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New York
Interview with Rodney Dickson
by Trong Gia Nguyen

New York, June 2010:  Senior East Coast Editor Trong Nguyen speaks with Irish-American artist Rodney Dickson, whose exhibition of new paintings at Gasser Grunert is an exceptionally fine example of how alive the medum can be, in the right hands.


Rodney Dickson, Number 26, 2009, Oil on Canvas, 23 x 17 inches; Courtesy the artist and Gasser Grunert

Trong Gia Nguyen: In the press release for your show at Gasser  Grunert it says that you are your "own man" and "a great force in painting" who disregards passing fashion and style. Did you write that, and what do you make of it?

Rodney Dickson: I am not sure I exactly wrote that but it is something I might say, I am not even sure I said that, but it sounds appropriate to me. My work, be it painting, installation, performance, film - whatever it is, has been continuing for many years and all of it is linked over that time. The link might not always be logical but I see it in that way. Although I work in various mediums, it is painting that I like to do best. I see all of my paintings as being in development and I am never entirely satisfied with any of them. They just continue from one to another and each one taking 3 months or longer, for the bigger ones. I am not much interested in the current trends in art and not much of a gallery goer. Of course, living in New York, I do get to see what is going on and many elements of what I see I find interesting, but I am working on my own ideas in my studio and that is where my interest lies. I am just trying to get better at what I do, it is not easy and it takes me a long time.

TGN: Surface and texture are such a big part of your paintings, where one can really see the history of your wrestling with the work itself. Did you ever make "crisp and clean" paintings?

RD: I don't entirely set out to make them thick with paint, it kind of just builds that way through my constant reworking. If I could get the painting to a point which I like quickly enough, the surface might be different. Some of my paintings in the show are done with very thin washes of paint and even parts are done with an air brush, such as the portraits in the white frames. I like to approach my work from all angles to try anything I can to make it work. So I guess, the answer to your question is, Yes, I have done many "crisp and clean" paintings. Some of my favorite paintings by other artists are done like that, I like Photo- or Hyper-Realist paintings for example. I think the most important element is not the thick paint or the texture, but the evidence, as you have said here of 'wrestling with the work itself'. Sometimes this can be seen by the thick paint and sometimes even when the painting is done with light washes, that struggle is there. I like to give the paintings history and personality. Things change a lot with me, and maybe next time I will do some 'crisp and clean' paintings.

TGN: I went to the Whitney Biennial and Greater New York shows recently.  I didn't see much or any painting that felt like it "honored" the medium, meaning so much of it was about fragmenting the painting medium itself, as if to distract the viewer away from painting. Whether this is good or bad, I'm not sure. But it felt very "unnecessary." So what I am trying to say is, I admire your paintings because everything seems necessary and essential, like it needs to be there. No more. No less.  What are some paintings that you have seen recently that you've liked, and for what reasons?

Rodney Dickson, War Remnants Museum, 2007, installation and performance; Courtesy the artist and Gasser Grunert

RD: That is an interesting question and the examples of the Whitney and PS1 shows are relevant. It sounds like the kind of thing we could discuss for an evening over a bottle of wine; when I was a student we used to do that often. Painters that have influenced me in my life could go right back to Van Gogh or Rembrandt and all the usual suspects from art history. I cannot think of any really good painters I have seen around New York lately though. In a way I am always interested to see paintings that are a genuine and honest effort to create something, something personal that comes from the heart, even if that work has failed in someway or is not fully resolved. It is difficult to see that in New York as so much art is influenced by the art market and artists are so career motivated. I am more interested in art I have seen elsewhere, such as in Asia. I like the paintings of Tran Luong in Hanoi, his early paintings had something honest in them, when he was desperately searching for a means to express his ideas through paint. Svay Ken in Cambodia, interests me too, he died recently, but was a self taught artist who may be considered to be a naive painter. His work though, is not really naive as he used paint in a sophisticated way to create his world. He painted what he saw around him and an overview of his work shows that troubled countries' recent history. In China I like the paintings of Xing Jun Qin, an Army artist who paints huge propaganda paintings of the Chinese army. In Burma I like very much the paintings of Thar Gyi, whose early work is really very good. He did some scenes of Rangoon in which he used paint inventively to express the heat and intense sun light of that tropical climate. I saw a show recently of paintings by Marlene Dumas which was in some way interesting too but the greatest living painter is Frank Auerbach. He has worked constantly all of his life on the same themes, getting better and better all of the time, most of us cannot really compare to that.

