Ashley Bickerton “Ornamental Hysteria”
Ashley Bickerton was born in Barbados in 1959. He graduated from California Institute of the Arts in 1982 and later on moved to NYC to continue his education in the Independent Studies Program at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. He made a prominent name for himself, helped shape the early 1980s New York’s East Village art scene, and was one of the original members of a group of artists known as “Neo-Geo”. After twelve years in NYC, Mr. Bickerton traded the city life for Bali and had stayed there ever since. He has continued his practice on the island, a practice that is a mixture of photography, painting and sculpture, and now his 30-year-old oeuvre is getting a solo exhibition at Newport Street Gallery, a gallery owned by Bickerton’s dear friend and loyal collector, Damien Hirst.
We sat down with Mr. Bickerton prior his “Ornamental Hysteria” opening for an extensive interview and a comprehensive look into this brilliant artists mind.
Mr. Bickerton, let’s begin at the beginning, what were you like as a child?
My mother says I have changed the least of her three children. That in fact, I am almost exactly the same now as I was then. Quite shy unless hydrated, and fluctuating between some deep abstract, faraway space and a bemused, even excited loquaciousness.
You were born in Barbados, studied in California then moved to NY, and I heard you once said something like, “I didn’t move to NYC to move to Williamsburg. As soon as that started to happen, I was like, I’m out” and so Bali happened. How come all these years later you are still (t)here? What made you want to stay in Bali?
I am a tropical creature in every molecule of my being. The twelve years I spent in New York City made me as an artist, and that time still carries and colors me into the present, but physically it is not an environment that I, as a biological entity, can flourish in. I left New York when things got dark, a divorce, my career circling the drain, I really did not fancy becoming one of those desperate ghosts that haunt the Thursday night opening circuit. I had other things that needed to be done, things that had to be done far away, and that seemed as good a time as any. When I moved here to Bali, almost a quarter of a century ago, it was a very different place indeed. There was no internet, in fact, no real communication at all, it was almost total isolation. If one stuck a pin through an orange at the point of my old studio in Brooklyn, it would come out on the other side in the Indian Ocean just south of my current studio. I don’t believe that was an accident that I picked the single most distant point on the globe. But as I said, Bali has changed a lot, most not for the better. I have thought to move many times, but children get made along the way and tie you to a local. And besides, the art world now is a completely different place, with the internet and the booming of Asia as an art hub and Indonesia becoming a central player in that mix, in a sense, the art world has come to me.
Didn’t you ever fear that with the move and being so far and so isolated from ‘the’ scene, everyone would forget about you?
I was strangled by the packaging that lazy art journalism had left me in. Once a convenient set of labels and context have been hoisted on you, they have you, and they move on. I have in a sense spent the last quarter of a century trying to rebuild myself according to my own design, a design that is able to speak in whatever ways it desires. The funny thing was that I had actually been offered a full-time position teaching at Harvard. My parents, both professors, strongly urged me to accept. I was weighing the gamble of throwing myself into the unknown or a staid and genteel position in the icy North East. It was not a hard decision. I have always been a bit reckless, and I really only ever wanted to be an artist, to see where it would take me, or flame out along the way, slamming into a brick wall at 150kph. There really was no choice. I figured the life I was heading for could be lived on a shoestring, and the sale of the odd drawing might be enough to cover that.
Albino Shark (2008) © Ashley Bickerton
Orange Shark (2008) ©Ashley Bickerton
Canoe, Shark, Woman (2016) © Ashley Bickerton, courtesy Gajah Gallery
The Big Screwed-Up Cycle of Wood, Shit, and Human Tinkering #2 (1990) © Ashley Bickerton, Photo Prudence Cuming Assosciates
Tormented Self-Portrait – Susie at Arles (25 Years), (2014) © Ashley Bickerton, Photo Tom Powel Imaging
Gray, band formed by Basquiat and Michael Holman, dedicated you a song called, “The Mysterious Ashley Bickerton” where what we hear as an intro is a phone call/interview in which you participate, I assume you do? Is that your voice and how did the song come about?
That is indeed my voice, and it was recorded right off the telephone. It was a great project actually, with visual artists being paired in collaboration with musicians to see what they could come up with together. Mostly a British project, the roster of both artists and musicians was impressive. Michael Holman, who founded the band with Jean-Michel, and I developed the idea in a series of telephone conversations. It was really the only thing we could do at that great remove, and I thank him deeply for being the original inspiration and prime mover.
Damien Hirst is one of your biggest collectors. I’ve listened to one interview of yours from 2015, where you talk about how he is opening his new museum and how back in the days you two traded some pieces of work. What was your first trade with him, and how long was this show in the making, as now you are showing at the gallery you were talking about back then – Newport Street Gallery?
