Artforum / April 2008
William S. Burroughs
STELLAN HOLM GALLERY
“Cut word lines—Cut music lines—Smash the control images—Smash the control machine—Burn the books—Kill the priests—Kill! Kill! Kill!” The abundance of such quotable quotes in the oeuvre of William S. Burroughs—this example is from his 1961 novel The Soft Machine—might lead some to expect that the late Beat prophet’s visual output should be as innovative and incendiary as his writing. Unfortunately, despite the unequivocal assurance of Stellan Holm Gallery’s press release that Uncle Bill, who died in 1997, was “a brilliant artist,” who spent “hours each day painting, drawing, and shooting,” the works on display in Holm’s recent minisurvey tend to feel oddly retrogressive in their privileging of gestural improvisation and use of bullet holes as physical stand-ins for penetrating ideas.
One of the two earliest works in the show, Sore Shoulder, 1982, is a case in point. A small sheet of plywood blasted with shotgun pellets, it is an undistinguished object that achieves resonance primarily by association. The Burroughs brand is shored up by a profusion of accessories and legends—the incongruous straight-man outfit and Midwestern drawl, the well-documented immersion in illicit drugs and sex (see Junkie  and Queer ), the collaborations with Brion Gysin and the time spent holed up in Tangier, the itchy trigger finger and the “William Tell” killing of Burroughs’s common-law wife, Joan Vollmer. The mere allusion to one of these in or around his artwork is enough to lend it value as a gilt-edged countercultural souvenir. Burroughs was a literary rock star (and sometimes, through collaboration with the likes of Kurt Cobain, Sonic Youth, and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, an honest-to-goodness musical one), and his signature alone confers collectibility.
Other items in the show included “Most Wanted Series,” 1992–93, a set of crude black-felt-pen portraits of characters—mostly malevolent cops—seemingly plucked from Burroughs’s dark subconscious. Back Woods Cop, 1992—a childlike sketch of a creepy, leering figure in a wide-brimmed hat that is neatly punctured by nine slugs from the artist’s rifle—is typical. Though perhaps the most dashed-off-looking works in the exhibition, these voodoo doll–like avatars chime with contemporary sensibilities rather more than the rest; think David Shrigley with a Winchester.
Firearms imagery also crops up in Ghost Town, ca. 1992, a stenciled spray painting on paper in which the pale silhouettes of a number of pistols are gathered in a loose net, but the uninfl ected technique here renders the subject oddly innocuous. The cave painting–like look of basic stenciling is a little more successful when the overall design of the work is more complex, as in Untitled Triptych, 1993, which is reminiscent of one of David Smith’s “Sprays.” More prevalent in this show, however, were examples of Burroughs’s more generic brushy, all-over application of paint and ink on paper: Mélange de Toute (Mix of Everything), 1994, Market Talks, 1992, Death, ca. 1992, and several other works all employ it. A few, like 45 Death and Untitled (Railtracks Blockade) (both 1987) also incorporate simple photocollage, but the significance of the images is indeterminate.
In his and Burroughs’s collaborative book The Third Mind (1979), Gysin makes a case for collage- and chance-derived methods in poetry and prose, complaining that “writing is fifty years behind painting.” In Burroughs’s oeuvre, the formulation seems to have been effectively reversed; his cultural influence remains pervasive, but is derived primarily from inventions and co-inventions like the cut-up-and-fold-in technique and the visioninducing “dreamachine.” In his novel The Western Lands (1987), Burroughs wrote: “Cheat your landlord if you can and must, but do not try to shortchange the Muse. It cannot be done. You can’t fake quality any more than you can fake a good meal.” While this exhibition may have satisfied the appetites of Burroughs obsessives, less fanatical viewers probably left the gallery hungry.
Image: William S. Burroughs, Back Woods Cop, 1992