Walking into Louisville’s Zephyr Gallery for Project 7, curated by Julien Robson, one is immediately met with a shelving system of black notebook binders, arranged in such a way that they form a wall framing a single doorway. It is here, by stepping through the annals of the artist, that one enters the Archive. This collection allows the viewer a glimpse into the art and artifacts of Louis Zoellar Bickett, a well accomplished Lexington-based artist who has been collecting and cataloguing so-called ‘mundane’ yet fascinating objects from his daily existence since 1972. He calls us to reconsider the notions of voyeur and collector through the presentation of his Archive.
In the liminal space past the bank of binders, the viewer stands face-to-face with a screen showing the artist’s head. Here, Bickett’s mouth slowly opens and closes, silently screaming the names of 9/11 victims (9:11, 2007). A sobering moment, this piece also serves another purpose: it is an orifice that swallows the visitor deeper into a more personal and revealing space of the artist. For it is past this screen, the viewer may either climb the stairs to a room filled with self-portraits and collected specimens, or advance past the screen wall to Daddy’s Bedroom (2001-present). Both paths proceed to place the viewer in a role of voyeur. For now, let us climb upward. At the top of the stairs, 10,000 selfies lie hidden away within an iPad, exposed to the gaze of the viewer one at a time, and under the viewer’s control as one flips through them, ad infinitum. These intimate headshots, showing varying degrees of severity and levity, bring to mind a statement regarding voyeurism by Annette Messager, “I want the viewer to have the impression of discovering terrible secrets when what is involved is a ridiculous image, even if this image always touches us in the end.” We are indeed touched, and intrigued, and encouraged to continue to explore. (At the same time, does this work not challenge us to question popular reality tv, over-sharing via social media, and how we view ourselves and others?)
The adjoining upstairs chamber reveals larger, almost overwhelming self-portraits on facing walls and specimens to either side. The images maintain an ever-consistent pose on the part of the artist, yet with interchanging hats (Every Hat I Own, July 31, 2008) and religious texts (What I Read – The Holy Bible, What I Read – The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an, January 4, 2008). The specimens, located on the two remaining sides of the room, encompass both personal and environmental documentation. The eye-catching Backbar (A Piss a Day in 2003) brings to mind Duchamp with a Kentucky twist. Within 365 liquor bottles, many of them bourbon-branded, is encased urine of the artist, all with varying degrees of color, teasing the viewer that the liquid might be potable. The Archive boxes which housed these bottles surround them, an ever-present reminder of the catalogued nature of the items. Across the room is a cabinet with glass doors, filled with glass jars, reminiscent of a wunderkammer, or cabinet of wonders. Hermetically sealed yet allowing transparency for easy observation, the Roman red wax-sealed jars hold soil and water samples from places such as Eudora Welty’s grave, the Appomattox County Courthouse (VA), and the Gulf of Mexico. Is it not through both introspection of self and of experience with the outside world that one constructs identity? Louis’ Archive certainly addresses both of these perspectives – in this room and in the bedroom below.
Returning to the moment in which we were swallowed by the artist via the screen in 9:11, we now continue into Daddy’s Bedroom. One cannot help but be enthralled by the ‘curiosities’ that fill this room, creating a sense of intense intimacy and social critique. Who is this ‘Daddy’? The term is called into question as signifying both a father-figure and an older man in a gay relationship. The visually depicted definitions coexist and overlap in layers of constructed meaning through the objects collected. But let us take a step back and look at the room as a whole – there is a 1940s red twin-sized bed, a nightstand, a desk, a bookcase, a small curio cabinet, a dresser with hutch, six chairs of varying sizes, multitudinous framed pictures, books, more jars of environmental specimens, and assorted artifacts such as prescription bottles, garbage contents, trophies, and the ashes of a beloved dog; all belonging to or related to ‘Daddy’ and all carrying specifying tags of the Archive. Through the readymade items themselves, subtle details construct identity, whether through a book of Mapplethorpe, a soil sample from Oxford, Mississippi, a drawing of David Bowie, or a pair of glasses labeled, “becoming someone else.” Some items are noted as “momento mori” such as an etched mirror and photographs. Other photographs have slang terms written across the lips of the subject, serving to challenge speech acts of racism and homophobia. The collective result of all of these items is to place the viewer in the place of voyeur and to challenge societal prejudices, all while documenting the experience of life from an individual perspective which is at once transparent and varied, personal and historical.
Louis Zoellar Bickett has encompassed three main areas in his work: it is at the same time autobiographical, a document of history, and social critique. Depicting both an introspective perspective and objects from one’s surrounding environment, history is documented from Louis’ lens. But what is the documentation of history besides a subjective recording of events anyway? No human can ever be purely objective. Here, we are seeing history through both Louis’ lens and our own, layering our own perspectives and better seeing his as well.
So what of a collection such as the Archive? It is an ever-growing, ever-developing being; it is also a means to create a presence beyond one’s mortality. As Annette Messager noted, “Collecting is a way of struggling against death. A collection is always more and more beautiful, bigger and bigger, always incomplete.”
Louis is indeed a collector, an archivist, and a preservationist of experience. Most importantly, however, through these roles he a catalyst for us all to rethink how personal and societal identity is constructed.