Ashley Bickerton: ‘Looking for Something Beyond’

Ashley Bickerton

Contemporary artist Ashley Bickerton lived a nomadic childhood, his family moving countries regularly for his father’s research into Creole and Pidgin languages. Feeling a need to once again ‘recontextualise myself’ after a childhood travelling, Bickerton moved from New York, the ‘crucible’ of his art life, to Bali mid-career. He describes how this unique environment seeped into his practice and the implications of his move – not least in that ‘once you run off to a bloody island to make art’, the nineteenth century figure of Paul Gauguin becomes an inevitable art historical comparison to address. How does his series of ‘intentionally silly’ paintings, depicting a blue-skinned European antihero against tropical backdrops, critique the legacy of Gauguin?

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As you can see clearly with the iconic diamond head behind: I’m back home. One of my three homes. I consider my home that I live right now, Indonesia, Bali; Hawaii is my family home and I guess New York is the crucible of my art life.

We essentially grew up all over. Never spent more than two years in one place as a result of my Dad’s work studying Creole and Pidgin languages, we kept moving to places where they speak English differently. So, I ended up speaking five dialects of English, each one pretty much incomprehensible to the next, whether it was Hawaiian Pidgin, West Indian Creole, West African Patois, New Guinea Tut Tut.

My family moved here when I was twelve years old. I actually caught my first wave right there in Baby Queens. I went to High School here in Hawaii then CalArts. Essentially CalArts was a functioning pipeline straight into New York.

When I did finally move from New York, when I left, the place had become intolerable for me. I’m not naturally wired for New York winters, I’d just had a divorce. It seemed like a good time to go. To recalibrate myself in a more biologically agreeable setting. At that point, I decided come to Bali where I’d been going on and off for years.

We push frontiers, we push envelopes, we push margins, we’re always looking for something beyond. Sometimes we do it in studio, what’s often referred to as deep studio space, sometimes it’s done materially, sometimes it’s done as in Gauguin’s, case or the Orientalists before, through geographic movement. And sometimes it’s a ripping up in context. What Margritte did with Surrealism, perhaps Gauguin and Van Gogh attempted to do by their moves to Arles. And since I grew up travelling, to sustain this dialogue, this was the essential construct of my mind. I had to move, I had to re-contextualise myself in different geographic settings. I did not want to become one of those people who is chasing what I thought was a retrograde fantasy in Bali. I wanted something else.

Those very first early Bali paintings I did – the Triple Self-Portrait, The Vlaminko’s, which was the family portrait of the central figure meditating in a pyramid, Joan and the Cosmos, the woman urinating – people thought that I’d run off to some crazy, otherworldly, exotic island and come up with these ideas: essentially following the footsteps of Dr Moreau. It had nothing to do with that, I’d dreamed the entire show up in New York. It came out of a much more anthropological bent. And it was very analytically done, I had an extremely strict rules for that set of paintings. All figures had to be life-size, the style in which they were rendered had to be ‘medical textbook illustration’, and the overarching rule had to be ‘could happen’. It wasn’t Surrealism, it wasn’t fantasy. Of course I had to push it as far as I could.

One critic described exactly what I was doing. He said, what I was doing with the human form is not any different than what he did for art objects when he slapped logos on them. He made those boxes art world objects that were traded, bought, hung on walls, looked at, reproduced, and he did the same with human figures.

But it wasn’t until I’d been there exactly eleven years, I was in my studio looking at the paintings and suddenly realised, ‘Holy cow! They’ve completely changed’. The influence of Bali had snuck in: through the cracks in the windows, under the doors, on updrafts through the ventilation systems. And it had permeated every aspect of the work. The whole palette had changed from my colour scheme in New York, which were essentially not colours. It had now gone from that industrial palette to a series of greeny-browns, browny-blues and bluey-greys. And the entire composition of the work had taken off from what is the Batuan School of painting, an older school that came out of Bali in the mid-fifties. It was kind of a revelation to suddenly realise that, while trying assiduously, studiously to avoid any sort of external influence, after eleven years there, it had permeated every damned aspect of the work. The character, the slouch, the accent, the lilt. So, I had to accept it.

