Searching for Guns, Hidden Signs, and Lemurs in the Art of William S. Burroughs

William S. Burroughs, "Photo Collage and Lemur Pictures" (1989) (All photos courtesy October Gallery)
William S. Burroughs, “Photo Collage and Lemur Pictures” (1989) (All photos courtesy October Gallery)

BRIGHTON, UK — For the duration of the visit, we are invited to pretend that a space around the corner from the British Museum has become that site of Beat-generation novelist, painter, and performer William S. Burroughs’ fevered imagination: “Interzone” from the novel Naked Lunch. A spread of mint tea and sesame biscuits has been laid out at the end of the show, and, when the Interzone waiter asks if I like William Burroughs there can only be one answer: Yes. William Burroughs must be liked by anyone with any time for counterculture, anyone with an interest in outlaws, and anyone with suspicions about the occult.

William S. Burroughs (Image courtesy
William S. Burroughs (Image courtesy

But whereas Burroughs owes his legend to his writing, in the final decade of his life he owed a decent living to his visual art. He took up painting in 1986 after the death of artist, poet, and friend Brion Gysin. After New York, Mexico, Tangiers, London, Paris, and the Amazon, he came to settle in Kansas, and art became part of his daily routine. Ever the rebel, Burroughs used spray paint, collage, and bullets to set his work apart from the mainstream history of painting.

There are, however, few activities that art history cannot eventually embrace. So this show for Burroughs is a none-too-shocking and quite saleable return to the gallery, October Gallery, that held his first solo show in the UK, only his second worldwide. And what‘s more, Burroughs is being posthumously honoured with two museum exhibitions in Europe: one earlier this year at ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany and a second planned for 2013 at the Kunsthalle in Vienna. February marks the writer’s centennial, and this painting revival is set to confuse anyone who thought they had a handle on Old Bill.

William S. Burroughs, "Jack the Ripper" (1992)
William S. Burroughs, “Jack the Ripper” (1992)

What sort of artist was this writer? To begin with he was no great respecter of materials or good taste. Perhaps the most iconic piece in the show is a portrait of Jack the Ripper on a sheet of pristine Aquarelle watercolor paper. But the artist has scrawled out a demonic caricature in marker pen and then peppered the foreground with gunshots. One might say this is a repackaging of Burroughs’ own history; he famously shot his second wife Joan Vollmer in an equally cavalier mood.

Elsewhere the writer/artist uses spray paint and turns his own pistols into stencils. In 1994, he took part in an unpromising two-handed art show with fellow scribe Hunter S. Thompson called Two Guys with Guns Making Art. The unapologetic love of firearms is a bit problematic, but one could also see the motif as an exorcism. Burroughs’ moment of mad manslaughter is perhaps a wayward cousin of the performance piece “Shoot,” in which performance artist Chris Burden had himself shot. Bullet holes and grapeshot also relate to the explosive paint capsules in the ’60s shooting pictures of artist Niki de Saint Phalle, currently on display in A Bigger Splash at Tate Modern.

William S. Burroughs, "Targets" (1986)
William S. Burroughs, “Targets” (1986)

But along with guns and the odd mass murderer, Burroughs exhibits wide-ranging interests. Cats, Christmas trees, fungi, space ships, photos of lemurs, and a photo of Samuel Beckett all crop up at October Gallery. Meanwhile, he is drawn to metallic shades of spray paint or caustically bright shades of yellow, orange, and green. Many works call to mind the chaos of action paintings, and the alphabetical daubings on display cry out for literary interpretation. This fleeting possibility of meaning is something that exercised a fascination for Burroughs himself.

William S. Burroughs, "The Last Rocket Out" (1992)
William S. Burroughs, “The Last Rocket Out” (1992)

Having made his paintings, the artist is said to have examined them with a magnifying glass looking for hidden signs. To be more specific, he was said to be looking for “allies,” and this is where Burroughs and rational thought must part ways. Clearly, we can cut a painter some slack when it comes to the reaches of his or her imagination. But try as one might, it is tough finding invisible friends in any of the paintings in this show. You would have more luck with a Kandinsky, perhaps, or a Klee. Burroughs’ apparently slapdash work, his fanciful titles like “Last Rocket Out” and “Disintegrating Spacecraft,” just seem too glib.

So, Burroughs calls for suspended disbelief. Another striking piece here is “Death by Lethal Injection,” where a wasp-like palette of yellow and black, an ominous stencilled grid, and a stack of needle-like paint flecks catch the eye. But if this piece comments on our systems of control, it is a bit esoteric. To the uninitiated, it may be as impenetrable as a hazard warning sign on a locked door. The writer’s narratives, usually difficult to follow on the page, are no more straightforward when rendered in paint.

But there are exceptions to this criticism. It is not the most visually appealing piece, but an untitled work from 1988 does at least tell a story. This is a spray-painted, rusted, scratched and shot-up found object. Once a No Trespassing sign, it relates a tale of transgression, the demise of private property and a lawless backwoods existence. Visual elements work here with a text (“Violators will be prosecuted”), and we can at last see what is written.

William S. Burroughs, untitled (1988)
William S. Burroughs, untitled (1988)

But elsewhere, the artist will make a gnomic collage with some photos of lemurs. This piece is called “The Prison Scribe,” but it lacks a clear inscription. We are left to search out the notes for our meaning — it turns out that the writer/artist had concerns for the environment, in particular the ravaging of Madagascar.

Burroughs the eco-warrior may surprise some viewers, even as the sentiment informs a 21st century show at October. Catalogue essays humanize the man, bringing his interests in line with our times. But unless you believe in the mystical potential of altered states, it might take more than some four-by-six photos and some abstract paintwork to stop the forces that are devastating our planet. This is an area in which his mass-produced writing has surely more power than his art.

It is tempting to say that by taking up the brush, a famously spiky writer has learned a cuddly trick or two from his lemur friends. Not knowing better, you might even say his silvery pine stencils were made as Christmas decoration (“Black Christmas Tree”) and that his glowing red feline (“Radiant Cat”) was designed to provoke a forum-full of LOLs. There is indeed a winning sense of humor which, along with the mythical circumstances of the works’ creation, carries this show off just fine.

But as for deeper, hidden meanings: Unless they start putting something in the mint tea, you may not see it.

William S. Burroughs: All out of time and into space runs at October Gallery (24 Old Gloucester Street, London) through February 16, 2013. 

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