Ashley Bickerton’s Sad Anthropologists

Reprinted from C-Arts Magazine, July 2010.

“The purpose of poetry is to remind us how difficult it is to remain just one person.” —Czeslaw Milosz

Ashley Bickerton’s paintings are a form of combat between attachment and its opposite, a fusion of subject matter with distance between the parts. His mastery of tone—tone as defined by writers, not painters; that elusive internal, fluid, ambient quality in art that is shaped by the attitude of the artist towards his subject, or towards his audience, or towards himself and his way of painting, that nearly impossible-to-define tug of war—through a dialectic, sometimes dialogic, angular use of tone he holds things together but also always apart, and that is refreshing. Total integration is a terrible thing. In any work of art, and probably in life as well.

Chekov once said that if a playwright hangs a gun on the wall in the first act, there had better be a murder by the third. And that is the reason I don’t watch plays, except when they’re written by a friend and I can’t find an excuse fast enough. They feel claustrophobic, an elevator, a closed box taking you in a simple line, opening up into the deracinated self-consciousness of the artist’s private aesthetic salon or, at the very least, onto a grotesque scene of the artist clutching his subject like a monkey.

It’s exhilarating to find an artist who can sip a slurpie while watching an atrocity without losing his capacity for care.

I stood in Bickerton’s Bali studio looking at Preparation with Green Sky, a vaguely Polynesian bacchanal taken to bounteous limits, and a part of my mind kept drifting towards the callipygian shape in the background. “I like something about the unselfconscious glee in which the fecund young women proffer their piglets and their buttocks to no one in particular while the blue man offers his bounty directly to the viewer,” Bickerton says.

And the critic answers, “I can’t stop looking at that butt.”

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Pulling Shadows

Pulling Shadows

Reprinted from Fiction International, issue #38. Winner of PEN/Nob Hill prize for best novel excerpt.

“Keep your legs closed!” the midwife yelled at Ibu.  “Don’t you let that baby out!”

But Ibu couldn’t hear the midwife cursing her, threatening to keep the gate closed if Ibu didn’t listen.  She was beside herself with pain.  The women had not given her any painkillers so that her will would be strong, so she would keep the presence of mind to hold the baby in one more day.

The battle was hopeless.  They had tried everything to prevent Ibu from giving birth that day: all morning they’d fed her very young pineapple, bitter pineapple the size of a fist, pineapple after pineapple until she was ready to burst, until it became an almost abortive dose despite the ripeness of the baby.  Then they went past that threshold, letting the wind choose the lesser evil.  All in vain.

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Suklu: Reading Objects

Reading Objects, in Gaya Art News (July 2008)

Reading Objects, in Gaya Art News (July 2008)

Reprinted from Gaya Art News (July 2008).

“His spirit moves in the rhythm of things. It is thus that art becomes akin to religion and ennobles mankind.” – Okakura Kazue, The Book of Tea (1906)

If Suklu were a peanut, he would not be one of those peanuts that forgets its skin. “I want to be a farmer,” he says. “I want a farmer’s way of responding to materials and objects.”

Not a farmer from 2008, but rather one of the ancient ones, perhaps half-mythical, perhaps real. One of the farmers who made art in the everyday-sculptures in the form of scarecrows; landscaped rice terraces; sculpted ladles and plates and bowls and water scoops out of coconuts, tongs out of bamboo, or cheese graters from duri plants; complex installations out of wind-powered soundmakers; or performance art within Bali’s religious-animist ceremonies.

The dominant characteristics to Suklu’s work-a sense of purity and a rootedness of the work within Bali-make it awkward, artificial, to graft an exogenous analysis or philosophical framework onto it. A perfect review of his work might not include any names other than Suklu, Bali, and the farmer. But Suklu’s work is also such a rare living example of Heidegger’s concepts of authenticity and groundedness, not to mention his postwar agrarian nostalgia, that leaving out the comparison would be a disservice to both.

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