William S. Burroughs

October Gallery , Bloomsbury Friday February 15 2013 12:30 - 17:30
William S. Burroughs
Courtesy Williams S Burroughs Estate, Photo ONUK. William S Burroughs, Untitled, 1992. Acrylic on paper.

William S (for Seward) Burroughs, gun-toting drug-addicted godfather of the Beat generation – and Gap model – was such a flagrantly, sometimes fragrantly, visual writer that an exhibition of his art should have fans flocking faster than you can say 'bring on the talking asshole'. For anyone who hasn't read that bizarre buttock-centric scene in 'Naked Lunch', or any of his other novels, such as 'Junky' or 'Queer', Burroughs's visual art isn't the most fruitful place to begin.

Anyone who has will find his paintings and works on paper, most of which were made in Lawrence, Kansas, where the author lived from the 1980s until his death in 1997, to be blandly vanilla in comparison.

While Burroughs's cut-up technique of randomly slicing and splicing texts finds a natural equivalent in collage, the spectre of early-twentieth-century art movement dada looms large over works that, created in the 1990s, look like yesterday's formal battles. The ghosts of abstract expressionism stalk him in several untitled works that add a belated frisson of blood red, needle-track gore to action painting.

Call it the curse of the cultural icon, but little here transcends the narrative of Burroughs's life. His gunshot paintings, for instance – paper targets and pieces of wood peppered with bullet holes – may, as the handout suggests, have been part of his inner penitence for shooting dead his wife during a drunken game of 'William Tell', but they don't impress much as artworks in their own right.

It's tempting to say that by this point in his career Burroughs's aim was truly off, yet there are enough moments to keep you interested. His spray-painted silhouettes of nets and guns, for example, are impressively otherworldly evocations of the author's favoured motifs. They'll sustain you as you ponder the shootout in the gallery between those age-old adversaries: substance and style.


Venue name: October Gallery
Address: 24 Old Gloucester St
Opening hours: Tue-Sat 12.30pm-5.30pm
Transport: Tube: Russell Square