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 In the real-life fiction that eventually superseded other narrative dimensions in his work, Bickerton produced a final New York show in 1993 before he found his way to Indonesia.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.
It's that mythical island chain that serves as the setting for his recent portraits. Rosie and the General, Joan, and all the other misfits who represent the decadence of late-20th-century Western culture, are not only prime examples of Bickerton's skill as a social satirist but reflect his abiding interest "in utilizing the process of corruption as a poetic form, as a platform or launching pad for poetic discourse itself." In the "Indonesian paintings," poeticism and truth (and their elusiveness) are the products of a sci-fi Robert Smithson reclamation site, pocked with evolutionary glitches and yawning entropies, where no leap forward from apes to man marks the topography. The hominoid "Pog" and "Bih," portrayed in separate works (1994 and 1996 respectively), are primitive in comparison to the well-dressed chimps. Pog crouches low and takes a shit, eyes crossed, tongue sticking out, holding a seedling aloft. Bih, his female counterpart, hunkers down to feast on a tattooed human arm. Each is nature to our culture: for them there was never even a Fall. Instead, what Freud would call the fateful process of civilization is carried on by the monkey clan. It is they who walk upright and communicate with signs and symbols. Shaggy and snarling Ngho, prancing in her Fiorrucci-like "penis clogs," takes the prize for most incomprehensible missing link. Fashionably suburban, she cradles "Buster," a human infant, while pet "Phydaux" humps her leg. A walking contradiction, she's a marriage of artifice and instinct.
Bickerton delights in genetic errors, in systems that have gone dynamically awry, while keeping an eye on degeneration as an evolutionary process. In his detached style of portraiture, the commonplace serves as a vehicle for a Swiftian kind of satire; he takes immense care to animate objective description with damning detail that speaks for itself. Often, the target turns out to be himself, as is amply illustrated in three idiosyncratic "self-portraits" (all 1996). The first depicts "Bickski," a fat-assed disgusting biker, covered with tattoos, including a gothic-lettered "pride" across his bulging gut. Next comes "A.B." Primed by hair plugs, steroids, porcelain caps, and color contacts, he looks like he walked straight off the set of Baywatch. "Ashleigh" opts for a streamlined "he/she" look and has hideously transformed himself with silicone, collagen, and hormones.
The question of where "we" are - when all the focus is on the "meat cage" and synthetically manufactured identities - has intrigued Bickerton for years. Have we become artificial people? These questions represent no idle posturing on Bickerton's part. With the "Indonesian paintings," he emerges as a poet-philosopher for the '90s, his millennial allegories sketching a "techno-primitive" future just around the corner, and extending his long-standing inquiry into the nature of contemporary experience and the flux of human desire. In a manner of speaking it all comes down to keeping the pleasure boat afloat.
Jan Avgikos is a contributing editor for Artforum.
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|Title Annotation:||art exhibit at the Sonnabend Gallery in New York City|
|Date:||Oct 1, 1996|
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