The first trade is somewhat lost in the mists of time and the blizzard of inebriants we lived in then. And since then there has been an elaborate tangle of trades where some are complete, and others have long been agreed upon but years later have not yet physically happened. The first tangible trade is a funny one. Back then as hungry young artists in our twenties, we were moving forward at a dizzying pace. Often piles of work would remain uncompleted, or even merely unassembled because it was already dated before you could finish it and there was enormous pressure to move onto the new. With that sort of demand and weight, you just abandoned things in piles mid-flight like so much unwanted military hardware. One drunken night of revelry in my Williamsburg studio, Damien quizzed me about some of those piles in corners of the studio, I told them they were nothing of interest. He offered to trade for them all, and I could finish them at some unspecified time in the future. Well, I had completely forgotten about that episode until this Newport Street show popped up. He emailed me asking if I would now like to finish them for the show, saying that he would ship them all to Bali for completion. It turned out to be a very critical juncture, for when the pieces arrived, work that I had spent a quarter of a century running away from, I realized I was hardly finished with at all, and that indeed there was much more to say. This also serendipitously came at a moment that at 57 years of age, I had been seriously thinking it was time to draw my bifurcated career into a full circle. I was suddenly hungry to find the overarching essence of what makes a Bickerton work a Bickerton work, in what can often appear to be a somewhat schizophrenic and breathless trajectory.
In that interview you also talk about how plants grow differently in different soles and environments. How does that apply to you and how different are you today from your younger (NYC) self?
That is a very big factor. When those artworks I just described arrived in Bali, I quickly found out how difficult it was to produce that kind of work here. The work I have made in Bali grows organically from that context. It could no more take root and flourish in New York City than could a coconut tree in the Central park. Conversely, the work I made in New York was almost impossible to construct on a hot tropical island where nary a true 90 degree angle nor any advanced power tool exists. In the larger picture, I am not sure that I have changed much, other than the temperance and perspective that comes with time. I am still a romantic fool hopelessly chasing phantoms down beckoning rabbit holes everywhere. And I am still hard wired for vice, although it must now be rigorously kept at bay and in check with disciplined regimes of abstinence and macrobiotic living. I am also still hopelessly dependent on my mental stability on my partners, and the big difference is that I have been enormously lucky in that sphere and now find myself in a very symbiotically supportive marriage where for the first time my spouse does not consider my work a competitive lover. It is a vast relief to finally find myself in a sane and stable enough place to fully appreciate the things that seem to be happening in my career now.
Is your work a reflection of your inner world and your imagination? To be more frank, is your work a manifestation of your dreams?
I don’t dream in my sleep. And if I ever do, it’s usually not much fun. I am my happiest as an artist when I am ‘day dreaming’ up new work, though. Never having been one of those in love the physical making of things, and finishing an artwork is often just a box to tick, it’s in the dreaming of unmade pieces that sit in those blank spots on the map of the known that is the closest to perfection that an artwork can come. Then again, finished objects can mark and color the chapters of your life as surely as a Bob Dylan or Nina Simone song can trigger memories of past joys. I don’t really know where ideas come from, it’s always preferable as an artist to dance in a crepuscular half-light, then methodically proceeding with systematic purpose under the bright kliegs of the laboratory.
Hitchcock once stated that the execution of an idea is boring, saying the only real exciting part is the idea itself. I assume on what you just said, you are on the same wagon?
Yes, as I said, but there is still one aspect I would like to clarify. I actually love the dirty making of things, as long as it is new and experimental. As soon as it becomes shtick, a repeated action to attain a slightly varied result, I completely loose interest. It just seems you are making a product. One huge lesson for me came as a young artist showing at the fabled Sonnabend Gallery. On the floor below was her ex-husband Leo Castelli’s gallery, and the two remained very close till the end. This proximity gave me an unparalleled view of literally some of the greatest artists of the 20th century. The case of Lichtenstein was a real lesson. He was hard working and earnest fellow who remained enormously prolific all his life. The thing was that his production was so great and relentless that even with the multiple variations of clever ideas, there seemed an utter emptiness to it all. I was not surprised to later find out he would punch into his studio each day at 9:00 am sharp, and stay busy until the end of the work day at 5:00 pm. It made me really appreciate the eccentricity of other artists who were shackled to far more unpredictable caprices.
Red Scooter (2009) © Ashley Bickerton, courtesy Lehmann Maupin Gallery
The Alley (2009) © Ashley Bickerton, courtesy Lehmann Maupin Gallery
When I asked a friend, who is an acquaintance of yours from Bali, on what to ask besides art and what is something you are passionate about, she said, “Ask him about politics.” So Mr. Bickerton, how do you feel about the world situation ‚today‘?
