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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