Let's Get Lost: Rodney Dickson Interviewed

Born in Northern Ireland, now residing in Brooklyn, NY, Rodney Dickson made his mark with staunchly anti-war art. This stance led to a special interest in Vietnam and Cambodia, and he has exhibited frequently in the former country -- and around the world. CultureCatch's Bradley Rubenstein recently caught up with Dickson to review his career and bring us up to date on his evolution.

Bradley Rubenstein: Let's go back a few years, first, and touch briefly on the paintings of yours that I first saw: pictures of Tanya Roberts. They evolved out of a complex system of sending off fan shots or pap shots, which were faithfully, more or less, reproduced. In retrospect, though, it seems that you were really interrogating painting via an intercontinental telephone game -- seeing how others saw American culture. How did you see the project, and how, in a larger sense, did this have anything to do with your personal painting practices either before or after those works?

Rodney Dickson: The show was about the fascination many people have with celebrities. The gallery director, Magalie Geurin, and I thought of a lonely man living alone and obsessed with a sexy actress called Tanya Roberts. I got images from the internet and emailed those to Miss Nguyen Hoang Bao Ngoc, my assistant in Saigon, Vietnam. She had them copied by local artists and mailed the finished paintings back to me in New York. I liked the international collaboration and having no control over the finished paintings. Some were highly accurate, like a photograph, and some were not at all. In some of them, Tanya looked Asian. I found them all to be interesting and made no judgment about good or bad copies. I like the element of chance, and I am ready to accept it in my own paintings, too, if it works.

I approach painting from all angles and consider it as research to develop my way of seeing. I have been working on a performance type project since 2009 called Entertainment. It came out of my current paintings, although I imagine that viewers of the show would not be aware of it. The show is in a series of parts, building up to a final show some time, and so far it has been in New York, Beijing, Hanoi, Rangoon, and Mexico City. In this project I am trying to create chaos to represent the chaos in the world by having the local people come into the gallery and do their everyday job, many of them doing different activities in the same space at the same time. I think of it as a moving painting with sound and smell and real everyday things. I think it feeds back into my painting -- at least I hope so.

I don't consider there to be boundaries in painting and have worked in figurative, sometimes highly realistic, ways. Currently my work is abstract. I am constantly searching for any way to develop my paintings. Not all of these ways may appear logical, but there are no rules and no formula for creating worthwhile art, so logical or not, if it works it is okay.

BR: Your frequent flier miles must be off the chain. That is a very peripatetic working method. In some ways you are combining elements of Joseph Beuys with painting. Interrogating it from both inside, by doing it, and outside, by seeing how others approach it. Before we get further into that, though, tell me a little about where you are from, when you first became interested in painting?

RD: That’s funny -- I don't even have frequent flier miles. I keep forgetting about it. Thanks for reminding me of it, though. I must get hooked up for that.

I was born in Bangor, Northern Ireland in 1956 and grew up in a nearby town called Newtownards. It is a small rural town, a kind of quiet place more or less -- a bit boring. At the worst time of The Troubles (a period of political strife in Northern Ireland), I was a teenager. It was a dangerous time to be that age, surrounded by violence, and many young people got drawn into that. Instead, it gave me a critical view of society and is possibly why I became an artist. I became curious about the psychology of people and how seemingly ordinary people could do terrible things when put in extreme situations. It seemed to me there might be something more to find in life than that, so through making art, I guess I am constantly searching for it.

It would be too romantic for me to say I was always compelled to be an artist, even as a child. Well, not even too romantic; it would be untrue. I could say I always enjoyed to draw, though, and was maybe the best in art class at school. It was never really in the cards for me to be an artist. In the kind of ordinary place I grew up, no one became an artist; people became terrorists, alcoholics, or maybe car mechanics, or a teacher if they did well at school. However, I went to art school in Liverpool, England in 1979, and from the first day there I knew I would be an artist. Suddenly I felt at home and not like an outsider, as I had felt previously. I had always been interested in painting, but I guess I became seriously or professionally interested in painting from my first days at art school. I found it very difficult, though, to do anything l liked and had a tough time in the first years at college. It was a good beginning, though, as it taught me to not be complacent with my work and constantly battle to find a way forward. I still do not find painting easy at all; it is the most difficult thing I do in my life, but that is okay. No one said it should be easy. I am never satisfied with my work, and I’m always trying to make the next one better than the last one. I think it is very strange when I hear artists say their work is great and everything is going well. I never think like that. I think it is always a struggle; I’m always on the edge, always fighting for a way forward. Each day is a new day, and starting again to try to paint, it never seems to get easier. No matter what I learn, there is always so much more I have yet to discover. It is endless, and because of that it is fascinating. I am excited every day to continue working to find something new.

