BY Melissa Lamb
“Modern, contemporary… it’s ridiculous to call something contemporary just because it is created now,” said Louis Zoellar Bickett, a Lexington sculptor and painter.
“It may sounds trite, but I don’t like labels,” he said. “It’s difficult enough for a young person to call himself an artist. Those other terms are for the art historian. I think they alienate more than they explain.”
Accordingly, Bickett himself refuses to be stamped as a “political artist” although he says 95% of his work is political, addressing themes such as apartheid, women’s’ rights, nuclear proliferation and acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
“I don’t like to be called a political artist,” he said. “Some of my work is political, but it is also poetic and easy to live with. Frequently, political works are intense and difficult to live with. I’m interested in experimenting with line, color and contour to enhance and to decorate. But, if surface effects were all I was concerned with, I should consider myself a failure.”
Bickett did not adopt political awareness, as have so many 1980s latecomers who hitched their wagons to we-are-the-world stars. A child of the 1950s, Bickett became intensely involved in protesting against that upbringing a decade later. But now, at 39, he is a little more reluctant to storm the Bastille.
“I’m not saying that protests never accomplish anything, but I’m not sure it’s practical,” he said. “Americans just don’t care.”
For years, Americans have been talking about making the nation less sexist, less racist, but talking has not eliminated the racial and sexual violence that continues to erupt in our city streets. For years, Americans have been talking about protecting the environment, but talking has done little to prevent the Exxon Valedez disaster. And for the last eight years, Americans have been nodding, if not talking, about AIDS. But the silent nods did not prevent the deaths of approximately 66,500 of its victims.
“We all suffer for it,” Bickett said of the complacent and apathetic attitudes, “I could get very emotional just sitting here talking about our government’s lack of response to AIDS, but instead I make art.”
In 1988, Bickett created a sculpture which was shown in one of the first AIDS exhibits: “AIDS: The Artist Responds,” at Ohio State University. “The work has a cold, sterile look,” he said. “The concept behind the piece is an Eastern view of death – that it is the ultimate goal of life.”
Bickett’s sculpture grew out of early experiments with collage and free-moving mobiles. The collage boxes were made of unusual combinations of materials such as inner-tube tire rubber, roofing rubber, cotton linen, and various forms of upholstery and cloth remnants, including colorful paint rags.
While Bickett’s ouerve is mainly elegantly wrapped abstract sculpture, three paintings currently showing at Cafe Max, are his first to be completed in almost 10 years.
“Why did I return to painting?” he said. “I like the physical aspect and it’s easier. I’m claustrophobic and if you create as much sculpture as I do, you had better have a place to put it.”
One of his paintings, “Deposition of Jesus Christ in Chinatown, New York City, June 6, 1989 for Nelson Mandela” is a 4’x8′ diptych. Its earthy tones are disrupted by a smattering of red.
“The painting has religious overtones,” Bickett said. “I was raised a Catholic, and as a child, I rarely missed mass. The work is nonrepresentational, but it has a strong impact,” he added.”It is covered with wax and dirt and it refers to the incident in “Tiananmen Square on June 6. The work is also one of more than three dozen he has dedicated to Nelson Mandela.
The other two paintings “Cultural Mud Man I” and “Cultural Mud Man II” are a continuation of a performance work, “The Cultural Mud Man”, presented on UK’s campus in September.
The performance piece was a way to present art in front of a live audience,” he said, “but the work did not involve the audience. It was more about documentation.” Still photographer David Hanlon and videographer Lewis Gardner recorded the event.
The piece began with a solo by an oboist Richard Bryan Moses. Then, Bickett applied mud to a nude male model while taped sounds recorded from the street were played. Bickett’s AIDS Tree stood in the foreground.
“I was a little disappointed in the reaction or lack of reaction from the audience,” he said. “I really began applying the mud in a very gestural way and found myself wanting to throw mud on the audience.”
Perhaps to wake them from a complacent sleep.
Exhibiting his work regionally, nationally and internationally (he currently has an exhibit in Kyoto, Japan), Bickett has often considered moving to one of art’s hot spots – New York Chicago or Los Angeles. But he is dismayed by the difficulties in big city life.
“It is very difficult to get into the art system itself,” he said. “It’s almost a dreadful form of apartheid. It keeps so many artists out. Everything is so clean, so slick, so perfect and so expensive to produce,” he added, “whenever I go to galleries, I always come away feeling empty. It’s a complete Madison Avenue approach.”
In cases like this, art becomes a commodity rather than an art form.
“Here (in Kentucky) I don’t suffer from that,” he said. “There are few distractions and I am close to my family and friends. Yes, I would welcome commercial success, I would welcome the money and the right opportunity, but I won’t sell out.
A waiter at A La Lucie’s restaurant, Bickett works with writers and musicians. One of his co-workers was the first to buy a Bickett piece.
“It is a good environment here,” Bickett said. “There are several legitimate areas to show work and I have had incredible support for Dr. Bill Hennessey and Arturo Sandoval at U.K.”
“I was once told that if you’re five miles away from New York City,” he said, “you can’t get someone to come and see your work.”
But somehow Bickett has made Mohammad come to the mountain. His works have shown at the National Arts Club in New York City, at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and can be found in corporate collections of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Central Bank and Trust Co.
Last year, Bickett traveled to the Soviet Union where his work was exhibited in Soviart ’88, the first joint showing of Soviet and American contemporary art.
“I was at Kiev, talking to people, and I could tell the whole place was abut to explode,” he said. “People told me what they thought of their government, I heard people standing on the street corners criticizing their government…they want freedom.”
Speaking about the recent, astounding events in Easter Germany, its wall of subjugation tumbling down, Bickett said it did not surprise him. “Berlin is a host place for art…incredible things are happening, and I believe good art foretells history.”
As the world continues to explode with demands for freedom, it looks to the American model, a model which also contains a formula for apathy and conformity – and a growing resistance to disruptions of the status quo.
But Louis Zoellar Bickett is no conformist especially when it comes to censorship.
In the last year Jesse Helms helped win a fight for censorship. The Helms bill began with an exhibit by Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano. Two years ago, the National Endowment for the Arts approved a $30,000 grant for Mapplethorpe and a $5,000 grant to Serrano. Aided by the grant, Mapplethorpe produced photographs which contained homoerotic images, and Serrano created a painting of a cricifix standing in a glass of urine.
Shocked and enraged by the content of these government-funded art exhibits, Helms fought to ensure the passage of a bill that no longer allows govenment funding for works deemed “obscene.”
But before the final vote was taken, Bickett wrote a poem and sent it to 540 congressmen. It was an issue protests might reverse, this was an issue close to his heart.
“The whole thing was a grandstanding of the issue,” Bickett said, “personally, I think if you believe in the concept of God as a perfect force, nothing can blaspheme Him. Serrano himself said if you didn’t know it was urine, you would think it was an alchemist’s view of the crucifixion.”
Recently, NEA endowment chair John F. Fornhmeyer decided to cancel a $10,000 grant for “Witness: Against Our Vanishing,” an AIDS exhibit in New York City. Fronhmeyer found the work “political rather than artistic in nature.” A few weeks later. Fronhmeyer rescinded and the exhibit was held as planned.
“I don’t understand this treatment of the artist as a second class citizen,” said Bickett. “Government money is wantonly spent for Pentagon purposes, and citizens do not have a say…that’s the real obscenity.”
While Bickett may not want to be called a “political artist,” artists like Bickett have complex philosophies, and their work, being part of the self, is also complex. Never underestimate the multiplicity of meaning behind good abstract art.
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