In the Whitney and PS1 shows, there were some paintings, not a lot, and they were not entirely without interest, but overall those shows are not much concerned with painting. You know, when you go around, there are a lot of paintings out there, but I do not feel they are trying to develop the medium, more so they are done as an element of an installation, or the paint is used in some quirky way to decorate a room. You have said, they do not honor the medium, I find those particular words a bit strange, but yes, you could say that is true.

TGN: In past work, the history of such conflicts as Ireland and Vietnam found their way into your installations, performances, and paintings. What are in these new paintings?

Rodney Dickson, Queen Bee, 2004, installation and performance;  Courtesy the artist and Gasser Grunert

RD: A bit of those things are still in the work. As I said before, the work has been continuing for many years and one thing kind of leads to another. These paintings are not so issue based as previous ones. For example, I did a lot of work that related to Vietnam and/or the Vietnam war. The paintings in this show do not deal directly with that, but there is a general sense of unease in the work. They are partly connected to some work I did in Burma earlier this year and to things I have seen in developing countries in Asia. Also something about the recent global economic crisis and general chaos in the world.

You know what, I can tell you a story:
I never wanted to do a 'nice' painting and always wanted to push myself in the work. One way I did this was to make paintings that challenged my own sensibilities so I would purposely use a color that would make me feel slightly uncomfortable but somehow to make it work within the painting. In this show, there are a series of big paintings with a lot of white in them. I did those 'white' paintings over about five years, partly because I did not like white much and considered it a boring color. So I challenged myself to try to do some white paintings. Red has always been my favorite color, but I would never allow myself to do red paintings as I thought that would be too comfortable. Last year, I decided to indulge myself and do some red paintings. So in a way, these are the only paintings I have done which I might consider to be beautiful.

As well as the thick paintings in the show, there are the portraits in the white frames done with a very little amount of thin paint and a limited palette. I saw a DVD about the artist Sally Mann who had taken some photos of dead bodies left outside to decompose. She spoke very well about her interest in that and the flow of life, from birth to death and the return back to the earth and how that is a natural process. This has always been an element of my work, but the way she explained it, gave me the idea for those paintings.

The five 'rubber' paintings are in some way, experiments related to the big paintings, kind of working out ideas to be used in the big ones. I say 'kind of' because I do not really work in that way. I do not prepare in that way. I work out ideas in the painting and experiment as I go along. However, they feel to me like they are in some way linked to the big red ones. They are not 'rubber' either, but one of my collectors used that name to describe them and I liked it, so I use that name for them. They are actually acrylic painted onto plastic and then peeled off. So there is no other material in those other than paint, no canvas or paper as a base. Acrylic is a bit like Rubber, right ?

Rodney Dickson, Queen Bee (Aftermath), 2004, installation and performance; Courtesy the artist and Gasser Grunert

TGN: You go from this literally "pure painting" that is a transparent essence and nothing more than what it is materially, to the framed portraits that seem to hide behind the veil of the glass, itself painted on and over.  The marks on the glass have this notching, serial quality that also looks like precipitation. And they are very brooding. Why are the darkness and "rain"?

RD: I try to make my paintings more than just paint on canvas, I want them to exist in the real world and have a life of their own. Those framed portraits, I consider to be objects where the frame and the glass are as much a part of it as the painted portrait inside. In some of them I messed up the glass with a hot air gun and sometimes I painted marks on the glass and scraped some of it off. In those ones it is a little difficult to see the painting below, but that is fine, it is the whole object I am concerned about, not just the portrait below the glass. I had been thinking of them possibly being buried in the ground and later exhumed, so they had been effected by this time and the elements, just as we are in our real lives.