There was always something bothering me. The elephant in the room. Always breathing down my neck. Haunting my psychic spaces like a sort of dark gorgon. And that was Gauguin. I mean, no matter how little you might care about the fellow, once you run off to a bloody island to make art, doesn’t matter if you want to make art about that island, to be inspired by that: these comparisons are gonna be made. His name is going to be invoked at every turn. Everything you do is going to be seen through that filter. So this was a huge bugaboo and finally I said, okay. You want Gauguin? I’m gonna give you Gauguin. I’m gonna just heap it on you, I’m just gonna throw it at you, you’re getting it all. Exoticism, escapism, eroticism, cultural adventurism, otherness, sensuality, sexuality, colour, raw, pure. I’m gonna throw it at you in great dobules and globules and dollops… and, DUCK!’

Two Tahitian Women – I’ve done at least two or three paintings based on this image. And at one point I merged it with Warhol’s Silver Double Elvis. This one keeps coming up – it lends itself to many, many different approaches because of its purity and simplicity.

When I decided to embrace that elephant in the room, Gauguin, I rebirthed an old character of mine. He’d been the central protagonist of a Super 8mm Epic that I’d made whilst a student at CalArts, The Love Story of Pythagorus Redhill very, very, very loosely based on Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano.

[Footage from The Love Story of Pythagorus RedhillTomorrow I’m going to write my greatest poem. Tomorrow is now. 

The protagonist of that film meshed perfectly with the character I needed for my Gauguinian paintings. Because, I had done him very loosely based on Malcolm Lowry in the beginning, and my cartoon fit perfectly with Gauguin. Both figures representing late 19th century/ mid 20th century archetypes. A certain Eurocentricism, a certain lone, existential, angst-ridden figure against the tropical backdrops. And all those archetypes of the existential antihero that we get from the late 19th to mid 20th century. So the blue man was just transposed from one place to another. It’s exotic, there’s bare chests, breasts, buttocks, there’s florid colours, there’s flowers, there’s sex, there’s happiness, there’s fecundity. They’re all silly. Intentionally silly. They’re just things, you know, you want a painting, I’ll do a painting. That’s it, you got a painting, I’ll put it in a frame. You want a frame, I’ll give you a big frame. You wanna make it loud, turn everything up to eleven.

When I finally tackled Gauguin, I didn’t tackle so much his overall project, I tackled the trail of things that he left in the world.

Ah, I believe our drinks are here. Mahalo.


With thanks to…

Ashley Bickerton







Derek and Yvonne Bickerton holding sons Jim and Ashley


Jim and Ashley with sister Julie


Ashley and son, Django


All That I Can Be: Triple Self-Portrait

Ashley Bickerton, 1996


The Vlaminko’s

Ashley Bickerton, 1999


Joan and the Cosmos

Ashley Bickerton, 1996


Brandi And Brent

Ashley Bickerton, 1996


Penelope Aurora Prudence

Ashley Bickerton, 1995


Le Art (Composition with Logos)

Ashley Bickerton, 1987


Tormented Self-Portrait (Susie At Arles)

Ashley Bickerton, 1988


Abstract Painting for People (Bad)

Ashley Bickerton, 1987


Keliki Kawan, Batuan School


The Expats

Ashley Bickerton, 2004


Where Do We Come From? Who Are We? Where Are We Going?

Paul Gauguin, 1897

Oil on canvas

139.1 x 374.6 cm (54 3/4 x 147 1/2 in.)

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Tompkins Collection—Arthur Gordon Tompkins Fund


Photograph © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.  All rights reserved.



Extradition with Palette

Ashley Bickerton, 2006


Extradition with Fruit

Ashley Bickerton, 2006


Two Tahitian Women

Paul Gauguin, 1899

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA / Bridgeman Images



Ashley Bickerton, 2014


The Love Story of Pythagoras Redhill

Ashley Bickerton, 1981


The Alley

Ashley Bickerton ,2009


Blue Bar

Ashley Bickerton, 2007


Hammock #2

Ashley Bickerton, 2008


Red Scooter

Ashley Bickerton, 2009



Ashley Bickerton, 2007

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