My teacher from Liverpool Art School, Mike Knowles, said something like this: “Painting is easy; thousands of people do it everyday. But in order to make good painting, one must create a universe within the space of the canvas, and that is almost impossible.”

I graduated from Liverpool Art School in 1983 and immediately moved to live in Amsterdam, Holland. From my degree show at college, I was taken on by Murdoch Lothian Fine Art, Liverpool, the only commercial gallery in Liverpool at that time. I did my first show with Murdoch in 1984. In Amsterdam I worked with Kunst Handel Van Der Have. He later changed the name of his gallery to Torch Gallery. Sadly Adrian Van Der Have died not long ago from cancer. He was a nice guy, and I showed some early work with him in 1983. Those were my first experiences of showing my artwork professionally.

BR: How do you see all of this traveling affecting your painting, particularly as it stands today? Has it been a process of interrogating it from the outside, that is, seeing how others work on projects you designed, or has it been an investigation leading up to something?

RD: I live in New York; it is a wonderful city. There are not really more interesting places than this, and having said that, I am going to the countryside in China soon and will paint outside in nature. I enjoy traveling, and I’m always fascinated to see other cultures. Asia is the place I like most, and Vietnam is the most interesting country I have been to there. The way of life is quite different from the West, and I have been sometimes amazed by things there. Travel has affected my work in a number of ways. In a direct way, there are some artists I have met whose work I like, but I’ve also been affected by an Asian sensibility that is different from ours in the West. I don't think this is always and directly from Buddism, but probably it has a connection. There is sometimes a different idea about time; for example, an appreciation that if things happen slowly this may be a good thing, whereas in the West we often want things to happen immediately. I think similarly about my paintings; they take a long time to finish, but this is good and necessary to develop the work -- to get an experience of life into the work.

I am constantly looking for ways to move my work along, and I could not pinpoint one thing that is more important than another. Certainly travel is important, but in the end, the work is done by me in my studio, which is a very familiar place for me, and there is no one else there at that time. So ultimately it comes down to working through the paintings, day by day, relentlessly creating and destroying until something emerges that is unfamiliar to me and works in some kind of way that excites me. Therefore I could say, the investigation comes from the inside, from somewhere deep inside me, but that core could be fed by everything that has happened in my life, including traveling.

BR: In your show last June in Gasser Grunert Gallery, New York, you could see a lot of this reflected in the paintings. They appeared to be well-traveled, collecting bits of imagery and layers of paint; they had a sense of being accrued rather than designed. There was a punk feel to them, like they were put together out of a sense of urgency. Very powerful. The works that I just looked at in your studio seem to have taken a lot of those ideas and really solidified them. They seem a little tamer -- not necessarily in a bad way -- just more solid and assured. Inevitable, I believe is how I described them when we were chatting. Can you talk a little bit about the show last year and then give me some of your thoughts about how those works manifested themselves into the new body of paintings?

RD: I have worked in many ways as a painter, never feeling the need to make a distinction between figurative or abstract, realistic or expressive, and not responding to fashion or any particular style. I am only in search of the best way to make my next painting and will approach that from any angle that seems to work at that time. I believe it is open-ended, and there is not one way to do it; there are an infinite number of possibilities.

You could have seen some of those possibilities in that show . . . figurative elements -- some of them hyper-realistic and abstract too. The paintings that were more figurative were kind of issue-based, dealing with the legacy of the Vietnam War and The Troubles in Northern Ireland. How people survive in such circumstances and how that affects their lives, even long after the conflict has ended.

I specifically referenced my own experience and that of my former assistant and good friend from Saigon. The abstract paintings in that show were approaching this in another way, a more general way, and although the paintings don't have a story, there is a sense of struggle in the work, as in all of my work. I feel this represents the struggle in life. My favorite painter is Vincent van Gogh. You can see that in his work; it is timeless and reveals so much about the human race. It is necessary to have his paintings in the world, and it is a better place because of them. Art, or painting in particular, should be as vital as that; it should not just be for entertainment or to decorate a wall.

