|THE OPENING is all about delving into the fascinating, quirky and wonderful visual arts in Vancouver. Each week we’ll feature an artist, cover an exhibition, discuss a lecture and everything else in-between to delve deep into who and what makes art happen!|
WORDS: ELLIAT ALBRECHT
In mid-May, Vancouver musician, designer, and artist Andy Dixon and I had a beer at The Whip down the street from his studio on Main to discuss art, luxury and his new body of work. Andy’s recent paintings are characterized by their bright, bold colours, expressive line and surprising subject matter; his intricate images are of lords, lounging beauties and exotic pets depicted in energetic and man-made hues. Primarily oil and pastel on canvas, Dixon’s large-scale works have recently garnered a great deal of well-deserved attention in Vancouver and abroad.
His work is currently featured in a group show with Jen Osborne and Jessica Bell titled The Diarist, The Commentator and the Seer at Initial Gallery at 2339 Granville Street.
Elliat Albrecht: Tell me about your new work.
Andy Dixon: I’ve really only gotten a very small chance to show any of the new work I’ve been doing. I feel like I’ve made a turn and focused my content quite a bit, and now I have a much sharper idea of what I want to do.
EA: What sparked the change?
AD: A few things happened a couple of years ago: one was that I did some soul searching. I stopped everything for about a year. I quit music and painting; I got a job in a design firm. I started to feel like I was making things out of habit rather than because I had something to say. Everything I was doing was just because people were like “Hey, what’s next?” and I was like “Oh I don’t know, how about this?” So I went through a crisis, but it was a good one. I chose between fine art and music. Once I decided on fine art, the next step was thinking about what it was that I wanted to paint. Really, I haven’t shown any of the work I’ve done since then. I spent a year just sketching, trying different things, refining.
EA: Have you figured out what it is you want to do?
AD: I think everyone’s always just trying to figure things out as they go along. I’m a process-based artist whether it’s music, design or anything. I think that part of my thing is to reveal process, and part of that process is simply figuring out what I’m doing. Up until that point two years ago I did half-abstract or fully abstract works. I felt like I was casting the net too wide and I made a few real choices in my life. One of those was if I was going to make figurative or abstract paintings.
EA: What made you choose figurative?
AD: Mostly intuition, I think. Also just because I liked the result of this exercise I tried that was really influenced by Twombly. I tried using his mark-making techniques to make abstract work and sort of choreographed them to represent the figure. I ended up really liking how it looked.
EA: The figures in your paintings are from secondary references; photography, magazines, books you’re looking at…
AD: Yeah. At first I think the figures were incidental; they were just sort of exercises in how to piece these marks together. I mean, obviously the figure is a fundamental subject in painting. It felt right. I think I can communicate more ideas using figures than I can marks. The next step was to decide who these people were and what the point of painting them was. That’s essentially where I’m at now.
EA: You’re connecting two disparate parts of history; a very old tradition of painting affluent lifestyle, paired with an ambush of bright colour and line associated with mid-to-late twentieth century art. You don’t often see them in the same body of work.
AD: That was the big idea: piecing those two things together. That’s what I knew I wanted to do. What I’m figuring out now is why, and I only have vague answers for that. Which is fine, I don’t really want to have them. I’m not a guy who pretends he has any answers.
EA: Tell me about the theme of luxury.
AD: I think it starts with being involved in the early 90’s punk scene and growing up with a lot of you know, anti-gentrification movements and political sort of things happening in my formative years. When I was learning about life I was struck with this bombardment of all of these, in my opinion, pseudo-political movements. I mean, none of us knew what the f*ck we were talking about, we were all like eighteen and living in our parents houses. What did I know about gentrification? It all seemed like kind of nonsense, but since it took place in those formative years it’s become this sort of core in me. It has both negative and positive effects. In a negative way, it’s created a lot of guilt in my life.
EA: Guilt for what you have?
AD: Yeah, totally. Guilt for being a white male who grew up in the suburbs. I’m not the type of person – though I was at the time – to subscribe to too much cultural dogma. Eventually I started to realize that whole thing was bogus. How can two hundred people think the exact same way? We’re not joining the army, we’re all independent thinkers and it’s important to gain insight from other people’s perspectives. If we’re programmed to think of something as only good or bad, then there’s no room for debate. No one is learning anything. As soon as I feel that kind of pressure, I want to fight against it. As a teenager I was one of those people who wanted to push against even the counter-culture. Someone once described me as trying to find the counter-culture to the counter-culture. As soon as something felt too formulaic, I would push the limits. Growing up with other suburban kids denying their privilege, I realized that that’s just nonsense too, because there’s no sense in denying who you are. It’s okay to be from an upper middle class family, that’s not your fault. You can’t decide what family you’re born into. To judge me based on being from the suburbs is a prejudice. I think privilege and luxury is an interesting debate, especially in Vancouver where there’s a lot of gentrification and “Die Yuppie Scum” signs. It’s a heated debate, I’m not offering any answers, I’m just saying there are always different perspectives to explore.
