Burned Out on Bali: An Apocalyptic Conversation With Ashley Bickerton

Ashley Bickerton
(Courtesy Lehmann Maupin)

Near the opening of Noa Noa, Paul Gauguin’s journal from his travels in Tahiti, the artist describes an encounter with the Tahitian governor, “the negro Lacascade, who received me as though I had been an important personage.” The French government had sent Gauguin to the island on “an artistic mission,” but the governor and his entourage, Gauguin writes, believed this “was only an official synonym for espionage.” Of the island, he continues:

“It was Europe—the Europe I had thought to shake off—and that under the aggravating circumstances of colonial snobbism, and the imitation, grotesque even to the point of caricature, of our customs, fashions, vices and absurdities of civilization.

Was I to have made this far journey, only to find the very thing which I had fled?”

The artist Ashley Bickerton, for whom Gauguin is something of a perpetual elephant in the room, moved to Bali exactly 20 years ago to flee a different kind of colonial snobbism—the New York art world. The gallery boom of the 1980s had been kind to Mr. Bickerton, until it wasn’t. By his count, he is now on his third comeback. In August, about a month before his fourth solo show was set to open at Lehmann Maupin Gallery here, we talked on Skype from his home in the tropics, situated almost precisely halfway around the world from New York. I had just woken up, and he was preparing for bed.

“I remember when I first moved to New York,” he said. “I could walk up to a group of people at an opening, and they’d sort of half turn around to me and say, ‘Hi,’ and then turn away. Very cold. When my career suddenly picked up, I’d walk up to the same people, and they’d split wide open, and I’d say something utterly stupid, and they’d bend over laughing. It’s a town where people might be happy wearing their rank on their shoulder.”

His first big show had been at the Sonnabend Gallery in 1986, alongside Peter Halley, Meyer Vaisman and Jeff Koons. The work was dubbed “Neo-Geo,” which would soon become a vague conceptual school that doesn’t quite seem to aesthetically connect in retrospect, nor did it really at the time (a New York Times article from 1987 attempts to define “Art’s Newest Trend” but can only come up with, “The art does not really constitute a movement but a raid on movements of the past”). Unlike for Mr. Koons, who, buttonholed at a Fashion Week party for Dom Perignon last Tuesday—which seemed to put both artists in perspective—declined to comment for this article, Neo-Geo is a label that Mr. Bickerton has been trying to live down ever since. At the time, he was making meticulous paintings of brand logos, which he painstakingly fashioned by hand in order to make them look mass-produced. Now he calls them “parodies of Donald Judd,” the big daddy of minimalism. Mr. Bickerton’s brand paintings became markers of any decent American contemporary art collection, and one—Tormented Self Portrait, which Mr. Bickerton has tentative plans to revisit, as it turned 25 this year—landed in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

Mr. Bickerton was young and successful but grew tired of the riffraff—the openings, parties, dealers and fabricators. He went so far as to move to the Brazilian jungle to be alone. British by birth (he was born in Barbados), he grew up in the tropics (his father is renowned linguist Derek Bickerton, whose arguments with Noam Chomsky helped shape the study of pidgin languages), so the move was both natural and a little ridiculous: He had to drive two hours, take a ferry and drive some more to get a paint brush. Making a phone call was out of the question. His career stalled. Shortly after, he ended up in Bali, “the seed of what was about to explode as the new Asia,” he said. He built for himself a literal white box so that the world couldn’t get in and would paint for 18-hour stretches a day. Then he’d surf. It wasn’t exactly Heart of Darkness, but he was isolated and productive. He had his first comeback in 1996, when he no longer had much of a career and was mad about it. The show, “Back to the Wall,” included detailed and horrifying realist paintings, like a blond woman wearing a “Free Tibet” T-shirt, crouched like a gorilla and pissing while smoking a cigarette. Meanwhile, Mr. Bickerton had a front row seat to one of the most rapidly changing areas of the world.

