Chloe Aboud in Conversation with Rodney Dickson
Rodney Dickson is a Brooklyn based Contemporary artist of Northern Irish decent, born in 1956 and grew up in the midst of The Troubles. Dickson’s work has been featured in numerous exhibitions across the gallery and museum sphere, including John Davis Gallery in Hudson, New York and NUNU Fine Art in Taipei, Taiwan. Impressively, Dickson's work has also found its way into public collections, such as that of the Hanoi Art Centre in Vietnam; Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Belfast and the Palmer Museum of Art in Pennsylvania. The theme of conflict and hypocrisy of war are common elements that surface in his oeuvre. Having spent time in Vietnam, his paintings embrace the turmoil and aftermath of conflict. Fundamentally, his work aims to connect to the human spirit. Influenced by the vibrancy of Taipei, his neon light sculptures attest to the diversity of his body of work. Notably, Dickson was a receiver of two Pollock-Krasner Awards in 2011 and 2018.
This interview follows an intriguing “Corona-sation” with Rodney - by that I refer to a casual chat via phone, courtesy of the global Coronavirus pandemic and current lockdown restrictions in place - whereby we discussed the current political situation in the US, Rodney’s childhood in relation to his departure from the Troubles in Northern Ireland and of course his diverse and extensive oeuvre.
Rodney, for those who might not be as familiar with Irish history could you tell us a little about what it was like growing up in that environment and perhaps how conflict has emerged as a theme in your work – especially in relation to your later experiences in Asia?
As a teenager The Troubles were getting into full steam and as we now know, they raged on for a while. Where I lived - Newtownards - it was not that dangerous although the threat of violence and civil unrest was in the air. More so as a young person, it was boring, not a heathy stimulating environment, so as soon as I became old enough to think about it, I wanted to find a way out of there. I did not come from an art family and did not live in an artistic society, so although I had drawn and painted all of my life, there was no incentive for me to be an artist. Mainly because I did not have anything else to do at the time, I went to art college in Liverpool but from the first day I attended Foundation there, I loved it and decided that day to be an artist and here we are about 40 years later in NY. When I first arrived in the US I met Mr. Tran Luong, a Vietnamese artist and he invited me to go to Vietnam to work there a while. This I did in 2000 and it was in a way, a method of understanding something about US by seeing how they fought a war in Vietnam. For some years I worked there a lot and did art works on the subject of war, using Vietnam as a reference but in a way always viewing The Troubles through that lens. I stopped making that kind of subject specific / figurative work around 2008, preferring since then to work in a more open kind of way. My work since then I hope addresses the human condition and, in that regard, could still reference conflict for someone but that response is open, like a meditation.
Rodney Dickson, 2020, 8 x 5 feet, oil-on-board.
It is easy to define your work as “Abstract”, but to do so would be to undermine the depth of your style. I find it fascinating that you have such a diverse body of art, I am referring to your canvases which are extensively layered with a myriad of colourful paint and which are in stark contrast to your neon light sculptures, as well as the series that you are currently working on. Can you talk a little about what influences the medium you decide to work with? Do you have a preference?
I don't much like the word Abstract in relation to painting, I don't want to sound pedantic but it seems to me to be not the best way to describe something as complex as painting. I would prefer to say something like – non-figurative - but of course I appreciate that one word - abstract - may be more concise, so be it. I can say, the aim of my work is to connect nature. I often say to people, especially in Asia, don't get hung up on 'understanding' the work, if you are unfamiliar with western art or art history, please don't let that stand in your way, just spend time with the painting and you may get absorbed into it and if so it is like a meditation and if not, no worries.
Regarding medium, I have through my life worked in many ways, neon light has been mentioned already here but also video, performance, music but always painting has been my main thing. In any of my work, the aim has always been the same, to try to find a way to connect with the human spirit and recently I have decided that painting for me is the best medium for that. So last few years that is pretty much all I have been doing. Since my time at Liverpool art school, I have not seen a fundamental difference in figurative or non-figurative work, the aim is the same maybe just another way to get there. My preference is oil paint because one can push it around further.
Rodney Dickson, 2020, 5 x 4 feet, oil-on-board.
Can you tell me why you decide not to title your work?
