Gallery  March 23, 2021  Paul Laster

Ashley Bickerton Creates Colorful Seascapes with Debris Washed Ashore

Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London.

Ashley Bickerton, Round Cloud, 2020.

As the old saying goes, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” and in Ashley Bickerton case it’s completely true. While watching the waves wash debris ashore on the beach in Bali, where the artist currently lives and works, Bickerton saw something in the possibility of being able to incorporate society’s castoffs in his own artworks, but it took some experimentation until he hit upon a meaningful visual presentation in painting, which is now on view in his solo show at Lehmann Maupin in New York.

Born in Barbados in 1959 and raised in Hawaii, Ashley Bickerton initially moved to New York in 1982, after graduating from Cal Arts, and quickly became a rising star in the dynamic art scene of the time. A prominent player in the conceptual art movements dubbed Neo-Geo, Neo-Pop, and Commodity Art, Bickerton pulled up stakes at the height of his success in 1993 and moved to Bali, where he dramatically changed his style of working by embracing figurative art while parodying island culture.

Photo- Elisabeth Bernstein. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London .

Installation view of In Focus: Ashley Bickerton at Lehmann Maupin, New York.

Following recent surveys of his works at Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery in London and New York’s FLAG Art Foundation in 2017, Bickerton began his experimentation with the beach trash and has since developed a series of works that he calls Flotsam Paintings. Visually poetic, the paintings playfully feature bits of plastic, rubber, metal, and rope floating on a painted surface of canvas and cardboard. Arranged in an earth and sky binary that echoes the settings in which the artist discovered the discarded items, the paintings objectively comment on the realities of the world without being judgmental.

“It would be a mistake to assume these works are bemoaning the destruction of our home planet,” Bickerton told writer and cartoonist Anthony Haden-Guest in a recent Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art conversation. “I do not think of myself as an environmentalist, as being an environmentalist is to labor under the assumption that you are preserving the planet for human habitation. We as a species cannot destroy the planet, it is ever resilient and adaptive, and far bigger than us, but what we are certainly capable of is destroying its ability to support us as a species.”

Seeing beauty in the ocean-borne trash, Bickerton arranges it both randomly and strategically in colorful visual sentences and spirited groupings across his painted picture planes. Inspired by the surreal landscapes of Joan Miró and Milton Avery abstract seascapes, Bickerton composes hybrid paintings, displayed in handcrafted, crate-like frames, that speak to our times. The canvas Round Cloud mixes flattened flip-flops, plastic forks and combs, discarded cigarette lighters and synthetic drink bottles, and a toy soldier with other debris in a cloud-sky-water-beach terrain to form a dreamlike narrative.

Ashley Bickerton, Padang Moon, 2020. moon scene over water, framed by towering cliff-like masses
Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London. 

Ashley Bickerton, Padang Moon, 2020.

Ashley Bickerton, Dawn Estuary, 2020. Canvas looks like the surface of water or a hazy sky. Sprinkled with artist's trademark beach debris and textured paint.
Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London.

Ashley Bickerton, Dawn Estuary, 2020.

The painting Padang Moon presents a stream of consciousness arrangement of toothbrushes, combs, nozzles, toys, seeds, caps, lighters, and slippers in an idyllic, moonlit sky above a tree-shrouded beach, while Dawn Estuary offers a stark, barely lit landscape with pale palm trees and cacti that’s populated by crushed bottles, doll heads, gelato spoons, ropes, hooks, balls, and plastic foot scrapers.

Three more paintings round out the show’s selection, which surrounds a suspended, life-size sculpture of a hammerhead shark. Cast in pink resin and clad in a fitted, yellow nylon suit with coconuts and water vials hanging below, it poses a threat, yet simultaneously seems like a high-tech gadget from a James Bond film. A longtime islander and avid surfer, Bickerton knows both the bounty and the dangers of the seas, and like Agent 007 he’s learned how to relish the treasure while avoiding the risks.