I saw art works in museums in developing countries which had not been preserved as they are here. They had been changed by time, the climate, by wars and the money was not available to restore them. I found those to be quite interesting, and maybe more than if they had still been like new. Why should they be like new - people get old and change, should art works not change too ?

TGN: For the last several years you've also been pre-occupied with your Queen Bee and Fucked Up performances. Both of these look at the dark and cruel sides of human nature, casting misfits who do naughty deeds and pretty Asian girls who tend bar or do other "service-oriented" activities within the work. How are these roles and actions reflected in today's modern society, and what is the significance of these "stereotypes" and your need to portray them?

RD: I grew up in a violent society, in Northern Ireland during the '70s. This made me curious about the psychology of people and how seemingly 'normal' people can do all kinds of terrible things when put in extreme situations. Wars for example seem to bring out the worst in people. Those shows are about that. For about eight years I worked in Vietnam every year and I was at that time curious about the Vietnam War. The Queen Bee show came directly from that interest and is in fact based on a true story told to me by a friend, about how she entered a deserted prostitute bar the day after the war ended in Saigon. She described very well the ghostly atmosphere of this recently evacuated place. In that show I was trying to recreate this atmosphere whilst also making some comment on the effects of war. The Fucked Up shows reference the chaotic society we have right now, with economies in a bad state and wars around the world. I am trying to create chaos in the gallery by getting a bunch of noisy and often violent activities to take place simultaneously. Actually, those performances are sets for a film I am working on as they are filmed each time around the world. Sometime when I feel I have enough of these films, I will do a show using all the films and more live chaos. That might be in New York and maybe at the end of 2011 or 2012. So far I have done Fucked Up shows in New York, Beijing, Rangoon (Burma) and Hanoi (Vietnam) and next year they will be in Estonia, Mexico and Taiwan.

I have to change the name sometimes because of censorship in some countries. So I sometimes call it Entertainment 2009 - Entertainment 2010 etc: Funny thing is, when I did it in Beijing, we were advised we could get censored there, so I used the Entertainment title for that show. At the end of my time in China, I was interviewed for TV and the last question was, why did you not call your show Fucked Up? I was not expecting this question, I told them it was out of politeness and respect for their culture. They said, you should have called it Fucked Up, we think it is a better title.

Funny, Right...............?

TGN: You are also spending a good amount of time on motorbikes these days, fixing them up and even exhibiting them at bike shows. How do the mediums of motorbiking and painting compare?

RD: I got into motorbikes when I was a teenager living in Northern Ireland, in retrospect I realize it might have been a means of survival, to get an interest other than the politics of the country at that time, which most people were obsessed with and as a young man, it often led to big trouble. Motorcycles could physically transport us out of the local streets as well as mentally provide another kind of obsession. In relation to my art, it is kind of an opposite discipline but one that I think is healthy. I collect them and restore them and when I am working on those it takes my mind off my painting. Artists often get obsessed by their work and I find it healthy to take a step back from the work at times and later look at it from a different perspective. Thing is, art can drive you a little crazy, as there are no rules, no right and wrong and no beginning or end. Of course that is why creative people love it, but it also makes any kind of conclusive judgement almost impossible. Working on a motorcycle is almost the opposite of that as there is only one way things fit together and if you do it the wrong way, it does not work. After a while I get bored with this and go back to painting, but that break seems to be helpful.

I have used my motorbikes in some of my 'happenings' because the noise fits with the violent activity I want to create, I had motorbikes in my Fucked Up shows in Beijing and Hanoi and this year I was invited to show 3 of them which I made myself in New York Motorcycle Show in the Javits Center, that is a big honor - you know - so I must admit to being proud of that.

ArtSlant would like to thank Rodney Dickson for his assistance in making this interview possible.

--Trong Gia Nguyen

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