Showing a strong affinity with mid-century modern, the new works by Southern California artist Michelle Bickford look like stills from a Googie operating room.
They explore the body, its trauma, and its stories, all with a space-age sensibility born from an engineer’s mindset.
In vignettes of related works, Bickford’s upcoming Los Angeles show at La Luz de Jesus Gallery in August aims to focus on the less-than-glamorous mishaps that befall us as vulnerable bags of flesh.
‘The Black Eye’ series, for example, starts with a stylized, three-dimensional portrait of a black eye and the fight that caused it, then a cityscape depicting the tense journey away from the fight, and finally relief in the form of a cold steak compress.
The subject matter is raw, but when rendered in Bickford’s quirky, cartoonish style, it feels less visceral than simply curious.
Bickford incorporates wooden cutouts as well as paint to make her work rise from the canvas. “I look at art as if I’m creating a problem and I’m solving it. It’s like a puzzle,” she says.
The daughter of an electronics engineer who did work for NASA, Bickford spent her Fullerton childhood immersed in the space age. With mid-century Orange County outside her house, science and science fiction reigned within.
One invention she recalled was a television console equipped with a built-in record player, which her father rewired so that the music would appear as a signal on the television.
“So he put on Persuasive Percussion,” the groundbreaking audio test LP from the 1950s, “and the blue [patterns] would be the bass, and the yellow would be the guitar,” Bickford recalls. “So we’d be watching the record, with all these patterns circling around each other and expanding, and that was normal to me.”
When she started making art, Bickford says, “I started designing my world, what I lived in, and what I looked at. A lot of it has to do with science fiction as well. My dad would read us bedtime stories as little girls.”
To this day, Bickford says, “when I’m painting, I’m actually painting music. I’m translating music and emotion. And that’s where the cityscape comes in with the black eye. It’s painting emotion.”
The cutouts that define Bickford’s work also harken to her childhood, she says. “Ever since I was little I’ve always been doing stuff like this. Building toothpick sculptures, or cutting stuff out and three-dimentionalizing it.”
And when the laser cutter came along, it proved a perfect tool for the graphic designer’s creative works.
For Bickford, success as an artist comes after a career in graphic design, first designing ads for the yellow pages, then making t-shirts, and eventually working as production manager for the eyeglass industry magazine Frames.
“I loved that [stuff],” Bickford says, “but I’m an artist, so I kind of plunked myself down and said: ‘you know what, I have a goal, I have something to say, and I’m going to say it.’
“It was never for attention. I kind of kept to myself, and if something hit, it hit.”
• Michelle Bickford’s La Luz de Jesus Gallery show, a mini-exhibition with seven other artists, runs August 2 to September 1. 4633 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. Laluzdejesus.com. Also view Bickford’s work at michellebickford.com.