Magazine article Artforum International

Ashley Bickerton

Magazine article Artforum International

Ashley Bickerton

Article excerpt

In a kind of twisted echo of Gilligan's Island, the '70s sitcom chronicling the misadventures of seven lost souls shipwrecked on a desert isle, Ashley Bickerton's latest paintings chart the misfortunes of a truly dysfunctional group of castaways set against an exotic backdrop inspired by the Indonesian terrain where he has lived and worked for the last three years. If Gilligan and his cohorts held tight to the trappings of civilization, inventing contraptions to ease their makeshift life and rarely mixing with the natives, Bickerton's motley crew pass their days and nights not far out of step with the Stone Age people and sophisticated monkeys with whom they share their fantasy tropical isle. In Bickerton's version of paradise regained, the laws of nature and those of culture are tied together to much more sinister effect.

Among the stranded "survivors," there's the dispassionately coupled "Rosie and the General." Stitched up, bedridden, hooked to life support, the General's a frightening but still commanding specimen, wearing nothing but the top half of his medal-bedecked uniform, as he rides a train to glory straight up young Rosie's butt. Spread-eagled, she, like a great, beached manatee, is a prisoner to the flesh radiating in creamy, mammalian abundance from her pretty little face. "Joan" is a Park Avenue hostess cure nature lover - bejeweled and platinum coiled, deeply tanned and thin. Wearing nothing but a fashionable cause (her T-shirt reads "Free Tibet"), and a slip of mud on her feet, she's already gone native, squatting elegantly for a pee. "Penelope Aurora Prudence" seems, in the eponymous painting, to have been whisked, screaming bloody murder, within minutes of her birth, to a make-over. Fetal but smothered in gruesome feminine accoutrements, she's all big hair, gaudy pearls, and cosmetic overkill. What a perfect little clone she'll be, a grown-up from the start with no childhood memories.

If Bickerton's turn to figurative painting seems perplexing, it's really only a matter of a shift in style. In substance, these works are part of a continuing narrative, developed over the course of a decade, that features exotic landscapes, escape fantasies, and romantic personifications of the artist as a modern-day Gauguin in search of his Tahiti. In the mid '80s, references to "paradise regained" comprised one of the many surface stories animating his logo-encrusted "commodity art." Outfitted with enough gear to survive any doomsday disaster, Bickerton's high-tech boxes acknowledged their complicity in the very machinery of the post-Modern culture they critiqued. Over the years, his "paintings," as Bickerton terms all his work, were increasingly infused with an obsessive "escape from New York" fantasy, buoyed by soft, lush images of untrammeled nature. In the real-life fiction that eventually superseded other narrative dimensions in his work, Bickerton produced a final New York show in 1993 before he found his way to Indonesia. Perhaps the key to the new work lies in his 1993 maplike paintings of remote island chains with names like "Ash's Atoll," "Suicide Shoal," and "Final Peace Island" that dwell on notions of redemption and resurrection. …

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