In 1978, when famed fashion photographer Brian Duffy told artist Derek Boshier he had a friend he wanted him to meet — “I think you two will really get on” — Boshier thought he was being set up on a blind date with a woman. In reality, Duffy wanted to introduce him to David Bowie. At the time, Boshier had been tapped by the British Council — the U.K.'s version of the NEA, roughly — to curate an exhibition, and Duffy, who shot Bowie's Aladdin Sane album cover, was one of the artists Boshier had invited to participate. “Back then, there was a distinction between high art and low art,” Boshier says in the course of discussing a career that's served to destroy that distinction. The three men ended up working together to produce the art for Bowie's 1979 album Lodger. And the rest, as they say, is history.
U.K. native and longtime L.A. resident Boshier has spent his career mining popular culture to the extent that he's become a part of it. His new retrospective at downtown's Night Gallery, called “On the Road,” explores that decades-long preoccupation through works produced as far back as the '70s and as recently as last year, including a trio of large-scale paintings he created in the wake of Bowie's death. Boshier, who studied alongside fellow expat David Hockney at the Royal College of Art, initially moved to L.A. to take a teaching position at CalArts and, just this year, was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to work on archival and film projects.
The show is divided into three distinct parts, including a series of newer paintings that feature disembodied hands holding up smartphones in front of beautifully rendered natural and architectural landscapes, a not-so-subtle criticism of our tech obsession. But the Bowie paintings, located in the center gallery, feel like the beating heart of the show (which isn't to say the other two rooms are anything less than essential viewing).
Although Bowie didn't tell many (or any people) he was dying, Boshier was one of multiple friends he contacted via email shortly before his death, presumably to say goodbye without actually saying goodbye. He complimented Boshier on his recent book project, telling him “your work cascades down the decades,” a line that stood out to Boshier as particularly lyrical. Boshier intended to reconnect with him after that but never did.
After Bowie's death in January 2016, Boshier decided he'd make a painting. Rather than waiting for inspiration to strike, he found inspiration everywhere. He compares it to the experience of shopping for an automobile: “It’s very similar to when you want to go out and buy a car and you can’t decide whether it’s going to be a Toyota or Chevrolet, so those are all the cars you see for the next few days — you keep spotting them.” He began seeing Bowie everywhere. On a visit to London, for instance, he came upon the site of the city's first nightclub and started researching the club's proprietress, aspiring opera singer Teresa Cornelys. “She set trends in fashion and music and things,” he says. “I bought a biography and thought, she’s the 18th-century David Bowie.”
The first of the three paintings he produced features Bowie alongside Cornelys, who's wearing a purple wig and knickerbockers, green tights and white face paint. Behind them are renderings of midcentury modern apartment interiors. Upon that work's completion, he thought: “I’m on a roll here, I’ll do more than one.”
In the second painting, two of Bowie's personas stand side by side, one of them the Scary Monsters–era harlequin and the other as Boshier says his friend would dress when visiting New York, in a dark overcoat and hat, looking not unlike a 1950s businessman. In the third painting, two Ziggy Stardust–era Bowies flank Jack Kerouac, hence the show's name. After his friend's death, Boshier read an interview with Bowie he'd never read before, in which the musician said reading On the Road changed his life. “He said he realized after reading On the Road that he didn't have to be conventional, so he immediately went out and bought a saxophone and started painting,” Bosier says with a laugh.
The show also features sketches Boshier did when creating the Lodger album cover, relics of pop culture created by one of its most notable commentators.
“On the Road,” Night Gallery, 2276 E. 16th St., downtown; opens Sat., May 13, 7-10 p.m. (through June 17). nightgallery.ca.