I am done with it. It is an ugliness and ignorance of such enormity, it could well be a generation or more before we can right the ship again and see all the waste and damage undone. If we are lucky. Upon hearing the election result, I did, however, post online that it might actually be a good time for heartfelt protest music to make a genuine comeback. After all, the sanity and balance of the Obama years did produce the Kardashians, and I had my most seminal and formational years under Reagan. My wife and I have long been talking about a potential move to Los Angeles, but now under this new climate, and she as a brown skinned woman from some alien shore, America appears a very different place indeed.
Do you think we live in a hyper-normalized world?
Well, in one respect there is certainly a leveling and homogenization going on on a grand scale. When I started surfing in Hawaii in the early 70’s, there was a distinctly Hawai’ian style I could spot it several hundred meters down a beach. Conversely, there were Californian and Brazilian styles. But now in this hyper speeded up world of simultaneous universal access, with videos pumped out by corporate sponsors, the distinctive body language of a Hawai’ian surfer does not look much different to one say from Japan or Ireland. I think this leveling of regional vernacular is in full effect today, but thankfully we will never quite eradicate all variety. Art coming out of Yogyakarta is inherently different to the art being produced on the other side of Java in Bandung. A lot of new Korean art has a very distinct feel to it, as of course does that from Japan. It will be interesting to see which was the pendulum moves on this one.
Do you feel safe in Bali?
I often laugh when a travel advisory is issued and you get all these concerned calls from around the world. I actually feel a heck of a lot safer here than many other places in the world. The problem here is feeling too safe from the world of ideas and the larger flow of cultural nutrients that circulate in the sprawling currents that endlessly circulate the globe.
People often say there is certain magic about Indonesia, would you agree and where do you find that magic?
I am actually legally Hindu in Indonesia. It is illegal not to have a religion here. My wife is a Balinese Hindu, a variant of the form that takes liberally from both Buddhism as well as animism. I quite enjoy this status and often cynically proclaim, “It’s a great religion for an atheist!” But yes it is. If religion can be divided into five main spheres; the cultural, the social, the ritual, the spiritual, and the supernatural, I’m good for four of those. It’s fun to get all decked up in flowers and sarongs and head to Uluwatu temple that towers on a cliff over the crashing surf below. There lots of complicated ablutions and incantations with holy water, bells and flower petals, and from a meditational perspective it can be enormously soul nourishing, particularly for one that formed his psychic self and came of age in the bars and on the mean streets of New York’s Lower East Side. In the larger sense, it gets harder and harder to find the Bali I came here for. It still exists but in more and more remote and isolated patches. Most of the island is now buried under the weight of almost uninterrupted concrete and asphalt, and choking in a traffic nightmare so stultifying it often boggles credulity. But, as they say, it is still there for those who look, and furthermore, Bali is a great launching pad to the over 17,000 islands that make up this remarkable archipelago.
What is something you enjoy doing, besides surfing?
More than anything, I love to think. Thinking can be idling or work, and at the service of either, it is a pleasure. I really only am doing one of those three things, working, surfing or idling. But both, idling and work, often involve research, which is reflexive and can be very edifying, so there is overlap. I also sometimes really enjoy getting on a plane and going somewhere, but as often as not, the very idea of geographic movement is torture.
When are you most at ease?
In isolation. At home behind my high walls, and amid all the greenery overlooking the Indian Ocean with a smooth cool Trade Wind running. I have heard here in Bali I am considered a bit of a ghost. I also take great succor in the warm physical presence of my wife. She also is a recluse, and we share that isolation happily.
Could you say you are at peace with yourself?
Getting there. It certainly was not always the case.
If you could pick one song that would serve as a soundtrack to your life, which would that be?
That would be an inordinately difficult selection as my life has had such sharp directional changes, as well as so many varied chapters. Choosing an Album might be easier. If that were to be the case, it would be one by Shane McGowan of the Pogues. That would cover all the poetic yearning, the demons, the vices, and the failure always breathing down one’s neck, and the “fuck you” punk attitude contradictorily built on a solid core of scholarship and intellectual curiosity. Yup, that might work.
Wall-Wall Triptych with Text (Atolls everywhere) (2017) © Ashley Bickerton, photo Tom Powel Imaging
Wall-Wall SiaS 3 (HOME) (2017) © Ashley Bickerton, photo Tom Powel Imaging
Smiling Woman (2009) © Ashley Bickerton
Ashley Bickerton, “Ornamental Hysteria” is on view at the Newport Street Gallery, London, from 21st of April, 2017, onwards.
Text: Katja Horvat
Photos: Courtesy of the artist and the gallery
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