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Ashley Bickerton: Ornamental Hysteria at Newport Street Gallery
May 1, 2017
Ashley Bickerton is the latest artist in a starry line-up to take the stage at Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery, tucked away in the back alleys of Vauxhall. With carefully curated shows of big names like Jeff Koons and Gavin Turk behind him, it seems a safe bet that Hirst’s next exhibition will be a stellar success. But does everything he touch really turn to gold? Bickerton is far from a sure-fire hit; in fact, he is positively risky and this display is anything but an easy Sunday afternoon.
Bickerton was part of the highflying Neo-Geo group in New York’s East Village at the end of the 1980’s alongside Jeff Koons and Peter Halley – about the same time that a bright-eyed Damien Hirst was filling medicine cabinets for his degree show. The first few rooms at Newport Street Gallery establish these early credentials for Bickerton as he worked with consumerist assemblages to rip apart the stuffy art world veneer. Industrial boxes lining the gallery walls make jibes at big brands and even recreate the ideal collection of art with a Picabia here and a Klein there. Then there are the twisted ropes and rafts carrying preserved costumes of a crisp Dior suit and an artist’s messy overalls. At first glance these early works feel like the set design for the next Blade Runner film, but its clear they have real social grit.
With a supernova rise to fame can come a dramatic fall from grace. To avoid this fate, Bickerton took the decision to leave New York in 1993 and did what so many other artists have done before him – he went into the wild. Much like Paul Gauguin and his famous travels to Tahiti, Bickerton set up camp in the Indonesian island of Bali – where he still lives and works today. Confronted with this cliché of the artist and the exotic, Bickerton has purposefully gone against the grain with a series of pretty unorthodox works.
This is when the sharks really begin to circle. Literally. Stepping into Bickerton’s Bali period there are resin sharks looming from the ceiling and tentacles writhing from the ground like a reincarnated Medusa. Then Bickerton’s alter ego appears – the Blue Man: a lurid character painted in garish colours that is all smiles as he cavorts around the island on a scooter. In this strange new world we find a gross, fleshy nude and metallic goddesses offering up their sacrifices. These figures are cartoonish and unnerving – a terrifying reimagining of what Bali has become under the pressure of mass tourism.
This is the first retrospective of Bickerton’s work in the UK of this size and it offers a chance to assess his role as an artist, from New York rising star to the Blue Man, and the result is pretty baffling. But perhaps that’s why Hirst and Bickerton are a kitsch match made in heaven as they teeter on the edge of madness together.
Words by Claire Philipps