Dead Aim: The Unseen Art of William S. Burroughs

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Major Exhibit of Burroughs’ Artwork to Open in London

Dead Aim exhibition inviteA major exhibit of William S. Burroughs’ artwork will open September 14th, 2005, in London at the Riflemaker gallery. “Dead Aim: The Unseen Art of William S. Burroughs” is the first installment of a three-part exhibition organized in collaboration with the Burroughs Estate. The exhibit is being curated by the gallery directors, Tot Taylor and Virginia Damtsa, along with Jose Ferez Kuri, editor of the book Brion Gysin: Tuning in to the Multimedia Age, and James Grauerholz, who also wrote a text for the book that accompanies the exhibition. In addition, Steven Lowe — a Burroughs collaborator who also owns the Beat Hotel in Desert Hot Springs, California — contributed an essay about target-shooting, and there are photographs by Gerard Malanga and Robert Mapplethorpe.

The first part of the exhibition will feature forty rifle-range targets, the so-called “shot sheriff” drawings. Never exhibited before, this series of targets “began on January 11, 1992 at the farm of Fred Aldrich near Lawrence, Kansas,” says the gallery’s press release. “The date is marked on the first target shot, signed and dated William S. Burroughs. Burroughs used mostly his Smith and Wesson .38 special on these targets. A figure would be drawn, the gunman would get in the mood, pace around, then shoot into it with his handgun, the holes and powdermarks creating shade and depth in these ‘alien’ forms. The marker-pen and brush drawings were then embellished with ink or small pools of watercolour.”

Paul Pieroni, manager of the Riflemaker gallery and co-organizer of “Dead Aim”, kindly took the time to respond to an email interview about the exhibit.

RealityStudio: What draws you to Burroughs’ art?

Pieroni: I am attracted by the fact that the central themes of Burroughs’ Beatwriting: vice, violence and passion are reflected in his canvases, works on paper and sculptures. One can see the clear and apparent traces of Burroughs’ hetero-ontology of forces at work, thus, as in his literature, we find war, cocks, violence, dirt, parasites, guns — 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 and as fantastically distilled violent and momentary, explosions in time. In particular it is his ‘action paintings’, made by the discharging of a gun into either a hate figure drawn on a shooting practice sheet, or onto a paint splattered plywood board, which are, like his literature, 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.

RealityStudio: Why, as a gallerist, do you find Burroughs’ artwork important?

Pieroni: Burroughs is for a whole generation the absolute embodiment of active, longterm and successful iconoclasm against the hegemony of dominant value systems, therefore every node of his creative output deserves to be explored. His art, as a particular manifestation of his creativity, is as important as his literature, film works, spoken word etc… His entire oeuvre, it seems, is again ripe for re-consumption. This movement back to Burroughs is really gaining momentum, just look towards his appearance on the front cover of the TLS, or to the new reworking of his letters and literature by the likes of Oliver Harris and Barry Miles. Burroughs is back, although I’m sure he never really went away.

RealityStudio: Do you have any thoughts about its relationship to Burroughs’ literary work?

William S. Burroughs, Man in HatPieroni: One of the many motivations behind Riflemaker’s exhibition of Burroughs’ artwork stems from issues regarding the flow of traffic between his different usage of creative mediums. 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? Largely, 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 spirit, be it bad/evil or not, within him as an artist and as a man. 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 the artworks that will appear in the Riflemaker show is wholly reliant upon the viewer’s ability to relate the visual percept received to a priori knowledge of Burroughs’ literary work. This much is clear; Burroughs’ paintings do not stand up alone, they cannot. Prior knowledge here precedes the effect of the percept; Burroughs’ literature binds itself with his visual imagery in a transmission that leads to unity of understanding that can then become free in its referential oscillation between art and literature.

If Burroughs’ literature is known, if his life is understood, his pictures can be appreciated. Without the a priori knowledge of the man and his primary mode of art, these secondary performances become, quite simply, 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 serves to extend and complement his written work.

Published July 2005. The exhibition opens September 14th, 2005, at the Riflemaker art gallery, 79 Beak Street, Regent Street, London. More information can be found at exhibition press release and images of Burroughs’ works. (Many thanks to Paul Pieroni.)

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