You’ve Gotta Be Fucking Kidding

 

John Carpenter’s 1982 movie The Thing is one of Drew Bickford’s primary influences. It’s about paranoia and transformation from the human into something monstrous, alien and terrifying. You can find elements of Carpenter’s monsters in Bickford’s hyper-detailed drawings: a claw here, an extrusion there, the unfolding of flesh and gut into raw meat. Bickford’s work represents a disturbing rupture between the normality of everyday life and a fantasy of corruption.

Across this suite of drawings we see Bickford delving into a number of his favourite themes and subjects: the reappearance of the Thing’s monster, the references in text and drawing to episodes of true crime and to serial killers, and to that other oft-noted aspect of the artist’s work, the connection between these hybrid creatures and the dark horror of American writer H.P. Lovecraft. But in a newer development, Bickford has included elements of portraiture in the work, basing parts of these exploding and diseased heads on those of friends and lovers, and in one instance, he has created a portmanteau creature made up of multiple bodies, that serves as a group portrait of drinkers from one of the artist’s favourite bars.

It is tempting to look upon these drawings and respond to them in revulsion. But there is something also very honest about them, with an aspect that is nakedly autobiographical. Bickford draws in his studio with the television on, responding to input from sound and image, a translation of the outside world into the work via the filter of the artist’s senses. The interior noise of Bickford’s mind is abated by the act of drawing, an exorcism that is a quiet respite from the cacophony of the world. As if in response to this, the faces of the drawings are often in state of screaming, as if in terror, or perhaps in defiance to the gaze of the viewer, caught in their moment of transformation, the most vulnerable stage of the exorcism of normality. Or perhaps this mid-way point is the final stage of the process, the moment of permanent dissolution of the shell of outer appearances for a revelation of an essential truth, confused but ultimately and undeniably powerful. As one character in The Thing remarked, when confronted with the bizarre horror of the monster who can assume human form, assimilate an identity and mannerism while remaining undetectable to the human eye, before exploding into a variety of bizarre shapes and forms, “you’ve gotta be fucking kidding.” The answer of the movie was no, this is real, and so too are these drawings.

One of the most common dreams enacted in popular culture is that of the defiant moment of catharsis. Pop songs of a particular dramatic bent present the singer as an oppressed or undervalued individual and, through the operatic absurdity of the song, or maybe just through the build-up-and-release of the chorus, break or crescendo, the listener is allowed to feel as if they too are part of that ecstatic moment of self-realisation and fuck-youse-all. Of course, after the release there is the ennui of life as normal. But there is always the opportunity of repeating the song, rewinding the music clip, and reliving the release, once again built up to the big moment, and then… Bickford’s work offers the visual equivalent of that moment, a moment of transformation that, if taken literally, is a step into the unknown. But where a song is a narrative in time, Bickford’s work is a stasis of change, a contradictory state of permanent transformation that suggests there is no “normal” state, but always a perpetual state of difference and uncertainty.

These images are metaphors. And they’re literal. The tension between these two states gives the work the ground for their drama. One might suspect that Bickford has displaced the anxiety, tension and worries of life into his work, and in many respects he may have done so, but he also allows us to consider another question. In The Thing, the character Childs asks, “So, how do we know who’s human? If I was an imitation, a perfect imitation, how would you know if it was really me?” Bickford offers a disarmingly honest view into his motivations, compulsions and fascinations, a baroque fantasy of an all-consuming alienness kept at bay and under warps by an outer shell of respectability. The grotesque, according to philosopher Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. is “…a projection of fascinated repulsion/attraction out into objects that consciousness cannot accommodate, because the object disturbs the sense of rational, natural categorisation.” Bickford’s drawings enact this exchange, confronting us with not just with the artist’s vision, but with a comprehension of our own nature.

Catalogue essay for Trespass, Flinders Street Gallery, 2015.

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