Drew Bickford

Flinders Street Gallery, Sydney
6-29 August 2015

Drew Bickford’s latest exhibition is a gruesome, sensuous trip through the squishy waste products of meatworks, laboratories and of course, the artist’s studio. Contorted, shifting creatures that seem to have escaped the nightmarish dreamscapes of James Gleeson or Hieronymus Bosch, settle on paper through Bickford’s able drawing.

Bickford’s visual flights of fancy are aided and abetted by selections of text, a recurring motif in the artist’s work for some time, although of late they have become more fragmented and abstract, tempering the intricate detail of mutant forms, hard angles and curves, with dark deposits of ink. The text itself provides visual cues for the images, and each work corresponds with the name of a real place. This allows Bickford’s phantasmagoria an anchor to the real world, a somewhat unnerving prospect. Hand writing and lettering is a part of drawing, of course, and the way these words are becoming slowly incorporated into the compositional whole takes our clues away, one by one, swallowed by the drawings’ frightening forms.

Bickford’s work uncovers something universal, a kind of body horror that everybody experiences from time to time. As beautiful as somebody may be, inside we are all made up of the same components. Sacks of guts and blood and meat. Look at any images of the horrific massacres and genocides of war, and the shocking truth is made evident; we are made up of a putrid, base matter, which cannot be disguised in the latest fashion, scents or surgery. Death is the great equaliser, uncompromising and inevitable. Perhaps the horrors of Bickford’s works are not so much an outward projection of his own tortured or tragicomic soul, but a reflection of our own. Every one of us is complicit in these images.

Eroticism plays a large part in Bickford’s work. Not eroticism in the sense that he gets turned on by drawing gelatinous, twisting horrors, nor as in a tasteful black and white nude photograph, but eroticism in a Bataillean sense. Bickford’s eroticism is a cathartic emptying of oneself, an act that can never be completely accomplished except through excess and self-annihilation. Death by tiny, tiny increments, blasted from the brain’s chemical emotion, achingly throbbing from the heart, and tempered by the hand. But it can never be enough to slake that particular thirst, and a paradox is born.

The catharsis of drawing is key to Bickford’s process. There is an instant, visceral gratification to drawing, particularly with inks, that offers immediate release, and at a speed appropriate and in service to self-annihilation. Losing oneself to instinct and the cerebral pleasures of muscle memory is not only the draftsman’s secret weapon, but one of the defining characteristics of his art. Bickford’s drawings are day-long (sometimes week-long) flirtations between finish and unfinish, and this latest series reflects this dedication. Bickford’s technique is laborious in its detail and meditative in its execution. The use of fine graphite has grown in boldness since his last exhibition, taking on a life of its own, but complimenting the mass lent to the drawings by the artist’s accomplished ink work. There are few artists today who have the patience (to say nothing of the skill) required to approach the tragic creatures and walking wounded of Trespass, which is another aspect of their captivating allure. 

Drew Bickford, Sleep of Reason, 2015. Pen and ink on paper, 43 x 43cm (framed). Courtesy the artist.