Visions Apocalyptique

Hard work equals hard play for Ashley Bickerton.

Light / Dark

“This piece (above) was done at one of the darkest moments,” said Ashley Bickerton, “when the dreams of escape were most ferocious. It was made in ’93, the year I made my escape to Bahia, Brazil before ultimately ending up in Bali. At this nadir, my career was in the toilet, my marriage in tatters, and my financial prospects bleak. I dreamed of Ash’s Atoll. Although located at the center of a universe defined by chaos and loss and dipsomaniacal madness, Ash’s Atoll remained the still center…” Bali is where Ashley remains, for now, sequestered in a charcoal-colored compound on the Bukit peninsula. Here he keeps a weather eye on his beloved Padang Padang, oversees offspring and staff, and creates accomplished and narrative work coveted the world over by collectors, institutions, and fans. This feature from TSJ 15.5 works as a micro-catalog,* and my primary urge when revisiting it is to quickly begin arranging what this should have been—a 70-page, issue-dominating investigation of the one of the most intriguing surfing lives you could hope to find. Hmm… —Scott Hulet

Ashley Bickerton rides waves as well as he paints. His work hangs on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art, the Tate, the Whitney, and in the private collections of Saatchi and Broad. His surfing is done on the walls found peeling off the Bukit Peninsula. His Balinese studio shares space with 20 surfboards, the six he uses in heavy rotation prepped and poised. All rounded pintails, some are blank canvases, others marked with art from the world that surrounds him—the ancient culture of Indonesia.

He still paddles out when others hitch a quicker ride with their jet-ski friends. He says that paddling is the only way that feels right. Bickerton enjoys the whims of his favorite wave, Padang Padang, recalling a recent surf there when a “guaranteed” swell proved inconsistent. He stayed out as others wrote it off. Cheyne Horan paddled out and it was just the two of them. As if by command, the lines came pounding in. Tube after tube, every attempt successful, every barrel a dream with spit that hurled you out to start again—mine, then yours, mine, then yours. Affirmation.

Ashley’s dealer and longtime friend, Ileana Sonnabend, is a Romanian heiress who moved to New York City with her then husband, the late Leo Castelli. Castelli brought global attention to the American artists of the 1960s, including Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol, thereby making New York the center of the art world. When she and Castelli parted ways, Ileana brought all of the Pop artists to Europe for the first time. On the continent, she is still known as the “Mom of Pop.” For over 40 years, she has insightfully recognized the needs of the artist, embracing their visions no matter the degree of controversy. Ashley has shown with her since the 80s.

Bickerton was born in 1959 in Barbados to British parents. Their research studies took the family to exotic island nations across four continents. Ashley’s father is the foremost anthropological linguist of pidgin and Creole. The family moved to a new location every two years. The exchange of cultures clearly influenced the framework of Ashley’s art.

Bickerton’s work doesn’t just wag a finger or propose reform. It offers an end-of-the worldview, beyond solution, beyond revision, blissed out on the terrible wonder of it all.”

Holland Cotter, The New York Times

Soon enough, surfing played a role. At Brighton Beach on the English Channel, young Ashley saw two hippies hauling a surfboard on their microbus. They promised him that he could take the board for a ride. It never happened. Something about that promise stuck with him. At 12, the family left Britain for Hawaii. When they arrived, Ashley and his brother surfed all day. They spent the next three days in bed with third-degree sunburn.

Ashley knew he wanted to be an artist, but his first love was surfing. He eventually earned a place in the Pipeline Underground with the likes of Chris Lundy, Bruce Hansel, and Brian Bulkley. The youngest of that loosely knit group, he was just 17. He took a few classes at the University of Hawaii and lived on the North Shore, supplementing his income with food stamps and by airbrushing the rainbows on Shaun Tomson’s surfboards.

Not long after suffering a blown eardrum, courtesy of the shorebreak at Sandy Beach, Bickerton was accepted into the California Institute of the Arts. He learned the most from the visiting artists who, free from the political games of academia, lived true artists’ lives. Like any surfer, he read the world like a lineup. He moved to New York, working in artist Jack Goldstein’s studio, actually painting most of Goldstein’s work.

