In this time of ubiquitous environmental activism, one might assume that an art exhibition addressing the exigencies of seafaring would focus on a “green” message. Yet Ashley Bickerton is more at home relating his personal experiences of residence along the coast of Bali. The works in “Seascapes at the End of History” (on view through March 12, 2022) do not so much commune with nature as represent vignettes of a life lived in concert with it. Bickerton doesn’t depict oceanic flora and fauna—there are no fish or sea turtles included in show—nor does he approximate an aquarium-like context; instead, he explores the trappings of modern equipage for experiencing waters safely.
His works in resin read as captured sections of the deep, with algaic patterns and primal bubbling smudges frozen still, floating suspended in large, translucent, water-blue cubes that look something like oversize, sharp-cornered chunks of Jell-O. Resins are not known for their environmental friendliness, but they are used extensively in the manufacture of boats and surfboards of all kinds. Bickerton is paraphrased as saying that humanity is only a brief and temporary visitor in Earth’s grander history, and we won’t be the last. So, apparently he is more concerned with fashioning a lasting statement than a healthy, ephemeral one.
Other pieces reference sport crafts or science vessels, along with the requisite submersible gear and topside life-saving equipment. Capsule-like shapes surround a few sculptures thematically based on life rafts—to the more nautically minded, the appendages might resemble scuba tanks, ballast, or flotation devices, with brushed steel here, rusted iron there, framing the waterproof canvas inflatables. The floors of these rafts are littered with arrangements of plastic detritus presumably washed up on shore, including knives, forks, broken children’s toys, bottle caps, and even a couple of lonely flip flops. These relics of modern-day foolishness are sealed in by panes of glass etched with drifting patterns that delineate water stains, thus creating vitrine-like time capsules, sometimes with convenient handles or what should be necessary metal tubing. Clear resin is also put to good use for recording footprints in the sand in several instances, and rope lines festooned with international flags are attached by carabiners and strewn with rayon straps to complete the ironic contemporary global beachcomber vision and remind us of the temporary nature of our so-called dominance over this planet.
Bickerton’s lack of didacticism is refreshing. His bricolage of manmade oceanic equipage is knowledgeable, novel, and empirical. It relates a familiarity that can only come from years of firsthand experience using and repairing such materials. The craftsmanship employed in realizing his abstracted analogies is top notch. This is about mankind’s aquatic experience; Bickerton doesn’t present the sculptural equivalent of a bleeding heart nature program, yet he obviously reveres the sea and pokes fun at our uses, abuses, and explorations of it, leaving behind useless artifacts (sans motors and digital devices) that look like they might be important mechanical equipment while fondly respecting the usefulness and necessity of the real thing and begging the question: “Can we build a life raft for the ocean itself?”