What they wrestle with, those creative aliens and expats who stay on the move throughout their lives (there are not many, and I sometimes think I’m one of them), is what to do with the blaze and tang of all that buffeting? Bending ever onward, as residents and as visitors, they travel from culture to culture, island to island, cityscape to blue lagoon, semi-paradise to jungle clearing, from one preposterous belief system to another, always teetering just outside it. The challenge of their quest, and their entanglement, is how to represent this profusion of images and beliefs – and more than that, the mass of tactile sensations and smells, the barflies and beauties, the world as wreckage.
This is a way of explaining what I take to be the position of Ashley Bickerton, his dilemma and his imaginative solution. He was born in Barbados, and raised and educated in Ghana, Guyana, England, Hawaii, the Balearic Islands and California. He lived and made his art in New York City for 12 years, then in Bali for 24 years, with side trips as surfer, beachcomber, artist in Mexico, and throughout the Happy Isles of Oceania. He is in constant opposition to the tradition of the romantic idealist twinkling with preconceptions, who despairs, or fakes his work, or hurries his disenchantment home. The resolute artist stays, and makes something of his or her clear-sightedness, usually a thing unexpected, or shocking, but true – since the only vision worth pursuing is a disturbing vision.
Attempting a summing up of Bickerton’s vast and subversive body of work is pointlessly reductive, though certain aspects are obvious. You could say, for example, that the hard edges of the wall pieces he calls landscapes give them an aura of power, but meditate on them a little and you begin to see their ambiguity and their human dimension. That when there are breasts or buttocks in a Bickerton, they are singularly lovely – and they might not be female, because he is one of the greatest debunkers of exoticism.
“This play on cultural artifice,” he says, “is the thread that runs through my work from the beginning.” His confidence is unmistakable. In the trajectory of his career, he evinces a growing sense of outrage. This rage – the anger of time – is sharpened by his wicked sense of humour. His preoccupation with flotsam seems to connect with the growing reality, in many of his pieces, of a blighted planet.
So much of the alien’s life seems fictional, as though in a highly coloured landscape you inhabit a drama you don’t wholly understand. One of the phenomena in the life of any expat is a sort of magnification of daily life – larger, louder, more physical, distorted, always verging on the surreal; and for a surfer the sharks are actual. It is not in documentary but in fiction, or a vivid artefact, that such experience is best expressed. Bickerton is in many respects a man without a country, and his immersion and detachment in a succession of cultures has resulted in his delight (because he is above all an enthusiast) in being both participant and observer. In a costumed conceit, as a fictional version of an alien in an island setting, he poses as the Blue Man – frenzied (and framed) in The Alley and the irrationally overloaded driver in Red Scooter.
“[The Blue Man] is a perhaps comic manifestation of the classic 20th‑century antihero, complete with romantic Picasso sailor shirt,” Bickerton says. “I see him as the rather cliched male antihero escaped from 20th-century literature, and suddenly now adrift with all his presumptions in a strange 21st-century fictive paradise.” Using this fictional persona, he parodies and deflates island life (a reminder that the precise meaning of isolated is the condition of being on an island). In black and white he poses as the ecstatic pineapple chief, the farang fantasy, with naked celebrants, in Extradition with Fruit, the Gauguinesque satire Extradition with Palette, and Extradition with Computer. More menacingly he is the sinuous, extruded and haunting 5 Snake Heads.
Earlier in his career, when he was under the spell of language and logos, he recreated himself more subtly and disembodied in the confrontational piece Tormented Self-Portrait (Susie at Arles) composed entirely of logos that have a personal meaning, as politics, daily life, obsession and distraction. Bickerton reminds us that we live with and are dominated by logos – it is yet another link we share with the tribal societies he references where power symbols matter. His stencils and stickers convey a moral dimension, which he expresses in Good/Bad – “Bad” indicating guns, sharks, snakes, rats, scorpions, bombs, disease, poison; and “Good” indicating dolphins, palms, swimming, no smoking; the stark ethos of logos.
If I were pressed to find a telling phrase for his work – and I suppose an occasion such as this exhibition at London’s Newport Street Gallery is provocation enough – I would call it parodic iconography. There is a subtle and often insistent beckoning in much of it, in his portraits especially, a mood that approaches the liturgical. “Rothko!” he said to me once and as praise he added: “It’s like going to a temple.”
I feel the same about much of his work. His “Silver Girls” portraits feature the glittering celestial nymphs Buddhists and Hindus know as apsaras, female “spirits of the clouds and waters” and dancers “typically the consort of a celestial musician”. With these pairs of silver girls, I would include Smiling Woman, which reaches an apotheosis in Canoe, Shark, Woman. This last piece has the look of the ritual artefact of Bickerton’s tropical island obsession, creating a power object or fetish (as islanders do) with found objects (fish, flowers, beads) that is the more hypnotic for its solemn parody – silver vestal offering a hammerhead shark, coconuts in her Indonesian canoe.
