At the beginning of this month, UnderMain began a series on Louis Zoellar Bickett, a Lexington-based artist who has made his life his canvas. For the first two installments of the series, please visit the links at the bottom of this post.
In this short podcast, Stuart Horodner and Louis Bickett share with us the details of the upcoming retrospective of Louis’ work. Stuart, the director of The University of Kentucky Art Museum, and Phillip March Jones of Institute 193 are leading this effort in collaboration with The University of Kentucky Art Museum and Hospital, Institute 193, The Lexington Art League, and 21c Museum Hotel.
Louis Zoellar Bickett in The Archive, Photo by Guy Mendes – commissioned by Oxford American, 2016
Born in Clark County, Kentucky, Louis Zoellar Bickett was raised Catholic and knew at a young age that he was an artist. Louis recalls this realization as a common story, one that might have happened to other children who showed artistic talent; his teachers – mostly nuns in Louis’ case – recognized that he had a gift and encouraged him in many ways. He won awards for drawing and other creative projects on a regular basis as a boy.
Louis’ First Communion, he is pictured at the far right, front row.
What may have been a bit uncommon, was that moment in 1972 when Louis’ largest and longest running artistic endeavor began. While sitting with his mother who was saving and discarding alternate piles of old family photographs, he grew curious about the pile of photos that were to be thrown out or torn up, because she had no earthly idea who was in the photos – so, ‘why hang onto them?’
Louis asked then if he could have the photos that his mother did not want and that is when his interest in retaining – or containing – random, seemingly meaningless, objects began. Since that time, nearly forty-five years ago, Louis has been collecting, labeling, and storing every object in his life, whether it be a t-shirt or a love letter, a toothbrush or his own urine. He has collected thousands upon thousands of objects that together have become known as The Archive.
Object from The Archive, Courtesy Louis Zoellar Bickett
Throughout his career, Louis has constructed hundreds of projects, some object-based, some objects contained within other objects, many performances and all highly conceptual in nature. Each project may have been done in the construction of identity – he now acknowledges. Although he is unsure if it is all entirely autobiographical, pondering the question that it could be multiple identities or even commentary on our collective identity that most piques his interest.
Pregnant Landscape, The Totem Series,
Louis’ mode of working is seamless, moving from one thing until something new emerges from it. Throughout his life he has transitioned from The Totem Series to the Cultural Mudman Rituals, from Ten Thousand Selfies to his photographic essays like Sam Foy with Broom and even into poetry. Whether it be the wrapping of an object or the construction of a performance or the collection of his life in words, Louis continues to weave an intricate fabric.
Sam Foy Project, Sam Foy at Shaker Village, Mercer County, Kentucky, 2015
Knowing now at sixty-six years of age that logically ‘the existence of God as defined by organized religion is remote’, Louis says that he is guided by science and the heart. Gently, he still sows; aligning what he has wrapped, tagged, shot, and jotted down on paper, never imaging that it needed to mean a thing to us. In fact, he confides, that even if you get nothing from his art, that is what you got and that, at least, is something.
In the end, Louis acknowledges that what he does – all he does – is a laborious thing, a duty or calling and, ‘quite honestly a pain in the ass.’ Understandably. Afterall, constructing a single identity is one thing, trying to piece together the newly broken thing we have become – sweep it clean so that we might be free to write a new label – is something entirely different.
The Cultural Mudman Rituals, 2015, Al’s Bar. Photo by Guy Mendes
Here from my second interview with Louis is the artist talking about TheTotems and TheCulturalMudmanRituals.
Featured Image in topmost position is by Guy Mendes. Also part of the mudding performance at Al’s Bar in 2015.
Heads up, Lexington! Just when the winter’s cold and grey was starting to get your seasonal affective disorder riled up, along comes a blast of heat and light, courtesy of the Lexington Art League’s new exhibit ARTIST:BODY.
Drawn from artists and private collections in the region by guest curator Julien Robson, the show is a selection of self-portraits, most of them nudes. No, this is not a replacement for the long-running LAL annual exhibit, The Nude, which was put out to pasture a couple of years back for a well-deserved rest. ARTIST:BODY is something else again, and definitely not-your-grandmothers’-Nude Show.
