"A strange dance of love with a hell-bent madman": Ashley Bickerton on collaborating with Damien Hirst for Ornamental Hysteria
Damien Hirst always likes to collaborate closely with the artists he shows in his Newport Street gallery, not only in the selection and installation of their works from his collection, but also - in the case of Ashley Bickerton - spurring them on to make new pieces.
Bickerton spent the earlier part of this year making an entire body of work for the last room of his current Newport Street exhibition under what sound like pretty intense circumstances. The result is a collection of vivid "Wall- Wall" paintings studded with DayGlo and silver rocks – one bearing a life-sized model of a leaping swordfish – as well as a pair of industrial-looking brushed steel and etched glass cabinets containing beachcombed detritus, meticulously arranged in tidal patterns.
“Damien’s the most obsessive-compulsive person, it was like doing a strange dance of love with this hell-bent madman who keeps challenging me and throwing me bait,” says the Bali-based artist, who in the next breath describes putting together the show as “the single most rewarding thing I have ever done as an artist – Damien may be borderline compulsive but his passion is unequalled in any human being I’ve ever seen in my life.”
For his part, Hirst has acknowledged Bickerton to be one of his heroes since art school and the pair have been friends since they were first introduced in New York in the late Eighties. They both share a strong taste for excess and throat-grabbing theatricality; and Hirst has been collecting Bickerton’s work in earnest for the last decade, with the 50 or so works on show at Newport Street making up less than half of his total holdings.
Nonetheless it still provides a pretty comprehensive survey of what Bickerton describes as “my bifurcated career” and is the artist’s first retrospective. It spans from the early work that first caught the idea of the student Hirst when Bickerton was one of the young Tyros of New York’s 1980s East Village art scene, through to the “island madness” works made after his 1993 move to Bali which form an raucously exuberant riff on clichés of tropical exoticism, and up to the most recent pieces which continue to prod at the boundaries of art and taste.
Bickerton first sprang to fame alongside his compadres Jeff Koons, Peter Halley and Meyer Vaisman, making slick but also coolly conceptual work that blended geometric minimalism with the flashiness of consumer goods. The umbrella title of this work was "Neo Geo", but Bickerton prefers to say that he was “trying to boil art down to a chicken bouillon essence” with these boxy, brushed aluminium, industrially-painted pieces sporting punchy phrases and real and imagined logos.
Even the artist himself has condensed into an abstracted, packaged product, complete with branded personality. “Ashley Wildcat Bickerton” is emblazoned across one slickly minimal 1987 box which calls itself a "contemplation unit", projecting out from the wall and held into place by high tension steel cables. "Ashley Six Gun Bickerton" is written on the front of another.
A more recent piece updates an early self portrait composed entirely of trademarks and brand titles - with the 2014 work owned by Hirst including both Durex and Viagra as well as Google, CNN and iTunes. (But no cigarettes any more, Bickerton is keen to point out.)
But it is since this surfer-artist’s move to Indonesia 25 years ago - “I was fed up with sitting in a traffic jam on Brooklyn Bridge on the way to my fabricators…I decided to just leave the art world” - that his powers of parody have gone into overdrive. Minimal is replaced by maximal - and then some. In a boggling range of media the ante is upped on every possible stereotype of Gauguin-esque artistic lotus-eating, and every island paradise cliché given a good seeing-to.
There are lurid technicolour paintings of flower-wreathed nymphs presented in traditionally carved frames inlaid with mother of pearl. A life-sized silver maiden stands in a carved wooden boat holding out a hammerhead trophy, and painted sharks dangling with coconuts hang above a giant writhing snake monster with five grimacing heads, each modeled on Bickerton’s own.
Other Bickerton-esque avatars include images of the artist on the beach painting, holding armfuls of fruit and tapping at his computer under waving palms and surrounded by frolicking women and children, and also his now-trademark Blue Man – “the degenerate, existential ex-patriot” – who is swathed in blossom and drives a Vespa laden with local lovelies.
Yet all is certainly not well in Bickerton’s blighted arcadia. In what he describes as his “stew of degraded tropicalia”, exotic flowers bloom out of polluted, fetid rubbish strewn waters – as well as from the heads of a snake monster, while Blue Man is dragged from his bike by a trio of snarling nymphs and even the sharks wear lifejackets.
This work is both raucously ridiculous and deadly serious. Having grown up wandering the globe as the son of a professor and field researcher in linguistics, Bickerton is all too aware of the contradictions and moral dilemmas of ex-pat life while at the same time being seduced by it.
His art continues to view the world through the eyes of a knowingly enthralled outsider and he cares passionately about the oceans in which he has surfed since childhood and their fate. As his most recent work shows, he’s all too aware that however remote your tropical paradise, now there will always be plastic on the shoreline.
Ashley Bickerton: Ornamental Hysteria is at Newport Street Gallery until 20 August; Newport Street, London SE11 6AJ; newportstreetgallery.com