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William S. Burroughs: The Ripper Spirals, 11 March - 29 April 29, 2023, Semiose Gallery, Paris

Tatsiana Zhurauliova

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1I have often felt uneasy about William S. Burroughs’s romance with guns. A central figure of the Beat generation, Burroughs (1914–1997) was born in St. Louis and resided in various locations throughout his life, including New York, Mexico City, Paris, London, and Tangier. In 1981, he settled in Lawrence, Kansas, where he amassed an extensive collection of guns and regularly went target shooting at the nearby farm of his friend, Fred Aldrich. Guns played a prominent role in his literary works, most notably in “The War Universe” published in Painting and Guns (1992), as well as his visual art from that period. They also became a recurrent feature of Burroughs’s public image, frequently referenced in interviews and treated as accessories in the writer’s photographic portraits. The profound connection between Burroughs and guns is exemplified by the French newspaper Libération’s choice of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photograph of Burroughs staring down the barrel of a rifle, taken in 1981, as the illustration for the writer’s 1997 obituary (“William Burroughs”). For me, this association has seemed too reductive, reinforcing the myth of the Great American Artist in its uncritical (and racialized) evocation of the Wild West. And then there is the matter of Burroughs fatally shooting his wife, Joan Vollmer, in 1952, which cannot help but haunt his posturing with guns.

Fig. 1. Exhibition view. William S. Burroughs: The Ripper Spirals

Fig. 1. Exhibition view. William S. Burroughs: The Ripper Spirals

Photograph by A. Mole. Courtesy Semiose, Paris.

2These associations have made it challenging for me to engage with Burroughs’s “shotgun paintings,” which he began creating in 1982. Burroughs described how he arrived at the technique in Painting and Guns: “I picked up a piece of plywood and blasted it. Then I looked at the broken plywood where the shots came out and in these striations I saw all sorts of things—little villages, streets of all kinds. I said, ‘My God, this is a work of art’” (Burroughs 13). A selection of these shotgun works was recently exhibited in Paris at Semiose Gallery, displayed alongside Burroughs’s collages and paintings from the 1980s and 1990s.

3Spanning two rooms, the twenty-eight pieces on view offer a comprehensive glimpse into Burroughs’s visual practice during the era, showcasing a variety of techniques and materials: plywood blasted with gun shots and gun powder burns, covered with spray paint; gestural paintings in ink and paint on wood, paper, and file folders; as well as ink, paint, and photo collages. Importantly, the exhibition also reveals the poignant quality of Burroughs’s art: bathed in bright light and contrasting sharply against the pristine whiteness of the gallery walls, these pieces are evocative and disturbing, confronting the viewer and challenging their conceptions of art, beauty, and “good taste.”

4Unlike his writing, Burroughs’s visual art, and his shotgun paintings in particular, can hardly be called pioneering. By the 1980s, there existed a veritable tradition of guns being used in art. In 1942, Marcel Duchamp fired five shots at a stone wall of Kurt Seligmann’s barn in upstate New York and used a photograph of the resultant traces for the cover of the First Papers of Surrealism exhibition catalog, puncturing holes through the cover to accentuate bullet hole imprints. In 1943, American artist Joseph Cornell crafted a piece titled Habitat Group for Shooting Gallery, which showcased a gunshot hole in its face glass. The 1950s saw Italian artist Alberto Burri shooting at paint cans set against canvases. Between 1961 and 1963, French artist Niki de Saint Phalle created her Tir series, in which she shot at plaster-covered paint bags on varied supports with a .22 caliber rifle, causing colorful explosions upon impact. Whether Burroughs knew about these precedents remains a matter of debate. For example, writer Barry Miles argues that while Burroughs was familiar with Saint Phalle’s gunshot art, he did not make the connection to his own work (Sobieszek 101).

  • 1 Reprinted from a transcript of a tape-recorded discussion between Burroughs and Gysin, c. 1960.

5Similarly, Burroughs’s gestural paintings from the 1980s and 1990s, created on a variety of supports, were influenced by Surrealist experiments with automatic writing, Abstract Expressionist painting, and calligraphy. In the 1950s, Burroughs met and became close friends with painter Brion Gysin, who contributed to the development of Burroughs’s cut-up technique and the creation of the Dreamachine. Gysin, who had briefly associated with the Surrealists in the 1930s, developed a keen interest in automatic writing. This, combined with his exploration of Japanese calligraphy, culminated in a unique gestural painting style that left a significant mark on Burroughs’s own artistic endeavors. Burroughs credited Gysin with introducing him to painting, describing the impact of the latter’s works as “a port of entry”: “It is often a face through whose eyes the picture opens into a landscape and I go literally right through that eye into that landscape. Sometimes it is rather like an archway... any number of little details or a special spot of color makes the port of entry and then the entire picture will suddenly become a three-dimensional frieze in plaster or jade or some other precious material” (Sobieszek 96).1

Fig. 2. Exhibition view. William S. Burroughs: The Ripper Spirals

Fig. 2. Exhibition view. William S. Burroughs: The Ripper Spirals

Photograph by A. Mole. Courtesy Semiose, Paris.

