Portrait of the Artist

The portrait stone
The portrait stone
William Burroughs, 'Portrait of the Artist as a Psychotic Junkie', 1959

William Burroughs, ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Psychotic Junkie’, 1959

As Christmas approaches, it’s perhaps appropriate that a legendary old man, with an unmistakable twinkle in his eye, should appear on the Shoreline. Yes, it’s William Burroughs.

I used to be a big fan of his writing although, at the risk of calling down the wrath of the internet, I’ll admit that after a while I found all those sex-virus addictions and hanged boys a tad repetitive. But my interest was piqued by reading of a new exhibition at the October Gallery, London, that focuses on Burroughs’ visual art, including the pithily titled Portrait of the Artist as a Psychotic Junkie, above.

Burroughs’ visual art often derives from chance events: the spray of paint from a spraygun, the patterns made by shooting firearms at canvases or wooden panels (he was, famously, a gun nut). The results might then be scrutinised for significance, or images Burroughs recognised as familiar- or rather, familiars. There’s an interesting piece about the exhibition here.

It might be stretching a point to claim Burroughs as a Surrealist (although it also might not be) , but clearly this concern with chance as a key to creativity is not so far from Surrealism’s psychic automatism, and more generally its interest in the threshold between the Conscious and Unconscious, waking and dreams, the familiar and the taboo- in other words, all the stuff of the Shoreline.

I’d been thinking of making time to check out this exhibition, and the Shoreline itself seems to be endorsing this idea – the most recent find to wash up from the depths at Saltdean beach is a striking stone likeness of the ‘psychotic junkie’ self-portrait, shown above. And rather topically, one of the other works featured in the October Gallery exhibition is entitled Black Christmas Tree:

William Burroughs, 'Black Christmas Tree', 1988

William Burroughs, ‘Black Christmas Tree’, 1988

And you can watch a short film of Burroughs’ story A Junky’s Christmas, narrated by the man himself, here. I do, of course, wish all readers a more uplifting and convivial festive period than the one depicted there. Season’s greetings to you all.


5 responses to “Portrait of the Artist

  1. Great post about the work of William S. Burroughs! I thought you might be interested in this article I wrote about WSB in the Nov.-Dec. 2006 issue of New Dawn Magazine. The article is called “William S. Burroughs: 20th Century Gnostic Visionary.” Let me know what you think! Here’s the link: http://www.newdawnmagazine.com/articles/william-s-burroughs-20th-century-gnostic-visionary

    Cheers, Robert Guffey

    Date: Mon, 24 Dec 2012 21:24:07 +0000 To: rguffey@hotmail.com

    • Very interesting article, Robert, thanks for the link. Burroughs was deeply interested in esotericism, yes, though he could be surprisingly credulous e.g. his flirtation with Scientology. Not sure about the ‘analytical eye of a surgeon’ line though- Burroughs was only a medical student very briefly and I don’t think it was at Harvard (his degree from there was in something else, I don’t know what, but it was certainly not medicine).

  2. I sometimes wish I could float over the beach – avoiding tragic incidents with hidden nests, shells, vibrant and populated tide pools…and now stones carved into portraits out of the ocean’s cleverness and whimsy! It just goes to prove that wherever one is, one must always be ready to See and Observe.

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