“In the time I lived in Bali, the Earth’s population has increased by 1 billion people,” he said. “Bali was a fun, weird place, an outlier in the Asian archipelago, 17,000 islands, most of them Muslim. Now it is the Costa Brava—the Miami of a burgeoning superpower with an exploding middle class. So where do they go? It’s 7 million domestic tourists a year. Bus loads. And people moving here from all over Indonesia, all over everywhere. It’s been kind of fun to watch, but it is at the point of absolute ruination.”

Through my computer, I could hear the wind howling outside of Mr. Bickerton’s house. It was winter there, he said, or at least the closest to winter it would get.

A month later, I met with Mr. Bickerton in person at Lehmann Maupin on Chrystie Street. He is short and muscular, with tacky black swirls tattooed on his calves (he was wearing shorts) and the healthy glow that one invariably encounters in people who live outside of New York in temperate climates. The centerpieces of the show are two large sculptures—each of the head of a Medusa-like woman with bulging glass eyes, wearing a necklace of burned cigarettes and carrying an expression somewhere between fear and bliss. The bulging glass eye recurred in other pieces. They were plastered all over one canvas, and closer inspection revealed that the pupils of each were an image—a kind of tour through Mr. Bickerton’s influences. (“That’s Bruegel. That’s Bosch. That’s a postcard. That’s my own work. Warhol. Gauguin. Gauguin twice,” Mr. Bickerton said.)

Rachel Lehmann, the gallery’s co-founder, had plucked Mr. Bickerton—whose work she had collected for many years—away from Sonnabend around 2006, where he had languished after the death of Ileana Sonnabend, that gallery’s founder, an occasion which caused artists to “jettison like sparks from a roman candle,” in the words of Mr. Bickerton.

“The last show with Sonnabend, their idea of revitalizing my career was pulling out three works from storage,” he said. “It just smelled of death. I stayed too long.” (A request for comment from Sonnabend Gallery was not returned.) Ms. Lehmann told me about the first time she visited Mr. Bickerton at the new house he had built for himself in Bali, which was completed in 2009.

“I asked him, ‘How will I find it?” she said. “He said, ‘This is the name of the street; this is the name of the part of the city where you’ll find it.’” She was worried, but the house turned out to be “an Ashley Bickerton sculpture. There was no way you could miss it.”

Mr. Bickerton said he doesn’t consider this new show a comeback, but he is “pissed.” “I do my best work when I’m pissed,” he added. He’s in the middle of a nasty divorce, which had distracted him from his work, but he’s already remarried. (His young wife and his 16-year-old son were at the gallery the next day for the show’s opening; they all wore tropical clothing.) He’s decided he wants to “fight really hard,” but he still admits his work—and, as a result, his entire life—is in transition.

“I built a place near a quiet part of Bali that was near the surf, and it just so happens to become the new Riviera,” he said. “All the greed, all the hunger, all the prosperity and banality of new Asia has come to focus on Bali, on Southern Bali where I live. At first, I thought, this was perfect—I’ll sit in this despoiled paradise and watch the whole thing. Now it’s too much. And that’s one thing we’re going to do here. We’re going to figure out if we’ll move.” His son had never seen New York, the place where Mr. Bickerton got his start, where he found so much success that he had to run away from it.

He gestured at one of his paintings, which also straddled a line between photography and sculpture. It was of a woman whose face was made up of coral and bottle caps, with a startlingly human mouth that was wide open and the tongue—not quite forked but demonically pointed—sticking out. She had her hands clasped in prayer and in the background behind her were what appeared to be floating mitochondria. Earlier, Mr. Bickerton looked at the painting and said crudely that he thought of her as “at the moment of conception, getting hit in the egg.” Scrawled on the edge of the canvas were the words “The End of the World.”

“That’s what the work is really about,” he said, bringing his voice down to a whisper. “I don’t believe these have a history. I don’t believe there is a history. I don’t believe the Earth is going to hold us. So this is all just piss in the wind. I just don’t believe we’re all going to be around much longer. So that’s what all this is. These paintings are about that. The mitochondria, the genetic link to everything alive, and the end of the world, too. The gorgeousness of life in the blip that we’re here. That’s it.”

mmiller@observer.com Burned Out on Bali: An Apocalyptic Conversation With Ashley Bickerton