Artwork of William S. Burroughs On Display in London [Gallery]
Cult writer William S. Burroughs – perhaps best known for innovative and controversial novel Naked Lunch and his association with the Beat scene — was not just a fiercely creative writer, but also a talented painter, as it turns out. Although he only dedicated time to painting during the last ten years of his life, All Out of Time and Into Space, a collection of his work at London’s October Gallery, show Burroughs to be almost as experimental in his artwork as he was in his writing.
Works like “Spoor of the fungus on a whispering south wind” find him smearing mushroom spores into ghostly shapes, but it’s far more than just novelty or random play – Burroughs clearly knew the kind of aesthetic he wanted and was more than competent in achieving it.
Perhaps surprisingly, spray paint seems to have been one of his favorite mediums, but there are also photo collages and repeated use of stencils, perhaps the most interesting example of which is an untitled ink and photo work, which features numerous tiny, detailed animal stencils — snakes, giraffes and what seems to be a minotaur head — scattered across walls of manic background smudges. It’s a captivating piece, and shows Burroughs’ keen eye for detail, which he occasionally veers towards between wilder phases.
Although the more complex, thought-out pieces like “Death by Lethal Injection” – a shadowy black and yellow medley which demonstrates Burroughs’ experimentation with grid forms – offer their own attraction, some of the simpler works, such as cartoon-ish portraits drawn with a marker (including one of Jack the Ripper) or “Animated Tassels” – a painted word made unidentifiable by layering thick streaks of red paint over it – are even more appealing.
The psychedelic elements of Burroughs’ writing also make an appearance in several of his paintings, such as the swirled neon green patterns and skeleton stencils of “X-Ray” and the dayglo “Radiant Cat” and the space theme in the exhibition title (and explored in his writing) is also alluded to in several works.
Overall, it’s a fascinating dip into an alternative pocket of Burroughs’ mind, showing that his artistic endeavours reached far beyond just that of a (brilliant) writer dabbling with a paintbrush – or spray can. And while the works on display are, unsurprisingly, abstract, there’s also a great deal of immediate aesthetic pleasure to be had from them.
October Gallery, 24 Old Gloucester Street, Bloomsbury, London WC1N 3AL
Title image: William S. Burroughs, Untitled, ca. 1988, Spray paint on Paper, 59 x 37 cm, William S. Burroughs Trust, Photo ONUK, Courtesy October Gallery, London.