Ashley Bickerton is finally making the work he was meant to. These hyper-realistic, socially sardonic images, painted meticulously on wood panels, represent the end of an unusually long, star-crossed artistic adolescence. Great historical forces seem to play themselves out around Bickerton, and to understand his career you have to know a little history. In the late 80s Bickerton was one of the precocious rulers of the American art roost and, along with Peter Halley, Jeff Koons and Meyer Vaisman, a member of the 'Fab 4'. For a nano-second this quartet led the movement known as Neo-Geo. That was before the fall.
Around the time Bickerton was on the cover of Artforum, in 1988, he exhibited a piece that tempted the gods. Landscape #1 was a Judd-like wall work gone heavy metal - a high-tech, accessorised box, labelled with the words 'Season 87-88'. A red L.E.D. tracked the work's changing value starting at $25,000; it only went up. Like a Restoration playwright, Bickerton has always lampooned the art world, attacking his audience (the newly moneyed and status seekers) while feverishly courting its approval. Of course, the worst thing that can befall a character in a Restoration play is exile from the centre of intrigue - which is precisely what happened to Bickerton. He soon fell out of favour and banished himself to Bali, where he still lives.
In 1991 he attempted a come-back, but his show was eclipsed by Matthew Barney's first New York exhibition opening on the same day. A dejected Bickerton embraced Barney, and repeated over and over 'I'm nothing, man... You're it'. This was perhaps his nadir. Bickerton's next show in 1993 went more-or-less unnoticed. In one last piece of purgatorial timing, Bickerton's most recent NY exhibition, 'Back to The Wall', opened on the same day as Damien Hirst's scene-stealing extravaganza, two blocks away at the Larry Gagosian Gallery. Bickerton's karma may be levelled at last.
The works at Sonnabend have the same sense of over-the-top precision and physical glossiness as before but they are more caustic and self-lacerating. A spirit of rancour inhabits these paintings of cannibalism, of fucking, shitting or pissing, of the idolatrous quest for youth and beauty. Some are obvious and adolescent: Bob(all works 1996), a portrait of a surgically reconstructed bionic monkey is a one-liner straight out of Mad magazine. But while Neo-Geo dealt with objects of desire, Bickerton's new paintings reveal the deadly effects of desire on its subject: of what it does to a person - to a body - to want too much, too badly. Bickerton implicates everyone, everywhere, from cradle to grave. In the satirical Penelope Aurora Prudence, we see the onset of narcissism at a frighteningly early age. A beauty makeover turns a new-born infant into a bawling cover-girl with blonde wig, long red fingernails, pierced ears and a string of pearls. In Bickerton's view, refinement leads to debauchery, appetite to the alien.
This decadent world evolves into a bathos-filled human comedy as the paintings bring hatred and envy into close proximity. Joan and The Cosmos depicts a typically tan, never-too-thin, face-lifted 80s art collectrix who pisses while casually smoking a cigarette. She wears only jewellery and a T-shirt proclaiming the celebrity cause du jour: 'Free Tibet'. Perpetually on-to-the-next-thing, Joan is a picture of fickleness and fakery, a generic portrait of one of Bickerton's former patrons. For Joan, ignorance is the best revenge. She couldn't care more, she couldn't care less.
Bickerton is at his best in paintings which combine shock and pathos while harnessing his anger and eliminating irony. Daisy Lolita Pog, for example, depicts a cross-eyed wild-man taking a shit while two female chimpanzees wearing hats rub their vulvas together. There are no bad-boy winks, only a dark and venomous view of humanity. In the relentlessly anti-heroic All That I Can Be: Triple Self Portrait, a trio of nearly life-sized images depict the artist as three fiercely customised personae: Bickski, an over-the-hill biker whose fleshy body is a riot of tattoos; A.B., all capped teeth and woven hair, a muscle-bound, tightly-wound freak; and Ashleigh, a shell-shocked, breast-implanted transsexual. Each self portrait includes a list of the drugs, hormones and surgical interventions that comprise these grotesque parodies of human beings.
Bickerton likes to slander himself while slurring others. The invitation to the exhibition evoked the name of another humiliated exile, stating that the artist formerly known as Ashley Bickerton was henceforth to be called Cat Stevens. Portraying this fallibility and acquiescence to fate is Self Portrait # God Knows What, in which Bickerton is reincarnated with the head of an old man atop the body of an iridescent blue serpent. His hair and goatee are meticulously braided and he smokes a cigarette. Monstrous as he is, he's finally at one with nature, although he's still addicted to culture - words near his mouth read 'exposed by my gaudy plumage once again'. Reduced to this bestial state, Bickerton is resigned but as wry as ever. This is a prodigal painting: a testimonial which confesses, sighs and smiles at lifetime after lifetime spent reliving the same sad story: of desire run amok, of life perverted or destroyed in the name of more life.