By Paul Pieroni
Some words a year on…
Other than producing some of the most profoundly prophetic works of Twentieth century prose, William Seward Burroughs — especially during the latter half of his long lifetime — vicariously painted, created collage and cut and paste works, made films and cut experimental spoken word musical tracks — his notable collaborators here including Kurt Cobain, Patti Smith and Tom Waits.
But how are we to read these works?
In many ways the fractured immensity of his creative output reflects the nervous jingling intensity of his constitution; Burroughs catalysed his existence through a continual hectic pursuit of the artistic impossible — each and every one of his varied artistic pursuits reflecting this dogged lifelong quest.
An Artistic legacy
Going back as far as the Mid 1940s, to the genesis days of what would later, rather dubiously, be recorded by history as being the Beat Generation (as poet and friend of Burroughs, Gregory Corso noted, Four People — Burroughs, Ginsberg, Kerouac and Carr — ‘does not directly constitute a generation’), Burroughs was creating works of visual art in the form of scrapbooks and collage documents.
Burroughs’ art developed rapidly following a pivotal experience in the summer of 1953 when he took the hallucinogen Yagé in the remote Amazonian jungles of Peru. This experience seems to have made urgent his desire to incorporate artistic productions other than writing into his creative operation. It appears that his reliance upon writing and literature could no longer sustain in totality his hunger for sovereign creative expression. Words seemed unable to capture his experiences gained in Peru: “If I could only paint,” he explained to Allen Ginsberg, “I could convey it all.”
Fast-forward almost 40 years to 1992. Burroughs was by then, as he is now, an established great of American letters. Following the publication of seminal works such as Junkie (1953), The Naked Lunch (1959), The Soft Machine (1961) and Nova Express (1964) Burroughs was firmly installed as a true visionary, an iconoclastic literary hero of the contemporary age.
The grandeur of Burroughs’ lofty literary status sharply contrasted during these later years with his apparent satisfaction with his humble domestic lifestyle in the small university enclave of Lawrence, Kansas — a town literally in the middle of America — Burroughs had left New York for during the early Eighties. With his last major literary works — a trilogy of books comprising of Cities of The Red Night (1981), Place of Dead Roads (1983) and The Western Lands (1987) — completed and behind him, the Lawrence years are marked by a passion for his friends, his visitations to “cat club”, his guns and, perhaps above all, his painting.
The Shot Sheriffs
On the morning of January 11th, 1992, Burroughs wakes, enjoys his toast, coffee followed, as always, by a cigarette. He wanders out, shaking and shuffling in a manner that befits only the career opiate addict, onto his porch where a selection of hand guns — .22 up to .44 in caliber — await him. These loaded guns, along with simple sheets of rough watercolour paper, large black acrylic marker pens and a questionably good aim (recall that Burroughs shot his wife by accident in Mexico in 1951 when their “William Tell act” went wrong) will, on this cold January morning as on every morning for the next three weeks, combine together to form some of the most striking works of visual art he will ever produce. Burroughs names the works the “Shot Sheriff” paintings.
These hand-drawn gun targets, also referred to as “The Most Wanted” series, represent for Burroughs a pantheon of hate; with each individual target featuring the figurative representation of a particular bogeyman from his biography. We can see childishly scrawled images of drunken priests, corrupt and power hungry politicians, maniacal doctors, nasty cops, pimps, Times Square Hustlers and genetically mutated beasts.
These images are, as readers of Burroughs’ literature will well know, are the very same agents of authority and control — or at least of authority and control gone wrong — that we can identify throughout Burroughs’ written corpus. The Shot Sheriffs, appear to us, in this sense, as much as literary illustrations as they are works of visual art.
The physical process behind the creation of the Shot Sheriffs appears to suggest that Burroughs’ imagination was, in some way, haunted by these bogeymen. A target figure would be drawn, Burroughs would then get in character, pacing around, drawling and gabbing at the imaginary foes that were etched both upon the sinewy fabrics of both his own psyche and the paper targets lined up before him. Suddenly, BANG, BANG. His handgun would fire, spraying bullets onto the paper, the holes and powder marks creating shade and depth in these ‘alien’ forms.
The Shot Sheriff works, along with a large body of spray painted, stencil paintings, plywood shotgun sculptures, film works and audio cut up reels, comprise an awesome oeuvre. However, going back to the question posed earlier: how are we to understand these alternative fruits of Burroughs’ creativity?
Personally, I’m attracted to comprehend these works via the central themes of Burroughs’ writing: vice, violence, extremity, humor and passion. These themes are reflected in his canvases, works on paper and sculptures. One can see clear and apparent traces of Burroughs’ hetero-ontology of forces at work in these non-literary works, thus, as in his literature, we find also find sex, war, cocks, fun, murder, violence, dirt, virus, parasites, frivolity, politics, laughter, guns and junk.
I would argue that it is possible to view Burroughs’ art, as we have so often read his books before, as micro-incisions into human abjectivity, as fantastically distilled violent and momentary explosions in time. In particular it is the action of the Shot Sheriff paintings that, like his literature, are littered with a heavy dystopic optimism that envisions beauty in humankind’s primal urge for freedom and value in the violently creative impulses of the artist as a sovereign warrior.
Some critics have recently argued that Burroughs’ alternative artistic performances, especially his paintings, are secondary operations — that they are in some way less significant than his literary offerings. To this idea I simply cannot subscribe.
Burroughs is for a whole generation the absolute embodiment of active, long-term and successful iconoclasm against the hegemony of dominant value systems. I would argue, therefore, that every mode of his creative output deserves to be explored and evaluated on an equal ground. His art, as a particular manifestation of his creativity, is as important as his literature, both carry the same energetic spirit while bearing testament to Burroughs’ totalizing desire to break from dominant authority of systematized social control.
One of the many motivations behind Riflemaker’s exhibition of Burroughs’ artwork stems from issues regarding the flow of traffic between his employments of varied creative medium. When an author such as William Burroughs turns to fine art as a new method of conveyance, how are we to approach the fruits of his alternative expression? To answer, one must be careful to keep Burroughs’ literary work in mind when viewing his artwork. I would argue that every expression of Burroughs’ creativity stems from the same central spirit within him, be it ‘ugly’ as Burroughs would say, or other. As Graham Caveney astutely points out: ‘What is interesting about Burroughs’ canvases is that they are canvases made by Burroughs — his signature inscribing them within the crossfire of his own iconography.’
The effect of viewing Burroughs’ artworks is wholly reliant upon the viewer’s ability to relate the visual impact of the image to a prior knowledge of Burroughs’ life and his literary work. This much is clear; Burroughs’ paintings do not stand up alone, they cannot. Prior knowledge here precedes the effect of the image; Burroughs’ literature binds itself with his visual imagery, they become, as it were, as one and the same force.
If Burroughs’ literature is known and his life and biography understood, then his pictures can be appreciated. Without knowledge of the man and his primary literary mode, his alternative artistic performances become non-starters, curious anomalies, lost voices. However, if familiar with the nature of Burroughs’ literature, his artwork presents itself to the viewer as a fantastic material eruption that can only serve to extend and complement the already broad scope of his engagement with the world.