Jack Bilbo (1907-’67) was according to himself (and only according to himself) a Renaissance man. In his own words he was ‘an Artist, Author, Sculptor, Art Dealer, Philosopher, Psychologist, Traveller and a Modernist Fighter for Humanity’. As we can see, the art dealer got what it takes to make it in the contemporary arts world, he was a mythomaniac and, very possibly, a sociopath. Those two aspects might have appealed David Zwirner who shockingly decided to give him a solo show. I am saying this because apart from a bad artist, Bilbo was an inveterate teller of tales – many of decidedly dubious plausibility – such as his account of serving as a bodyguard to Al Capone during the 1930s.
Bilbo was self-taught, so although he may have run a gallery in London that showed the likes of Picasso, his own drawings and paintings are technically naive and clunky, with the sort of straight-on or sideways views, segmented bodies and scribbled-in backgrounds you tend to see in children’s art. There’s something childlike, too, in the feeling of inventiveness and unselfconsciousness, with scenes that feature fantastic amalgams of monsters, robots, and other magical elements. Yet for all that, there’s also a sense of carnivalesque and absurdist humour – from in-jokes about cubism to his fetishistic obsession with women’s buttocks, which become weirdly transformed into all sorts of freaky faces and patterns. If ‘outsider’ art is the art of the madmen, this is proper outsider art.
The main theme, though, is systems of power and exploitation, and the violence committed by states – hardly surprising, given Bilbo’s own experience as a Jew fleeing Nazi Germany, only to find himself interred in a British prisoner-of-war camp. Torturers, executioners, grotesque and ogre-like creatures: these are the sorts of emblematic characters that populate his drawings, and is the reason they’re ultimately more successful than his more whimsical, wistful paintings. As Bilbo put it, in one of the texts that often accompany his illustrations, ‘the state itself has neither heart, nor conscience, nor sense of humour’ – in other words, the complete opposite of Bilbo’s own quirky, yet deeply moral view of life.
This show is not but another example of the construction of artistic value through the life experience of the ‘artist’ instead of from the art itself. I honestly think this show is a big fat waste of space. J A T
BY THE WAY, WATCH ‘CAÑETE’S THE PILL’ ON LYGIA CLARK’S RETROSPECTIVE AT MOMA