In retrospect, I now feel the paintings in that show were very direct, which I prefer, but a little too simple. When I did them, I wanted them to be like that, but after the show I felt I could go further. So I am now being more ruthless, painting and wiping out day after day, and the work has become more complex because of that. I am trying to learn how to paint better, and day by day I do learn. Every time I paint I learn something, so the work changes and develops. It never gets easier, though. Maybe it becomes more difficult, but I think the current work goes deeper. I don't want to use words like “transcendence” or “spiritual” or phrases like "coming from the soul." I think they sound a bit too romantic or hippy-like for me, but I do believe I am constantly trying to unearth something, and I am certain art has a meditative ability to transport the viewer to another place, which may be out of this world. It needs to be pretty good art, though, to do that, and I am trying.

BR: It is interesting to even bring up something like "transcendence" or "spiritual." The connection to van Gogh I get, but I also see a lot of Milton Resnick and Eugene LeRoy -- very concrete painters. Maybe there is a way that painting can redefine our ways of looking at "transcendence" by showing us a reality, a history of one person confronting a futile activity, like making a painting and constantly facing failure, that provides a spiritual experience that no other art form can? I mean, there is almost something Beckett-like about the whole fucking process, no? We’ve talked a lot about the Leon Kossoff show, how he has been struggling for years and years to capture a moment on canvas -- a painting of a tree. Now even the tree is dead, and he caught something enormous in his last show in New York -- the dead or dying tree propped up, like a crucifixion.

RD: Have you seen the video of the Buddhist monk burning to death as a protest during the Vietnam War? You can find it on Youtube by searching “Burning Monk Vietnam.” How could he do that? The power of meditation, I guess.

The concentration and solitude of working on paintings is a special experience. I work in very intense sessions, which can be quite physical, especially when working on the large paintings. The focus required for this kind of effort is kind of meditative, and I know when I am very much into the work; I am unaware of anything else around me. My best work comes during these periods, and it is a time when I can finish a painting. I search for it, but it does not come every day.

You mentioned some good painters there. I can see why you mentioned Milton Resnick and Eugene Leroy. Some of their paintings look similar to some of mine, but I don't think we are on the same track. They both look more comfortable than I hope I do. I don't think I am trying to make a beautiful painting. When I paint, it seems like a battle to me -- like I am trying to do something and there is a force working against me. I think this is evident in the work, and for that reason I don't feel a connection to those painters. Leon Kossoff is a better example, and as you have said, his focus for years on painting the tree in his back garden is something I can indentify with. Trees are pretty common things, but he has painted it to have a strong presence, like a living thing in the gallery. The struggle of his relentless working practice is evident in the work, and the colors he uses are not chosen to make a pretty picture; they are essential, inevitable, to use a word you used earlier. From somewhere he brings forth something magical by constantly working through the unnecessary possibilities to find something vital. This goes beyond merely good painting; there are many good painters in the world, but only a few who can find that magic. Those few people make something that is indispensable.

BR:I meant to suggest that there is both a collective memory or consciousness to painters and painting, which in many ways is contra-indicated by the solitary nature of the work. I see that in those guys, and get a strong sense of that in your work too.

That collective nature of art making is summed up in a famous motof Guston's that, appropriately enough, he attributed to a friend: “I believe it was John Cage who once told me, ‘When you start working, everybody is in your studio -- the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas -- all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you're lucky, even you leave.’”

RD: That is very interesting, and I agree. There seems to be a collective consciousness, as artists who have no contact with each other and live far apart sometimes do something similar at the same time. I guess this is not impossible to understand because whatever is happening in the world at that time may have a similar effect on more than one artist. Although as artists we pride ourselves as being individuals, as people we likely share similarities.

I also like very much the words you have here by John Cage, and it is true. This is kind of what I have been saying in the previous part of the interview, about finally getting into gear in the studio and doing your best work. You have to focus and build up to that. I guess Cage would consider his friends, and he would have left the room at that point.

BR: Yeah, this seems like it is really the point at which you have arrived in your painting. It seems like you are really focused on attaining a very personal connection to your work. Yet, the closer it seems that you get a bead on that, the greater your connection with a whole tradition of painters is coming through. I think that that is where all of us really want to arrive at some point, so it must feel very exciting to you to be getting there. Is that just my interpretation? Or is it more like, in your head you are thinking, "Oh, fuck, what next?"

RD: Hmm . . . good question. I think I am doing my best work now, but at the same time, I always think something like, "Oh, fuck, what next?"

