by Mia Fineman
In the mid-'80s, beach-boyish artist Ashley Bickerton surfed to fame on the Neo-Geo wave, positioning his work as an eminently consumable metacritical commodity. A few years later he redirected his attention from the art system to the eco-system, sealing soil samples and industrial waste in monumentally impermeable tanks. Last month Bickerton returned to Sonnabend in what many of us consider his original guise--a surf-culture superrealist--with an impressive group of neo-realist paintings that delve down into the grisly underside of cosmetic enhancement and public self-fashioning. In this latest group of meticulously mannered oil paintings on wood, Bickerton focuses unflinchingly on the point at which the perfumed, domesticated, sanitized cultural body meets the pissing, hitting, stinking natural body. Bickerton's perverse menagerie of civilization's discontents includes grimacing newborn babies subjected to glamour makeovers, amorous lesbian chimps decked out in Sunday bonnets, a post-surgical military officer buggering a Botero-like nude, a female monkey wearing obscenely phallic pink slippers and nursing a human baby as a greyhound humps her leg. With Joan and the Cosmos, a startlingly powerful image of a blond woman wearing only make-up, jewelry and a "Free Tibet" T-shirt, squatting and smoking a cigarette as she pisses, Bickerton proves that you don't need a ring through your nose to qualify as a modern primitive. In what may be the show-stopper, a life-sized triple self-portrait titled All That I Can Be, Bickerton pictures himself in three extreme incarnations: a bloated,tattooed biker-guy, a grotesquely pumped-up
body builder, and a bulimic, silicon-enhanced transsexual. Beneath each figure is a list of ingredients--diet, drugs, surgical procedures--that recall the logo-encrusted surfaces of his earlier wall-pieces. Strangely, the single element identical in all three manifestations of the artist is the precisely painted penis, hinting at a sly, cynical, ingenious reworking of essentialist identity politics: My penis, my self.