though. I see all this junk - the ocean-borne detritus, the flotsam - as beautiful. I see it as much a part of the natural order of things as much as Leafcutter ants walking in long columns bearing their cargo of cut leaves along with a bow in the Amazon, or as mother-whales birthing their calves in the calm warm amniotic waters of a tropical Gulf. All of this is as much a part of the natural order as our ocean-borne plastic garbage. But I do not think of the work as in any way environmentally engaged in its concerns: I don't believe in the environmental movement for the simple reason that it labors under the misguided notion that it's saving the planet. Of course we're not saving the planet; we're saving ourselves. The planet doesn't need us to save it. Sure, we're going to wipe out a whole lot of other species, biodiversity will be completely crushed under our rapacious occupation, but we're not close to capable of destroying the planet by any means. What the environmental movement is attempting to do - is to maintain the planet's capacity to support us as a species, to maintain the fragile niche that supports us. I've decided that I'm not on the side of humanity, I'm on the side of the planet. Somebody might say, 'well, that's not a reasonable position to be in, being a human and all' and my answer always is: 'I'm an artist, not a scientist or a crusader for the common good, my stock in trade is Chroma and poetry'. Now, of course, I love Greta Thunberg, I support her, and even follow her on Instagram. And I drive hybrid cars and eat vegan food - I'll do my bit to keep the ship clean - but the ship is most certainly sinking.
AB: How do you feel about the idea that artists are expected, and, in certain cases, elected to be spokespeople of ethical values?
Ashley Bickerton: Art should never be reprimanding. Nor should it offer itself as a moral guidebook. I do however believe artists and writers and filmmakers and the like, should work on becoming evolved beings with a genuine understanding of the world around them and all its inherent injustices. They have to clearly understand what position they're coming from, and, ultimately, what scorched hill they have chosen to die on. That clear worldview should just be an inherent part of their daily actions. Now, whether or not you start pushing buttons of fuckery and throwing bombs, that's another call... I do not believe however that art should hold your hand and tell you where to sit. At all.
You know, I love to skirt areas that I'm not supposed to. I love to trespass into the forbidden areas of gender and race, and anywhere else deemed cultural a 'no-fly zone' for those outside the tightly drawn identity demarcation. Unfortunately, we're living in a time where the more punitive among us on the left will not tolerate certain voices speaking outside their allotted lanes. And again, I chafe at the bit: I want to talk about the world; I live in the world. But as I said earlier: it's incumbent upon us to evolve ourselves sufficiently as human beings, that we don't blunder into stupid sexism, careless racism, or any number of clumsy cultural malapropisms. What I find appealing is trying to dance nimbly through fraught terrain; it is challenging and always exhilarating. I suppose the danger is part of the thrill. I mean, I make paintings with some characters who are specifically meant to be emblematic of European maleness, consorting with other characters who are designed to be emblematic of a much browner and exotic otherness. It’s tricky, but I like to think my background growing up serves as a sort of road map: I grew up all over the world, the child of somewhat militant parents who did not allow me to go to any of the colonial expatriate schools, in any of the places we lived. I always went to local schools, and in most cases my brother and I were the only Caucasians in attendance. When we finally moved to America, we moved to Hawaii, one of the only places where race is very relative. Then, when I think about the female characters in my paintings, I will often say 'who says they're women?' They're certainly involved in the theatrics of womanhood, but sex and gender are not the same things. That's the whole point: I'm creating theater. I don't care if they were born male or female, the drama that I'm presenting is the only relevant aspect to me. I like being politically ambiguous, it's always a fine line to tread. You want to turn over the Apple cart, you want to make a mess, but you also want to do it with some sort of delicacy and grace. I think that's what we're entrusted with as artists: to be able to negotiate the cultural territory that we're born into. All I know is that I'm insulted by stupid cultural products, and I'm elated by intelligent and beautifully made cultural products: whether it be art, books, fiction or non-fiction films.
AB: I’m very interested in something you mentioned in a talk with the art critic Gregory Galligan. You said “Irony must die” and that we should “Kill off Warholianism” - I’m curious about this. Why kill irony? Do you think that you have managed to escape irony through your work?
Ashley Bickerton: Oh, hell no... But I have a cover! My overarching guiding principle is that hypocrisy is a fine philosophy. I do believe that irony is pretty played out - I can name an arm’s length of artists that overindulge in this sort of edgy posturing and I'm frankly burned out by it. It's a long, long list of artists who find fulfillment just riffing endlessly on one minute aspects of Warhol’s oeuvre, building entire careers upon it. This becomes a trap; it’s like a car stuck in mud, just spinning its wheels and creating lots of flying mud, lots of noise, but it ain't going nowhere. I'd kind of like to see an end to it, but then, again, we are seeing an end to it and it's not necessarily that good either...
All images: courtesy of Ashley Bickerton and Gajah Gallery.