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William Burroughs Shooting Art

Words:

Edd Norval
April 3, 2018

There's been a lot of talk in the news about guns recently. They're everywhere, from school-shootings to the war-torn stretches of land that remain as inhospitable borderlands between countries. Everyone has an opinion on them, but if anyone knows about guns, it's probably this man.

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William S. Burroughs - the godfather of punk. He was a hero to the Beat Generation of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. His life was lived with a reckless abandon that is seldom if ever heard about in today's culture. He's a cultural dodo-bird - he didn't give a shit about many things, apart from his words and his guns.


There are many pictures that exist of him, always looking the part of the literary iconoclast - a true eccentric in an era when they were more common than ever. What do all the photographs have in common? His wrinkled skin from a life well-lived? A cigarette? Yes, those things. But also his guns - something that became well-known in Kerouac's On The Road as he took the name Old Bull Lee. A rifle-totin' madman secluded in an old farmhouse. A wandering sage, a teacher of lessons he learned the hard way.


Burroughs, best known as a writer, was also an artist known for using guns to make paintings. It made sense really, he found a way to play with his guns as well as creating something. His history with guns hasn't always been laugh-a-minute though. Once during a drink and drug-fuelled game of William Tell (shooting an apple of another person's head) Burroughs levelled his pistol at his common-law wife Joan Vollmer and shot her straight through the head.


Aged 28 she died. Burroughs walked. His love of all things deadly continued.

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Burroughs must be considered one of the greatest American writers of all-time. His stories range from autobiographical to homoerotic cowboy stories - all infused with the kind of surrealism that is so intoxicatingly inventive that you struggle to questions its authenticity. Aside from content - he also helped pioneer the cut-up technique, borrowed from Dadaism. He chopped up poems to reconfigure them into something harder to swallow. Sometimes funny, sometimes nightmarish gobbledygook that came from one of his mind's darker recesses - they always oozed with creativity.


It was no surprise that he eventually started working in aesthetic mediums as well as text-based. He wholeheartedly embraced the frontierism of the American mentality, he was an outlaw and embraced his image as such. So when it came to making paintings - he knew what he had to do. The methodology is rough and tumble, there's very little in the way of balance in his splatter-art. He blasts his shotgun at a can of spraypaint that simultaneously explodes as well as decimating a hole in the surface - usually boards of wood. His kyphosis-ridden gait, old and frail externally, (yet sharp as a tack internally) holds onto the gun like he would a woman, or a man - both of whom he had loved passionately.

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Did the artwork have any redeeming artistic value? What the hell kind of question is that? Of course it did, it came from the same hands that wrote some of America's defining novels on sex, drugs and raucious living. The artwork is from the mind that helped to give us the Beat Generation - the group of young men and woman that opened our eyes to the potential future and irresistible present in American history whereby the preconceptions of behaviour were being challenged on the daily. They weren't hippies though - they were poets, railway men, young college football stars, utterly dazzling minds that wrote with a spontaneous jazz-influenced rhythm that allowed their words to transcend the page.


More than anything else, to own one of pieces of art is like having a lock of Jesus Christ's beard. It must be bestowed with some kind of power. Besides Keith Richards, no other body has managed to survive the ritual abuse that his has, although he passed away in 1997, aged 83. The warped abstract-expressionism has an uncanny similarity of feeling to the devil-dance work of Jackson Pollock. It came from somewhere inexplicable.


When asked about the process he makes it sounds easy, "There is no exact process. If you want to do shotgun art, you take a piece of plywood, put a can of spray paint in front of it, and shoot it with a shotgun or high powered rifle." Even Burroughs considers it a spiritual descendent of the Pollock drip. It sits somewhere between cowboy and artistic genius.

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He might well have been cashing-in on his love of shooting things - be they alive or be they not, but there's something mesmerizing about the work. It's like a tragedy caught in freeze frame - a head hitting a steering wheel after a high speed crash or a person that's jumped off of a high building. These ugly, devastating events are hard to look at, but harder to look away from.


The kinetic power of the pictures, painted when Burroughs had long since vacated his youthful shell, shows the bull-hearted energy he rode head-on through his life with. They are moments of great physical power and brutality caught in a colourful landscape of splintered wood and massacred paint. Not many of us could handle the life that William S. Burroughs lived, but through his paintings we can admire the crazy, beautiful, genius from a safe distance.

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