In a way I could have done these paintings at any time in my life. It could have been twenty years ago, as even that long ago I had a mental image of paintings a bit like these -- something I really wanted to do. For some reason, though, I never exactly got around to it then. I don't really know why, but it has something to do with time and age and working through many other ideas to sort of come back to the beginning. When I was a student, I painted a bit like I am doing now. I have some old landscapes from the early eighties that are surprisingly similar to my current work. I think, in a way, I would have considered these paintings to be a bit too conventional then, as I was dealing with some hardcore subjects, such as war, sex, religion, politics. These were things I wanted to confront in a direct way, so my work had to be different then. Ultimately, it is all about learning to paint better, and all of those approaches have given me the experience, confidence, and ability to do what I am doing now.

Yes, my work has more connection with the tradition of painting, and certainly I spend much more time looking at the old masters than I ever did before. I realized the thread of art history is vital in developing my work and don't any longer consider the connection to be trite. On the contrary, my work is more radical now than before. I have to say, these are the most difficult paintings I have worked on, both mentally and physically. I find them to be almost beyond me, but because of this they bring out the best.

Getting back to the "Oh, fuck, what next?": I know that every day I paint I learn something new and become a better painter, but at the beginning of every new painting, I feel like I am starting to paint for the first time. If there have been any good paintings I have done in my life, at the beginning of a new painting, I always feel the good ones were just a bit of good luck and unlikely to be repeated. Also, when a painting is going badly, which is most of the time, I feel lost, desperate, and I am convinced I will never do another good one. I feel it is over, and whatever there may have been has gone. This is what I meant when I said something about working on the edge, but I would not have it any other way, as I don't want to make comfortable paintings. I am not that kind of chilled painter. David Hockney seems to me to be a confident, highly talented painter who does cool and confident work. I like his work a lot, so I will leave it up to him to do that. I guess I always need to push to the limit and make life difficult for myself.

Someone asked me a few weeks ago if I “like” my paintings. That should be a simple enough question, but I found it difficult to answer fully. Truth is, I don't “like” my paintings. I like other peoples' paintings, but I cannot say that about my own. I am “interested” in the one I am working on at that time, and when it is done I sometimes feel some sense of achievement at getting to that point, but I have little interest in them when they are done. All I am thinking of then is going further with the next one.

BR: There is a great little passage in Irving Stone's biography of van Gogh that somehow seems really relevant to your whole project. Van Gogh is looking at his drawings at the end of the day. Stone writes, "They are bad," he said to himself with a curious grin, "very bad. But perhaps tomorrow I shall be able to do a little better."

RD: Yes, that sounds quite appropriate.

I had read van Gogh's letters when I was in a Foundation course in Liverpool, England in 1980. They were very helpful for me and a “good read.” I would recommend to anyone to read them, whether they have an interest in art or not. I have read some of them several times since then, but I have not read the biography you mentioned. That’s funny -- I can imagine Vincent would say his drawings were bad. He was pretty hard on himself. Actually, his drawings are as good as anyone has ever done, but maybe he did not feel that way about them.

I don't judge my work as either good or bad. I don't compare myself to other artists, I mean. I don't go around looking at shows and saying to myself I am better than that artist. I prefer to have respect for everyone. I think everyone should do their own work, and I wish everyone the best with it. However, much of the stuff I see holds no big interest for me, and I am only focused on what I need to do in my studio. I have my own ambitions for my work, and especially at this time in my life, I feel a definite path I am trying to move along. I am not wanting to paint a picture or show how clever I can be with drawing or in handling paint. I don't choose colors to look beautiful, for example; they come to me when I know they are necessary. There is something I am trying to show, to uncover. I am searching for the essence of something. It is more vital than painting a good or bad picture. Maybe, hopefully, I have achieved something in some of my work so far, but there will always be more and better to come. I will find the path to dig deeper into myself to bring out what needs to go into the work. This is what keeps me striving to paint better day after day.

Certainly I am not comparing myself to van Gogh, but maybe that is what he meant when he said his drawings are bad.

BR: I enjoyed going to the Met with you yesterday.

RD: That was a good day. Thank you for asking me along. The de Kooning paintings are great -- also the early Baselitz. Of course, the Met is amazing -- room after room of the best paintings imaginable. Too much to comprehend really, but good to have a quick look anyway.

Overall, it is Courbet that has remained in my mind this time.

I got up early today to paint, starting a new big one. Of course, it is going very badly, so I am a bit worried right now. I will take a break, I think. Maybe a short ride into Chinatown to pick up some food and then resume in an hour or two…

- Bradley Rubenstein

Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.

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