Louis Zoellar Bickett: The Archive, Curated by Julien Robson
April 3—May 30, 2015, Zephyr Gallery, Louisville, Ky,
Louis Zoellar Bickett: The Archive was the seventh exhibition in an ongoing series of special curatorial projects at the Zephyr Gallery in Louisville, KY that examines the creative activity of regional artists, activists, designers, thinkers and tinkerers. Independent Curator Julien Robson’s turn at the reins presented a solo show of one of the area’s most prolific and unique artists. Previously, as curator of contemporary art at the Speed Museum, Robson was instrumental in formulating and cementing what many already believed, that Louis Bickett is perhaps the most inventive artistic mind in the area.
Robson’s exhibition at Zephyr was a compact, yet vital and succinct selection of work from Bickett’s immeasurable output. Upon entering the gallery visitors encountered a floor to ceiling bookshelf made from 2×4’s that spanned the width of the room. Filled with black ring binders wrapped in plastic, this bookshelf, monumental in the small gallery, serves as a self-made monument in memoriam to Bickett’s own life. The binders comprise The Cultural Memorabilia Volume Project, an ongoing mixed media collection of documents from the artist’s life from 1972 to the present that includes photographs of friends, family and strangers, along with daily receipts and letters. It is a detailed record of the day-to-day experiences of his life. The shelf was not set against a wall, but rather was cleverly constructed in the middle of the room in order to function as a fulcrum.
When passing through the doorway in the shelf one entered an exhibition that skillfully presented a portrait of this artist as an archivist, timekeeper, and documentarian.
As with much of the work in the show, including Daddy’s Bedroom, The Cultural Memorabilia Cabinet, and the self-portrait projects, Bickett’s work is generally regarded as one large archival project in progress. The ongoing construction of this archive can also be seen as an ongoing construction of Bickett’s own identity as an artist, a Lexington resident, a traveler, a collector, a sorter, and a creator of typologies. The work that Robson selected and its arrangement throughout the exhibition presented a clear narrative of an artist with a considerable and complex story to tell.
Bickett belongs to a notable class of artists like Fred Wilson and Mark Dion who have used the museum as muse in their practice. Robson deftly took advantage of this feature within Bickett’s work with the inclusion of Daddy’s Bedroom, which I feel is among one of the more crucial works in understanding Bickett’s archival process. In this bedroom installation, consisting of a vintage red metal-framed bed with photographs and heirloom objects neatly placed throughout a series of antique shelves and drawers, Bickett has systematically tagged every item in sight. The written label that accompanies each object describes various details about its significance and provenance, from whom and when it was acquired into the Archive. Lining the walls of this bedroom scene are additional relics chronicling the artist’s life combined with artworks created by close friends. The room, taken as a whole, serves as an open diary or, as Robson points out in the curatorial statement, an autobiography that will be complete only, “through the final tagging of the artist’s body in the morgue.” This connects well with the anthropologist turned artist Susan Hiller’s own observation of Freud’s personal archive. She noted the way he would display his collection as though it “was basically from a tomb, connected with a dead body or vanishing civilization.”
The 9:11 video, created in 2007, was a wise addition, as it’s likely one of the more significant works in the context of both the exhibition and Bickett’s oeuvre. It presents a tightly framed image of Bickett’s face repeatedly opening and closing his mouth. Each time he opens his mouth a name of a 9/11 victim emerges. He completes the nearly 3000-person list in 3 hours, 33 minutes, and 52 seconds. It is significant because his work typically records his own experiences, but here he is mending his identity with those who experienced the tragedy and perished. As the individual names appear on screen it is as though he is saying, “I am a paramedic, a firefighter, a police officer, a business man, a business woman, a janitor, and a citizen from each of the 115 nations that lost their people.” This work continues with his themes of death and in memoriam, but rather than referencing his own life and mortality he creates a memorial to others. Within the lexicon of artworks inspired by the casualties of war it is his Guernica.
The show presented several images of Bickett in a series of self portrait projects: In the Dream I was Beautiful and Everyone Loved Me (10,000) Selfies (displayed on an Android Tablet) and Every Hat I Own (19 images displayed on a video monitor of Bickett wearing, for example, baseball hats, snow caps, ski masks, bandanas and a keffiyah). Robson made large format photographs of What I Read (The Holy Bible) and What I Read (The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an) both from a self-portrait photo essay of Bickett holding various selections from his personal library. Robson’s decision to present these two images as a diptych was a perfect demonstration of Bickett’s method of presenting multiple identities, revealing the totalizing nature of his self-portrait projects and the archival impulse that is central to all of Bickett’s work.
The show was fittingly punctuated by Backbar (A Piss a Day in 2003), an installation of 365 bottles of urine contained in wax sealed liquor bottles. Much like the daily food and other purchase receipts that Bickett keeps in The Cultural Memorabilia Volume Project, this work represents a kind of daily portrait of the artist. It isn’t simply the bodily waste of the artist, but a liquid record of his specific food and drink consumption for each day over the course of a year.
Bickett is systematic, sentimental and nostalgic. He and his work are inseparable from each other: dark, humorous, empathetic, compassionate, often engaged in exploring the area between propriety and transgression. He exposes the very nature of all archival materials as being found yet constructed, factual as well as fictive, public and also private. Through his feverish archival impulses he helps to preserve cultural memory, rescuing objects before they vanish, while also exposing the nature of the archivist’s fascination with mortality and death. All of this was well captured in the Zephyr show and was one of the best installations of the Archive that I have seen.