Two additional New York shows similarly scrutinize our ever-changing world from urban, rural, and heavenly points of view. The Boyle Family recreates sections of street corners and plowed fields in their presentation of wall works titled, “Nothing is more radical than the facts,” at Luhring Augustine and Jay Heikes painted outer space and sculpted unknown planets in his recent “Echo in Color” exhibition at Marianne Boesky Gallery.

Courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.

Installation view of Boyle Family: Nothing is more radical than the facts at Luhring Augustine Chelsea, New York.

Working together since 1957, Mark Boyle and Joan Hills were joined by their children, Sebastian and Georgia, to form the Boyle Family art collective in 1985. Best known for their Earth Studies, which reproduce detailed parcels of city and country sites as hyperrealist sculptural reliefs, the group randomly picks the spots for its works by throwing a dart at a map. Removing any subjectivity from the process of creation, the Boyles objectively aim to make their topographical wall works exactly the same as the plots of land that were marked on the map.

© Boyle Family; Courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.

Boyle Family, Study from the Westminster Series with Glass Pavement Light, 1987.

Study from the Westminster Series with Glass Pavement Light (1987) presents a detailed section of a litter-encrusted street in London. Defining a six-by-twelve-foot area of the street, the artists painstakingly cast every square inch of the spot and recreated it with resin and fiberglass. Like a 3D version of a photorealist painting, everything that the Boyles saw—ranging from crushed Pepsi cans to tire tracks in dirt—became part of the finished work. Similarly, Study of a Potato Field (1987) recreates a large section of tilled soil, complete with lumps of dirt, bits of hay, and scattered potatoes that didn’t make the harvest.

© Boyle Family; Courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.

Boyle Family, Tidal Sand Study, Camber, 2003-2005.

Two striking topographies come across as highly inventive monochromes. Concrete Pavement Study, Concrete Pavement Series (1976-77) captures the defined, man-made sections of a grimy, gray street or sidewalk, while Tidal Sand Study, Camber (2003-2005) sublimely freezes the natural, tidal movement of waves across a sandy beach. A cross between an archeological dig and an architectural reconstruction, the Boyle Family makes art that preserves the past, even as the sites that they have meticulously saved for posterity continue to evolve.

Courtesy the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York and Aspen. © Jay Heikes. Photo: Jason Wyche

Jay Heikes, Sargasso Sea, 2020.

While the Boyles and Bickerton have their minds set on the land and seas, Heikes looks higher into the stratosphere for his subject matter. Fascinated with alchemy, he makes his Mother Sky paintings by staining the canvas with a combination of vinegar, salt, and powdered pigment. The mixture causes a chemical reaction that produces variable colors, which the artist overlays with dabbed-on and screenprinted clouds and smoke from found photographs. With such titles as Devil’s Triangle and Sargasso Sea, that reference supernatural sites on Earth, the canvases could be seen as portals to take our thoughts beyond everyday concerns.

Courtesy the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York, and Aspen.

Installation view of Jay Heikes: Echo in Color at Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York.

His Minor Planets sculptures, which are crafted from a range of materials, including concrete, pyrite, salt, slag, asphalt, quartz, rope, and dust collected from the artist's studio, are magnificently assembled as odd orbs and disks. The metals in the materials—particularly from the pyrite and slag—will oxidize and mutate over time. Simulating matter that’s been floating through deep space for an eternity, Heikes’ planets offer viewers safe landing points in his captivating, celestial realm.

About the Author

Paul Laster

Paul Laster is a writer, editor, curator, advisor, artist, and lecturer. New York Desk Editor for ArtAsiaPacific, Laster is also a Contributing Editor at Raw Vision and Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art and a contributing writer for Art & Object, OculaGalerie, ArtsySculptureTime Out New YorkConceptual Fine Arts, and Two Coats of Paint. Formerly the Founding Editor of Artkrush, he began The Daily Beast’s art section and was Art Editor at Russell Simmons’ OneWorld Magazine. Laster has also been the Curatorial Advisor for Intersect Art & Design and an Adjunct Curator at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, now MoMA PS1.

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