EA: Do you think painting will become too formulaic for you?
AD: Maybe, who knows? I don’t think so though, because I don’t feel a lot of pressure. I think I’m embracing the fact that I am an artist which is something I haven’t ever really done in the past. It’s not as dogmatic of a scene. I think an artist is quite free. It’s actually what I’ve been looking for this whole time. I thought I’d found it in the punk scene and the hardcore scene, but it turns out that’s just a closed community as well. Outside ideas are not welcome. I think in art, they are.
EA: Are you a political painter?
AD: I don’t think so. I hope not, I hope no one sees it that way.
EA: It could be looked at that way, though.
AD: Yeah, sure there’s issue of class in there, for sure. But I don’t consider myself a political person really. I do care about the way the world functions but I don’t necessarily believe that I really know enough about anything to comment with certainty.
EA: Your work goes further than suburban middle class comfort. It’s total luxury. Why so far?
AD: Why take an idea only so far? Go all the way with it. It’s funny that the Great Gatsby came up earlier [we met writer Michael LaPointe before our interview who predicted that the Baz Luhrman film would be awful]. There is a whole paragraph at the beginning of the novel about reserving judgement, and I think that’s what I’m trying to do as well. I think we could all learn to do that a little bit more. Instead of calling someone yuppie scum, realize that maybe they’re fighting for the same thing you are. We’re just human beings that should be having a conversation instead of yelling at each other because of class. If we’re going to reserve judgment, we’ve got to take that all the way. I’m just going all the way, painting the richest most extravagant people I can think of. Also, the main patrons of art are traditionally very affluent people. There’s a discussion brought up about the relationship between the artist and the buyer. But I’m not judging them. I hope that’s clear. I’m not making fun of these people. My intent is not to make fun of anybody.
EA: The American painter Karen Kilimnik paints celebrities, models and Russian royalty. They’re beautiful and serious paintings but they’re also made in this hyper-affectionate way as if she were fourteen and a huge Leo diCaprio fan. People can’t tell if she’s making fun of her subjects of if she’s completely in love with them. Do you think there’s something similar going on in your work?
AD: Absolutely. I mean, I’m wearing a f*cking Dolce and Gabbana shirt. Obviously I have a certain amount of admiration for refined things. As an artist I’m getting into this idea that some luxury items are a form of art. On a very fundamental level, I just enjoy depicting these things. I enjoy drawing the ornamentation on fancy objects. I like how much thought has been put into these things. They’re useless objects but they’re so interesting. Like Faberge eggs, somebody spent so much time making them and the detail is amazing.
EA: But on the other hand you paint them in a completely untraditional way.
AD: Yeah, the detail is sort of smudged over.
EA: It may be flattened, but still painted with respect even though “crudely” rendered in pastel and paint.
AD: I think one of the main things is to take an object that is fundamentally beautiful and depict it in a way that removes that original form of beauty and give it a new kind of beauty. A Faberge egg is something that I have no emotional response to but I admire the fact that it exists. The fact that there are people out there who would spend their money on it, I think that’s really interesting. Even more so, I admire whoever made it. In the way I depict it, I’ve denied that object what originally drew me to it; the detail, the perfection. It’s a perfect object and I’ve drawn it without perfection. I’ve created a new version of it.
EA: You’re applying your aesthetic language to it, which is very distinct in terms of line and palette.
AD: I think that palette is the only thing that’s been consistent throughout my work over the years. That’s the thing that I’ve been working with the most. I’ve designed a billion album covers and band t-shirts. They’re all in a similar palette, like I’ve developed my own. I pick my materials through intuition. I’ll just be standing in Opus, staring at tubes of paint and then pick this one, this one, this one.
EA: Do you ever feel like you fail?
AD: Oh yeah.
EA: What happens to those paintings?
AD: They look like sh*t in the way I don’t want them to look like sh*t. It’s a weird balance. No one really understands it. I’m not sure I do either. It’s a very strange paradox to be in where something is not working out because it looks crude in a way that I don’t want it to look crude. A lot of the paintings I do, they might look like they didn’t take a long amount of time to apply the materials. But I’ve probably done it five or six times underneath. I’ll do a face a few times and go over it again. Technically the marks that I applied were done in a matter of minutes, but the layers took a while.
EA: Do you spend a lot of time looking at the piece before you change it?
AD: Way too much. I think the ratio of time spent actually applying material to just staring at a piece is phenomenally inefficient.
EA: Do you ever come across historical paintings and recognize similarities with your own?