I don't title my work since I changed to working non figuratively around 2008 mainly because the work genuinely has no subject. I try to not think of anything when I am working on them, I like to keep it open and only respond to what is happening between the paint and me. Each painting I hope is different from the last one, I take an enforced two-week break between every major painting, in order to block any nostalgia which may linger from one to another. In the end, when I am done with one, I sometimes do then make a connection with the real world and I could then give it a title if I wanted to but I don't want to influence the viewer, better to leave it open for them to interpret the work in any way they like.
Adapting to the times, your recent portraits depict figures wearing protective masks - sharing your wonderful series of over 90 portraits with me, I have to ask - what spurred you to begin working on them that July 2019 in China?
As I have said, working in a realistic or non-realistic way does not bother me, so when in China in 2019 I thought of doing some portraits, it felt like a natural thing to do. I have done 3 residencies in Xu Cun Art Commune, in China, in the mountains in a very remote area. Last time I realised I had made good friends there whom I may not see again so I painted their portraits to bring a memory of them home with me. At that time, I painted from the model and when I returned to NY I continued to paint friends here in the same way. In November 2019 I worked in India and did some more portraits and then in 2020 came Covid world. No models would come to my studio and people are wearing masks, so I adapted to the new life and now ask people to send to me a selfie by email wearing a mask, so the vast majority of the mask portraits have been done from a photo. I had planned to show them in Bodghaya Biennial, India in December 2019 but for obvious reasons that has been postponed for a year, so maybe in 2020.
A life-size acrylic-on-cloth by Rodney Dickson, entitled Chloe Aboud, 2020, 7 x 2 feet.
We spoke a little about the New York art scene and how your work is influenced by that of Jackson Pollock and even the British-German painter Frank Auerbach, what is it about their styles that speaks to you the most?
I believe you had asked me to name some 'favourite' painters and those names readily came to mind. Truth be told, I kind of love all painting, at least I can say I find some level of interest in any genuine attempt at painting - to participate with nature and the world around us. Frank may be the greatest living painter and I like a word he once used to describe great painting and it also applies to his own work - magic - that is the thing we are always searching for and is so hard to define and ever harder to find. Pollock may be the greatest modern painter, as with Frank, his work connects with the soul and the space in his large drip paintings are breath taking, something very American about that work I think, like when I first went out west and was confronted by the huge open landscapes, an emotional experience.
I love when I asked who your favourite artist was, you replied Vincent van Gogh and told me about visiting his museum everyday while you were in Amsterdam. Is there one particular painting that comes to mind when you envisage his work?
Again, off the top of my head I would mention Vincent as my favourite painter, best ever but of course there are many others also. More than anyone, he had the human spirit in his work and that is timeless, a wee man in a field in Holland in the 18th century is still the same wee man as today should that be in Holland or China, the essence is the same. Yes, I had a nice studio close to the Heineken Brewery in Amsterdam in 1984 and on my way to the studio each day, I passed the Van Gogh Museum, so each day I would go in there and choose only one painting and sit with it for about an hour. I could happily spend all day with it but as always, I am rushed in my mind to get to painting, so after an hour I had to go to work, it was a nice way to get going each day.
If you could travel back in time, what is the one piece of advice you would give to a 20 year old Rodney?
I’ve never been asked that before.......well.........a 20 year old Rodney might not be the best one to give advice too and anyway, I would say nothing!
What is in store for you next? Have you any exhibitions or collaborations on the horizon?
This has possibly been the least exhibiting year of my life as an artist, just about nothing going on this year and no big plans into the future either. NY was very bad with Corona back in March and April, we were in those days worst in the world and the city closed down then. Since then it has opened up to a degree but still the energy of the city is diminished and not much happening in the art world. Worldwide seems to be about the same, no travel, no shows, no meetings, no money. So not a lot going on in that way but in 2021 I may do a show with Nunu Fine Art if she asks me and Anindita Dutta said Bodghaya Biennial is re-scheduled for December 2021 so maybe some possibilities there and I guess when international travel is safe again I will be on a plane somewhere to do something, I am missing Asia - Vietnam, China, India........we will see. Mr Natanal Hyun Kim is a wonderful dancer, choreographer, artist, we are talking of doing a collaboration in 2021, so maybe we will go to Korea to work on that?
I am very grateful for the time you have given me and I wish you all the very best in your future endeavours, Rodney. Hopefully your trip to Korea is near on the horizon, I am looking forward to seeing your future works and hopefully an exhibition in the Bodghaya Biennial in December 2021. In better times, I am very much looking forward to meeting you in person, perhaps on your side of the water in NY City!