LAL’s Education and Contextual Learning Director, Kara Hansel, preparing Chris Radtke’s ‘Curl’
Kiki Smith, Butterfly, Bat, Turtle, Iris Prints with Collage
Leslie Lyons, Night, Archival Color Giclee Print
Louis Bickett, What I Read, Inkjet Print
Mare Vaccaro, Dreaming, Digital Cibachrome Print
Shinique Smith, Soul Elsewhere, Artist’s Clothing, Fiber-fill and Rope
Sam Taylor-Johnson, Self-Portrait Suspended IV, Chromogenic Print and Cindy Sherman, Untitled, Chromogenic Print
Photos courtesy Guy Mendes
Board member Haviland Argo felt compelled to make two things clear: “There are representations of nudity in this show.” And, “There are NO representations of sex in this show.” He added: “It is not a show of titillating images and objects. It is a thoughtful explication of the artist’s complicated relationship to the body.”
The images to be found in ARTIST:BODY are more of the in-your-face variety, provocative but also poignant, occasionally whimsical, and sometimes funny, even with death looming. Anette Messager gives new meaning to the term Bearded Lady. Shinique Smith turns work clothes into a bound-up version of the Venus of Willendorf. Leslie Lyon’s idyllic three-panel romp ends with an unexpected inversion. Julius Deutschbauer’s beefy real self against an impressive bookshelf is as good as it gets. Annie Sprinkles’ inventive Bosom Ballet is followed up by a more documentary tone in her Beats Cancer Ballet. And Martha Wilson and John Coplans remind us that time takes its toll on us all.
Robson, formerly a curator at Louisville’s Speed Museum, says, “Artists have increasingly employed themselves as both the subject and object of their work. This type of art can be seen as a form of self-portraiture that addresses identity…and how an artist deals with the nature of beauty, desire, sexuality and mortality.”
Louis Zoellar Bickett, What I Read, Inkjet Print
Robson purposely mixed works by international art stars like Kiki Smith, Cindy Sherman, Francesca Woodman and Sam Taylor-Johnson with regional artists to put them in a broader framework. Hence, we are fortunate to have Louis Bickett showing us what he’s reading-in-the-raw, Mare Vaccaro contemplating her lovely self-portrait-within-a-self-portrait, Carrie Burr’s form pressed into a large pile of Forbidden Black Rice, and Chris Radtke’s dual self-image made up of wooden boxes and broken glass.
Also on display, in effect, are the collectors, the largest of which is the 21c Museum Hotel Foundation. To see its contributions to this show gives Lexingtonians some idea of what they’ll find at the new Lexington 21c, which opens with a ribbon cutting on February 29th at 3 pm.
ARTIST:BODY features 27 artists, including Thaniel Ion Lee, Cynthia Norton, Gabriel Martinez, Rene Pena, Hannah Wilke, Xaviera Simmons, Penelope Slinger and Mark Boyle.
There is much for the eye to contemplate, and for the mind to see.
Besides producing high quality exhibits, the LAL has been building wider support for artists in Kentucky, with its Community Supported Arts harvests and sales, (some of which are still available on their website) as well as their periodic auctions for collectors, both of which have benefitted area artists.
Edlin and Jones have a long working history with ties to Lexington, Kentucky where Jones opened the Jones Shop in 2006. “The Jones Shop, a curated exhibition space and retail store, existed only briefly on Maxwell Street in Lexington but culminated in an exhibition at Andrew Edlin’s Chelsea gallery in 2007. I’ve worked with Andrew in different capacities since that time: as an artist, curator, consultant, and now director of his new space which opened this past week at 212 Bowery. It’s a long way from Maxwell Street but feels like a very natural place to be working on new ideas and engaging a wider audience.”
In all things, Jones remains dedicated to the notion that important work in the field of contemporary art happens in many places be it New York City or Lexington, Kentucky – where he remains Editor-in-Cheif of Institute 193. As Phillip March Jones continues to build connections in art markets hither and yon, UnderMain and Lexington wish him well.
The Andrew Edlin Gallery is located on 212 Bowery between Prince Street and Spring Street.
Institute 193 is located at 193 North Limestone Street in Lexington, Kentucky.
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.
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 feelis 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 likelyone 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.