“In ‘Silver Girls’ the ethnicity is mixed,” he told me. “Dreadlocks, sarongs, ukulele, flowers. It’s dangerous, racist, sexist – so it’s all the more tempting.” And “Who says they are women?” he often responds. Gender is often blurred in his work. Some of his “girls” are decorated boys. But you can’t help feeling in light of his use of boys and transgender nymphs that he is creating an image of the outsider or alien that has informed his existence his whole travelling life. The conspicuousness of being different is also the paradox of being odd, and special, and vulnerable at the same time – as most people feel on Earth. In this regard, Bickerton is the connoisseur of not belonging.
“Even though I’m a white male I’ve chosen to be the Other,” he says. “And I know what it’s like. My brother and I were called ‘moonfaces’ in Cape Coast, Ghana. And my US experience is the same – we were ‘haoles’ in Hawaii – in the minority.” Haole in Hawaiian, a more profound word than “white person”, means “of another breath”.
The subversion in Silver Girls and the Blue Man and other portraits of alienation lies in their intrinsic beauty: the most sensual female forms capture the eye, a superficial shimmering lushness forces you to study them, and only then do you see the detail, usually discordant, as in Portrait “K.T._KT”, the Bickerton dishevelled nymph, adorned with shells, butterflies, lemons, beads – a decadent vestal who seems to have arisen from a blighted paradise. It is as though through these portraits Bickerton is reproducing the disenchantment the alien feels after long exposure to a much-hyped culture, the naked truth behind the orchidaceous exterior. “When I moved to Bali I was determined not to be one of those artists who paint old women with offerings and fruit,” he told me. “I shut off Bali – but Bali had seeped in, through the cracks.”
Those bosomy gleaming women in other portraits cradling children (and sometimes piglets) can stand for Bickerton madonnas. And now and then, as in A God, there is an eight-armed goddess of the sort Bickerton would have seen many times in Hindu Bali, but in this case instead of holding the usual attributes of elixir and lotuses, the Bickerton goddess holds credit cards, cellphones, money, remote switches, booze, keys. “It’s about access,” he says – but then much of religious faith is about gaining access to the voluptuous existence on the eternal accommodating hammock of an afterlife.
The shark cruising just below the surface of the ocean is as much a threat to the surfer as the possibility of being buried by a toppling wave – perhaps more so. But as a sometime resident of Hawaii, Bickerton is well aware of the aura of a shark in the islands, that in Hawaiian culture it is regarded as an “aumakua”, the embodiment of a god as well as an ancestor. And Bickerton propitiates and removes the threat by adorning them, much as the Hawaiians do at a heiau (shrine or sacred site). When I mentioned to him that I had seen just such a shark heiau in Waimea Valley on Oahu, he said, “And as for the heiau shark, that’s exactly the spirit mine were done in, sort of hijacking mana, both talismanic as well as primal.”
His shark sculptures could be described in the same way (“mana” is spiritual power that resides in certain select fetish objects): Blue Shark – captive, adorned, tangled; Orange Shark and Albino Shark, wrapped and carrying attributes; Bismarck Archipelago Shark, with significantly dated coconuts. Bickerton has made them his own, transformed them, invested them with his own mana.
The rock pieces relate to the sharks as natural objects transformed. In these works over the years Bickerton has pursued an inlaid patterning arrangement of flat multisided stones, and the moods of these works have altered markedly with time. Wall-Wall #8 (The Cool Damp Subterranean) is a New York piece, industrial and chilly. But the vivid colors of Wall-Wall Triptych With Text (Atolls Everywhere) is informed by Bali; Wall-Wall SiaS 3 (HOME) is also warmer and expressive; as is Wall-Wall SiaS 1 (HOME).
Though Bickerton is a superb surfer, he disparages the surfing life in this way: “Massive overcrowding, tribal territorialism, and even surf rage are the dark underbelly of a lifestyle gospel dehydrated and packaged to ensnare even a Singapore mall rat.” Yet he admits “it’s my heroin”, and there is no better metaphor for his chosen mode of being, his slipping so gracefully through the world. What is remarkable is that he did not encounter surfing, as most do, in the heavy water of California or the North Shore of Hawaii, but rather (as his father tells us) in Ghana: “He saw surfing for the first time in Biriwa, guys coming in on the shore break, belly down on boards that looked like, and maybe were, just big planks.” Biriwa is near Cape Coast, 80 miles from Accra, where Derek Bickerton was teaching English in 1965.
If there is a key to Ashley’s temperament, it is his father. “My dad’s an evolutionary linguist,” he says, but impressive as that description is it does not begin to describe the life of this maverick academic and well-travelled scholar, who wrote, “It was taken for granted that everyone in the family would excel at something, sooner or later, if they were just allowed to work out their destiny. But even if they hadn’t, it wouldn’t have mattered, the family was like a rowboat in the turbulent seas of the world, it was all for one and one for all.” And he adds, “If nothing else, [Ashley] inherited my capacity for self-reinvention.”
That’s another way of saying that in staying on the move he has to discover new ways for expressing what he has found, and in so doing he has developed an enormous visual vocabulary. Of his command of many forms, he has said (at least to me), “Painting is too cartoony, photography too clinical, sculpture too presumptuous. But a mixture of all three seems about right. And it’s only in the interchange between the three that I find my true comfort zone.”
This is an edited extract from the catalogue to Ashley Bickerton: Ornamental Hysteria, on show at the Newport Street Gallery, London, from 21 April.