Ashley Bickerton at his studio in Bali.
All photos by HG Masters for ArtAsiaPacific.

The artist’s color palette and painting materials.

Ashley Bickerton


To get to Ashley Bickerton’s home in Bali, you take the congested main road to the southern peninsula of Butik, past the beach area known as Dreamland and on to the massive Pecatu Indah resort, whose entrance is marked by a towering sculpture of Vishnu riding atop the eagle Garuda. You then veer sharp left in front of a steady onslaught of motorcycles overloaded with people and materials and head down the hill toward a comparatively lush, quiet part of the island.

Somehow, I miss Bickerton’s compound the first time I drive down the narrow winding road that cuts through chicken farms and secluded villas. On the way back up, the entrance appears so distinct that it could only be Bickerton’s. The thatched-roof gatehouse, with a big number 13 carved from wood on the front, is supported by a pair of tumescent green pillars. Burrowed inside each of these is a bald, yellow-headed, blue-tongued serpent figure—a signature motif cast from the artist’s own head and frequently seen in his garish, satirical paintings from the mid-2000s recording a foreigner’s lecherous life in Bali. 

Bickerton’s residence is much more of a wonderland than any tourist resort on the island, yet its idiosyncratic style also makes it the anti-villa villa. Set into a steep hillside with sweeping views of the ocean are several Balinese-styled buildings, their features exaggerated like the architecture in Dr. Seuss tales. One, made of black river stones with a terra-cotta-tiled roof, contains his studio and fabrication facilities; another is a long, open-aired space with a sloping roof used for entertaining and dining, and is filled with serpentine-branched furniture, old Balinese masks, turtle shells and his own recent paintings—including one of a red motorbike driven by a blue-faced man and overladen with kitschy objects and four rainbow-color-painted Balinese women. Adjacent is a two-story water tower embedded with ornamental ceramic plates. Near the swimming pool, there’s a kitchen and dining area fashioned from an old Javanese house—constructed from once-colorful painted and carved wood, now faded—that he brought back to Bali and rebuilt with a new roof and foundation. The place is, in a word, exuberant.

Wearing a black T-shirt, little gray cap and long cargo shorts that reveal Pacific-style tattoos, Bickerton declares in his hard-to-place, non-English, but British-ish accent, “Well, I’m Hindu now, I guess.” He was married just the day before—a big congratulations sign, in the local style, fringed by already wilting flowers, rests by the pool. We sit down on the veranda of the old Javanese building as his teenage son walks by with a surfboard under each arm, getting ready, he says, for three o’clock on Wednesday afternoon, when he and his father predict the best swells, kicked up by Antarctic storms, will make landfall on the island’s shores. “We’re planning the whole week around it,” Bickerton says. He then launches into several stories at once. One is on the woes of fabrication in Yogyakarta, and the other about how he has just found out, via Facebook, that he is currently having a solo show in Zurich, which had opened the week prior and, unbeknownst to him, had quoted him in the press release, despite the show being entirely composed of secondary-market work. 

Before concluding any of these tales, he digresses into a discussion of Jeff Koons’ latest exhibition at David Zwirner gallery in New York, the profile in New York magazine in early May that named Koons the “Most Successful American Artist Since Warhol,” and the bitching and rejoinders that old New York friends and colleagues had posted online. There we are, a world away from the art scene where Bickerton made his name in the mid-1980s with his contemporaries at Sonnabend Gallery, as part of the Neo-Geo crowd that included Peter Halley, Meyer Vaisman and Koons. Yet Bickerton is as up-to-date on the vicissitudes and triumphs of the old gang as when he left New York in 1993 to settle on the shores of the Indian Ocean. 

A variation of Bickerton’s Red Scooter painting decorates his open-air dining room.

Preparing for his next solo show: Bickerton’s neon-splashed sculptures in varying stages of development.

After a tour of the property, we finally get down to the studio, where several projects are in varying states of development. The most immediately striking is an Amazonian, two-meter-tall standing nude woman cast in gray fiberglass and adorned with splotches of paint, a garland of keys, a necklace of utensils and mismatching, huge orange and green eyeballs. She has oversized feet, hands and features, but to Bickerton, she’s “sexy, human and real,” a rebuttal, he believes, to the ubiquitous, undersized figures found in fashion magazines. “Taksu is the Balinese word for when your hair stands up on your neck,” he says, by way of explaining his quasi-prurient feelings about this figure. He created her for his gallery’s booth at an upcoming art fair. Less excited about the nude figure than Bickerton was, his gallerist politely demurred, saying he should save the sculpture for the next solo show. 

Bickerton’s wild aesthetic masks his interest in what he describes as the “interfacing of painting, sculpture and photography all into one.” On the wall is a gray, vertical rectangle of fiberglass, its textured exterior looking like someone has pushed their hands into wet clay. Thick globs of red, yellow and blue paint, straight from the tube, are dotted across the work, and adhered between these mountains of fiberglass and paint are digital photographs of the object’s lunar-like surface. It’s all part of what Bickerton calls “a fast-moving tango between thick paint and images of thick paint.” From a distance it is difficult to distinguish digital representation of the surface from the surface itself, and whether this rectangular thing is an object, image, image-object or object-image, it’s impossible to say. 

At the far end of the studio are a large sofa and seven oversized busts made in clay and adorned with smears of fluorescent paint, necklaces of lemons and old cigarettes. They are grotesque and exoticized. Some have pointy breasts, but it’s not all that clear that they are female. “Are those women?” I inquire. “I don’t know. I don’t care, really. Could be, if they want to be,” Bickerton jokes. He reminds me that transsexuals have long fascinated artists because they are seen as creators of artifice, shape-shifters of beauty. Behind these busts are one silver and one gold picture of one of these figures after it has been photographed, printed and adhered to canvas, with further globs of thick paint applied on top. As far as his hyperexoticized, often lurid subject matter goes, Bickerton says it is a “parody of Gaugin and 20th-century literature,” adding that “there’s a vague autobiographical element to everything I do.” 

Over lunch back up the hill, Bickerton dispenses zippy one-liners and glosses on just about everyone well-known in the art world today: so-and-so is “not your average pothead” and another friend is “the biggest hustler in the art world.” Most of his quips are unprintable, but they tend to be complex compliments, since Bickerton is hardly repulsed by the aesthetic, material or financial excesses of the art world, having both benefited from and, during the late-1980s crash, become a casualty of them. At one point, Anselm Kiefer becomes a subject of contention, particularly his Chairman Mao works shown at White Cube gallery, Hong Kong, in 2012, which Bickerton defends vigorously on technical grounds: “As far as laying paint down, he’s untouchable. On the arias, he hits all the high notes.” Even in his tropical retreat, Bickerton remains in the center of things, far away but not far gone.