AD: Totally. I don’t have any history in art at all. I have a history in music and honestly, I’m acquainting myself with things that people who have been to art school have known for a long time. I feel sort of dumb for some of these things that I didn’t know existed, but I’m also really excited about learning them on my own time. I just did an interview and one of the questions was about how it seems like I leave a lot of my influences up to happenstance. I think that was supposed to be a negative thing, but I have to agree. The things I know about art history are the things I’ve happened to stumble upon because I needed something new or inspiring to see. I’ll go down to Pulp Fiction, which is right underneath my studio and just look in the art section. Of course it’s happenstance.
EA: When you go to the book store, are you looking for subject matter?
AD: Anything, whether it be subject matter or technique. Only very recently have I stumbled upon the movements in art history where I realize I have floated my ship close to. A perfect example is that I recently learned what Fauvism is and I was like “Ohh, yeah! This is almost spot on!”
EA: Your work could be considered a mixture of three movements: Fauvism, traditional portraiture and 1980’s New York graffiti art scene.
AD: Some of the things I was drawn to as a punk kid were New York in the 80’s, Warhol and Basquait. They were all tied in with the punk scene. Basquiat played in a couple of bands and so it seemed like a natural place to start. But I just stayed at that point for ten years because it was all I knew. When I was a kid, the thing that moved me and got the most emotional response was music. I could hear a song and get that butterfly, goosebump thing. I had never felt that about art. I just liked it casually. It wasn’t until about five years until I got that feeling. Maybe it’s a matter of being a certain age, or culturally maturing that I got that from a painting.
EA: It was “The Italians.”
AD: “The Italians,” yeah, by Cy Twombly. I saw it at MoMA and I was like “Holy sh*t.” It just moved me. I’d never heard of him, I had no context for it. The size, the grandeur of it. Huge gestures, it seemed to have so much energy. The composition, the colour palette, everything came together for me.
EA: That title sounds like something that your paintings could be called.
AD: He lived the life I want. I’m ready to move to some remote town outside of Rome and live in some villa somewhere. Rauschenberg was also someone I got into, his use of collage and find objects that appealed to me. It reminded me of album covers that I liked. I once took an art class called “Paint, Surface and Collage” and I took it because of Rauschenberg. I kind of consider myself a collage artist. I think that’s one of the defining principles of my work. It’s about taking something from its original context and changing it to comment on its origin.
EA: Does punk culture have any element of recontextualization?
AD:Let me think about that while I take a sip. [sips]
EA: Do you know the word bricolage?
AD:Yeah, that’s like… what does that mean?
EA: People often use the example of safety pins as a form of bricolage: something that’s been taken from its original context, brought across social divisions and repurposed for something else, i.e. fashion or decoration.
AD: Exactly. There you go. I truly believe this: If you can take something that’s understood and invent a new context for it, essentially we come back to the original conversation. If I can prove that this can mean this, or the opposite, what right do any of us have to impose our perspective on anything? It’s almost, in some really fluffy, spiritual context, sort of negates reality. Once, in a heated debate I blurted out that the problem was that I don’t believe in reality. [laughs] Hear me out! I can stick behind that. For instance, the me that is talking to you right now is different than the one that talks to someone else. It’s not a very conscious thing, but we all adopt a different vernacular and a slightly different persona based on the people that we’re with. In some way, we are all kind of nobody. We have a core.
EA: Does that mean we don’t have a reality or that behaviour is malleable?
AD: Everything is malleable. That’s what I mean. It’s not just human nature. As a kid did you ever have the thought that what your idea of green was wasn’t the same as someone else’s? In general, there is a context that we apply to everything that informs our perception of reality. It a lot to do with taste. Take that thing about Baz Luhrman. You’re not wrong for liking him, and Michael’s not writing for disliking him. Who am I to say that someone who has never heard music before and turns on the radio to hear Nickelback’s “Photograph” is wrong for being moved to the core? That feeling is within the context of their experience. There is no reality where Nickelback is a good or bad band.
EA: That’s a bold statement.
AD: I do believe that everything is relative to our experiences. Maybe I believe in that more than most people believe in that. I definitely think there’s an element of that in my work. I think there’s sympathy for my subjects because in some ways the upper class and luxury also faces a lot of prejudice.
EA: The luxury in your paintings is fantastically exaggerated. Is there an element of safety in painting something so far away from your own reality?
AD: Like a distance sort of? Basquait embraced a “street artist” style and his subject matter was the street – what he knew. I use a similar style but I depict what I don’t know. I never thought about it being a protective measure.
EA: Would you ever paint your peers?
AD:Well why would I ever want to do that? I know everything about that life. I’m exploring something as I’m painting. I just don’t think it would be interesting to paint me and my friend listening to Kanye West on my couch.
The Diarist, The Commentator and the Seer runs from July 4th to August 14th at Initial Gallery at 2339 Granville Street.
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