Cabinet Gallery, London, UK
You’ve got to wonder about Simon Bill. He paints large, wickedly distorted portraits of former British icons - such as Mr Blobby and the little squeezy-toy Troll guy - in a pastily translucent mixture of oil and dirty wax, like serendipitously congealed puddles of corrupted bodily fluids. These monumentally ugly paintings are so studiously unpleasant, so fuck-you disgusting that they don’t so much red-line the shock meter as overload it entirely. While his works rely on a certain warped nostalgia for their subjects, Bill isn’t attempting in any meaningful way to postpone their interment in the pop culture graveyard. In fact, his whole plan relies on them spending at least some time down among the worms. He prefers to wait for the rot to set in a bit before digging them up and performing his malevolent reanimations on them.
Like Mike Kelley, Bill enjoys making nice toys do bad things. Yet whereas even the most troubling of Kelley’s assemblages ultimately leave the viewer feeling washed clean of their deviance by the powerful detergent of postmodern cultural deconstruction, Bill’s pieces skillfully impregnate their dirt beyond the reach of even the strongest ironising stain removers. The six paintings in his recent show follow the format Bill has been utilising for the last few years: a dominant figure painted on dull brown peg board, like that found along the walls of a decrepit high-school art room, here disfigured by some of the most breathtakingly puerile magic-marker graffiti imaginable. Veering between toilet stall invective, drunken extemporanea and brain-damaged, Heavy Metal, pseudo-Satanic rantings, Bill’s painfully stoopid textual embellishments anchor the works even more firmly within a kind of acid-head, Slacker-gone-bad context in which a sense of all-encompassing cynicism, left too long in the warm rays of the pop-culture sunshine, putrefies and begins to stink.
The work is so uniformly and wilfully obtuse that it can seem superfluous to discuss how far over the top any single piece manages to go, but there are degrees of depravity even within Bill’s demented oeuvre. Abbadon the Destroyer (1994) hijacks and reinterprets Mr Blobby, the happy-go-lucky pink rubber mascot of a popular British TV variety show host, in lumpy pus-grey, mutating the character’s goofy unpredictability into an aura of unstable threat. Guppy (1993) performs a similarly creepy trick: painting the head of the ubiquitous Troll doll (missing one eye) backward, à la Linda Blair, onto a generic female body. Bill manages to achieve a surreal sense of rainy-day playroom disjunction, like an innocent Weeble fed into the maw of a doll house oven, or Barbie and Ken employed, against their chaste plastic wills, in the service of Kama Sutric poses.
Yet if the childishly unfocused daydream world of these pieces leaves some room for humour, other works shut the door so firmly on any notion of lightness, so completely restricting the viewer’s ability to channel their shock into some slightly less vicious contextualisation, that they threaten to suffocate the whole interpretative process. God of Child Abuse (1994) is a case in point. A three-eyed, hermaphroditic, amputee bat thing leers toothily from the crappy pegboard surface, its painted skin interrupted by rough blemishes formed from bits of dirt and clumps of the hair Bill often introduces into his yucky impasto. Its body is partially covered by a stripy Charlie Brown-style shirt, on which is emblazoned the devil’s mark, ‘666’. The image, given context by the ugliness of the title, is so determinedly hateful and amoral that it almost defies interpretative expostulation. Eluding, by its sheer cartoonish baseness, even the most inclusive tendencies of the vocabulary of contemporary aesthetic qualification, God of Child Abuse can hardly be described, much less defended - and this presumably is precisely what Bill wants.
Bill’s utilisation of painting to create his astonishingly crass images does provide some topically apposite theoretical gristle for the viewer to chew on in these days of constant critical re-evaluations of the medium. His aimlessly violent demeaning of the traditionally transcendent genre proposes a kind of repellent future for the form, an apocalyptic endgame to calls for a return to figuration in the hope that it might lead artistic production back to its more elevated fundamentals. Yet the real anxiety generated by Bill’s work is not derived from any carefully considered challenge to the internecine negotiations of the aesthetic cognoscenti, but from its sense of randomness. Bill’s no cultural terrorist. Unlike Kelley, Sue Williams, Kiki Smith, Paul McCarthy or others of the ilk who use unpleasant means to a well-strategised end, Bill has no obvious socio-political agenda, no apparent art historical axe to grind. He is perhaps better seen as a distant transatlantic cousin to artists like Jim Shaw, Raymond Pettibon or even Larry Clark, whose programmes, like Bill’s, chew up and spit out culture - particularly a kind of trashy, debased youth culture where every no-hoper’s radio is tuned to Ozzy, every stranger is looking for trouble, and every trip has the potential to be a bad one.