6Despite the apparent belatedness or even derivative nature of Burroughs’s works, the exhibition at Semiose Gallery succeeds in highlighting the poignancy of these pieces and their impact on the viewer. In the shotgun pieces, garish, acidic colors complement the splintered and cracked edges of raw plywood. The texture of the material is further emphasized by additional damage inflicted by bullets, shrapnel, and gunpowder burns. Bullet holes appear as wounds on the plywood pieces, an effect accentuated by their size, which approximates the dimensions of a human torso. The anthropomorphic quality of the works is heightened by vague, human-like silhouettes emerging from the painted marks. Yet, if there is a subject matter, it remains elusive: some of the planks are vertical, some horizontal, and even circular, echoing Burroughs’s concept of Gysin’s paintings oscillating between figure and landscape, only to shift into matter. Describing his own work, Burroughs writes, “I am trying to get the pictures to move. It almost happens: a face comes into almost miraculously clear focus, smiles, snarls, speaks... Then back into the picture, there on the paper, the wood” (Burroughs 11-12).

7This tension between the abstract and the representational, between figure and support, is evident in one of the works on view—Burning Bullets, produced in 1987. On one side, the piece features a negative stencil of a human-like silhouette outlined by acid green spray paint against the raw plywood. One of the figure’s shoulders is missing, blasted off by a gunshot that splintered and burned the plywood. The violent point of impact causes the eye to oscillate between the painted figure and the support. At the same time, the other side of the work refuses to cohere into an image amidst the chaotic layering of drips and splashes of vivid greens and reds, drawing attention instead to the process of paint application. On this side, it seems as if the spray paint was applied after the gunshot, seeping into the splintered wood, emphasizing the materiality of both paint and support. Indeed, all the shotgun pieces are insistently three-dimensional, compelling the viewer to walk around them, unfolding in time and space during the viewing process.

8For Burroughs, shooting cans of spray paint placed in front of supports or at plywood directly serves as one of his “randomizing techniques” (Burroughs 17). Like the cut-up, the cut-in, and flicker vision, the shotgun blast is a chance operation that enables the expansion, and perhaps even liberation, of one’s perception. As the artist put it, “But that’s the whole point of painting: multiple points of view can be simultaneously presented. One expands the area of awareness, and one seeks new frontiers in randomness. A shotgun blast produces explosions of color that approach this basic randomness” (Burroughs 11).

9In contrast to the evocative shotgun works, the collages in the exhibition, while skillfully executed, appear less engaging. Juxtaposing spray-painted, gestural surfaces with found photographic images, these pieces come across as didactic exercises in the collage medium, lacking the depth and oscillation of meaning found elsewhere in the exhibition. Instead, they seem more commercial than the rest of Burroughs’s body of work on view, fitting neatly into the concept of a work of art as a coherent, singular, and self-contained object.

Fig. 3. William S. Burroughs. Untitled, 1992

Fig. 3. William S. Burroughs. Untitled, 1992

Ink on file folder, double-sided. Photograph by A. Mole. Courtesy Semiose, Paris

10Surprisingly, some of the most impactful works in the exhibition are those that appear the least spectacular: Burroughs’s paintings on file folders. In these pieces, Burroughs employs a combination of techniques such as painting, calligraphic writing, stenciling, and decalcomania to cover both sides of each folder, at times challenging and at times highlighting the bilateral symmetry of the support. Gestural, abject, disposable, repetitive—these are some of the characteristics of these works that resist a stable meaning or value.

11Taken as a whole, the exhibition serves as a testament to Burroughs’s multimedia practice, highlighting how his works blur the boundaries between the high and the low, instead embracing a range of materials and gestures, imbuing them with a quality that is simultaneously violent, abject, and melancholy. It appears to echo Burroughs himself: “You see, and everything you see is alive, and everything you see means something special to you because you see it. If it meant nothing to you, you wouldn’t see it. If you can see these paintings, then they will come alive for you, move and change, shift and range” (Burroughs 47).

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Bibliographie

BURROUGHS, William S. Painting and Guns. Paris: Hanuman Books, 1992.

SOBIESZEK, Robert A. Ports of Entry: William S. Burroughs and the Arts. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1996.

“William Burroughs décroche.” Libération, August 4, 1997.

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Notes

1 Reprinted from a transcript of a tape-recorded discussion between Burroughs and Gysin, c. 1960.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1. Exhibition view. William S. Burroughs: The Ripper Spirals
Crédits Photograph by A. Mole. Courtesy Semiose, Paris.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/docannexe/image/22413/img-1.png
Fichier image/png, 2,9M
Titre Fig. 2. Exhibition view. William S. Burroughs: The Ripper Spirals
Crédits Photograph by A. Mole. Courtesy Semiose, Paris.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/docannexe/image/22413/img-2.png
Fichier image/png, 3,0M
Titre Fig. 3. William S. Burroughs. Untitled, 1992
Crédits Ink on file folder, double-sided. Photograph by A. Mole. Courtesy Semiose, Paris
URL http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/docannexe/image/22413/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 165k
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Tatsiana Zhurauliova, « William S. Burroughs: The Ripper Spirals, 11 March - 29 April 29, 2023, Semiose Gallery, Paris »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2023, consulté le 22 février 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/22413 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/transatlantica.22413

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