“This ocean borne detritus, or flotsam, was laid out in the vestigial formations of the waves that washed them onto the shore as the tide receded. It said everything I wanted to say and I knew I could run with it. The question then became, run where?”
— Ashley Bickerton, 2020 ¹
In conjunction with In Focus: Ashley Bickerton, on view in New York March 12–April 3, this timeline aims to place Bickerton’s latest work, Flotsam series, in the context of his rich career as a global artist. Despite his visually diverse oeuvre, Bickerton’s numerous bodies of work share more in common than initially meets the eye.
In Focus presentations are integral to Lehmann Maupin’s program, providing a platform to highlight a crucial aspect of an artist’s practice. These physical and digital exhibitions offer public access to significant and timely works by the gallery’s artists.
Bickerton was born in Barbados, West Indies in 1959. The son of Derek Bickerton, an English-born, American linguist and scholar of Creole and Pidgin languages, Bickerton’s childhood was a nomadic one, with the elder Bickerton’s research taking the family to a different island every two years until ultimately settling in Hawaii in 1972 when the artist was 12. This experience had an immense impact on Bickerton as an artist: “Since I grew up traveling, in order to sustain the dialogue, the essential construct of my mind, I had to move, I had to recontextualize myself in different geographic settings.” ²
“We ended up speaking about five dialects of creole and pidgin—each one, in its thickest incarnation probably utterly incomprehensible to the next one. I mention that because it’s quite formative in my thinking of the world, my thinking about my place in the world and my understanding. My background is a bit of an outlier.”
— Ashley Bickerton ³
Bickerton graduated with a B.F.A. from California Institute of the Arts in 1982 and subsequently moved to New York City to continue his education in the Independent Study Program at the Whitney Museum of American Art. In New York, Bickerton encountered an art scene dominated by the Neo-expressionists, notably Jean-Michel Basquiat and Julian Schnabel. Bickerton felt compelled to begin creating more austere work “as a reaction to what [he] felt was the intellectual slovenliness and overall gluttony of Neo-Expressionist practice.” ⁴
Susie (1982) was the first painting Bickerton made after arriving in New York, and was a symbol of the particular brand of unprecious art he set out to create. Susie became a signature that Bickerton would plaster on the sides of future works for decades to come.
“There was never an actual person named Susie. I chose the word ‘Susie’ because it is the casual form of a female first name, thus the exact opposite of ‘Picasso.’ I thought of the painting as a portrait, but ‘Susie’ was now also a brand, a logo, a signal, and an icon. Once these parameters had been established, my inclination was to mess with them.”
— Ashley Bickerton, 2013 ⁵
Throughout the 1980s, Bickerton continued his exploration of symbols, logos, and brand as a modern form of portraiture. In works like Good Painting (1988) and Bad (1988), Bickerton demonstrated how symbols convey meaning, value, and perhaps more notably ethos—both “bad” (guns, bombs, poison, sharks, snakes), and “good” (dolphins, palm trees, dollar signs, religion).
The increasing dominance of conspicuous consumption that marked the 1980s led Bickerton to replace generic symbols with the corporate logos that were rapidly infiltrating society, their brands worshiped by consumers. In his Culturelux series, Bickerton continued his investigation of consumer society and portraiture, examining the representation of the self as an accumulation of commercial brands. Like the various products sold by the brands depicted, Bickerton observed that artworks—and artists themselves—were increasingly becoming fetishized and collected. Works like The Ideal Collection (1988) acknowledge and parody this pervasive consumerism; instead of traditional wooden or metal fine art frames, Bickerton presented his artworks in industrial metal boxes, “pre-packaging” his work for immediate shipment after purchase.
Bickerton’s relocation to Bali, Indonesia in 1993 marked a return to a more familiar environment reminiscent of his childhood, and a place he could pursue his twin passions of art making and surfing. Unintentionally, Bickerton’s Balinese surroundings slowly began to infiltrate his work. Initially these influences were subtle—the industrial metal boxes encasing Bickerton’s paintings were replaced with buoyed seascapes fit to float on island waters. Instead of housing corporate logos, artworks like Coral Reef I (1993) packaged the open seas (fetishized in their own way by surfers like Bickerton himself) in a neat 24 x 24 inch resin square to be collected and revered as an art object. Bickerton also began to feature the symbols and iconography that defined his new environment in large hanging and freestanding sculptures, including palm trees, sharks, and diving equipment. This new style was met with criticism, which, true to his artistic impulse to rebuke popular opinion and cultural trends, only pushed Bickerton to further parody Western perceptions of his tropical island life.
Although these new paintings and sculptures appeared to present a stark contrast to the more austere works the artist had created in New York a decade earlier, the conceptual thread between the two bodies of work remained. Bickerton continued to use symbols to examine the circumstance of his surroundings and the representation of self—in the 1980s these symbols were drawn from the rampant consumerism that dominated New York, while in the 1990s they came from aesthetic stereotypes of Balinese culture.
“When I think about these pieces, I think of words and terms like flotsam, borderless oceanic detritus, seascapes, culturescapes, swirling cosmologies of micro plastics, fragments of human narratives, residues of lives lived, of vestiges of human presence now swirling in great molecular vortexes.”
— Ashley Bickerton ⁶
Over the last three decades, Bickerton’s work has evolved into a hybrid of Balinese color and iconography combined with the conceptual underpinnings of cultural critique that has been central to his practice since the 1980s.
Flotsam series, produced within the last year, revisits Bickerton’s use of symbols as a way to understand and investigate contemporary culture and to paint a portrait of a particular moment in time. The paintings are abstractions suggestive of seascapes littered with detritus that becomes part of the environment itself, and calls into question the perceived natural order and complex intertwining of the human species and the planet. With Flotsam series, Bickerton did not set out to depict a specific place, but rather to capture the state of our present age: a planet and topography inseparable from the man-made, inextricably formed from the byproduct of human desire and consumption.
Explore Ashley Bickerton’s work further in the public collections of The Broad, Los Angeles, CA; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, IL; The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; Tate Britain, London, United Kingdom; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY.
Additional public collections include Ellipse Foundation, Amsterdam, the Netherlands; Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, Japan; Museo D'Arte Contemporanea Donnaregina, Naples, Italy; Museu Coleção Berardo, Lisbon, Portugal; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, CA; The Robert & Elaine Stein Galleries, Wright State University, Dayton, OH; Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Amsterdam, the Netherlands; Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, Canada.
Citations: 1) Haden-Guest, Anthony. Pictures from a Pandemic: Ashley Bickerton Talks to Anthony Haden-Guest, Whitehot Magazine, 2020; 2) Ashley Bickerton: ‘Looking for Something Beyond’, HENI Talks, 2018; 3) Flett, Jono, Travelling in the Head of the Mysterious Ashley Bickerton, Much to Think About, 2020; 4) Press release, Studiolo, 2013; 5) Ibid.; 6) Haden-Guest, Anthony. Pictures from a Pandemic: Ashley Bickerton Talks to Anthony Haden-Guest, Whitehot Magazine, 2020