His first group show to register with any significance on the international radar was at Sonnabend Gallery, with Jeff Koons, Peter Halley, and Mayer Vaisman. Influenced by French postmodern theorist Jean Baudrillard, this unifying art movement was termed Neo-Geo. Neo-Geometric Conceptualism pursued Baudrillard’s critique of consumer society, examining everyday conspicuous consumption—advertising, packaging, and the alienation to which that leads. Prestige and status are expressed through purchased luxury goods with logos defining self and conveying a new language. Bickerton’s abstract, extremely well constructed work was clearly evident in his Self-Portraits or Anthropospheres—survival capsules holding soil samples and seeds, ostensibly to be set adrift in time of apocalyptic distress.

In 1991, the New York art market collapsed. Bickerton’s 12 years in New York had brought inspiration, fame, and experience, but it was clearly time to migrate. Removing all unnecessary physical trappings, he withdrew from the New York art world. He amicably parted ways with his wife, art photographer Jessica Craig-Martin, and moved to Bahia, Brazil. He fathered a son—Django—with a beautiful Bahiana mullata. Life there proved impossible due to art world logistics, a lack of surf, and the issue of his gal’s powerful and not-so-ex-boyfriend. He moved to Bali, where he resides today. He is now married to wife number three, Renjani Damais, a quarter-French native of Java. They have a six-month-old son, Kamehele, which means “traveler” in Hawaiian. Life is a blend of family, surfing, and making art.

Surfing and the life oceanic also enter the picture. Through such works as “Flight from Borneo to Sulawesi” one can see the influence of the hours spent in and above the water—the arresting elegance and quietude.

For reasons perhaps known only to the artist, his superrealist paintings often focus on matters of superficiality and body consciousness. A 1996 Mia Fineman review said, “Bickerton focuses unflinchingly on the point at which the perfumed, domesticated, sanitized cultural body meets the pissing, hitting, stinking natural body. Bickerton’s perverse menagerie of civilization’s discontents includes grimacing newborn babies subjected to glamour makeovers, amorous lesbian chimps decked out in Sunday bonnets, a post-surgical military officer buggering a Botero-like nude, a female monkey wearing obscenely phallic pink slippers and nursing a human baby as a greyhound humps her leg.”

Surfing and the life oceanic also enter the picture. Through such works as “Flight from Borneo to Sulawesi” one can see the influence of the hours spent in and above the water—the arresting elegance and quietude. The surfer’s eye is evident in nearly all of his work—the concern for the natural world clearly visible in choice of materials, his stinging sense of humor, and the painful representation of man’s disregard for the environment.

Bickerton’s paean to a legendary South Seas ne’er-do-well, “Where’s Jack Blaylock,” hits on all cylinders. The crisply rendered subject basks in a golden halo, the title interrogative paired with laughter along the work’s border. Lines of biographical commentary—Frightened of the white woman, Solitary nutcase, Surfer, Hellbent, Viagra jacked, money no object, ruts through the oceans of tawny flesh, Barbie Collector—drift across the composition with his cigarette smoke. The mixed-media frame is festooned with flotsam, including driftwood, flip-flops, and an old Churchill fin. The end result is cinematic, yet heavy on the craft. And if, like so much of his work, the painting scans eerily dark and apocalyptic, Ashley floats an optimistic—if droll—coda: “I guess there will always be a wave to glide upon unmolested, just as there will always be a meaningful mark to be made on a surface where once there was none.”

* Pick up a copy of TSJ 15.5, or scroll through the images at the top of the page to see more of Bickerton’s work. Artwork titles (in order above): ASH’S ATOLL, 1993, 56″ x 48″ x 5″ Fiberglass, architectural model trees, enamel and resin on etched aluminum. THE EXPATS, 2004, 60″ x 96″ x 7″ Photo collage and polymer on wood. EXTRADITION WITH COMPUTER, 2006, 36″ x 44″ Digital C-Print. WHERE’S JACK BLAYLOCK, 2001, Various flotsam and marine detritus, acrylic, leather thongs, photo-collage, Viagra, and condoms on wood.