Category: Archive

Artistic license

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

He knows that the artists he brings over from Vietnam on residence programs for the Ford Foundation believe it. He and his fellow professionals in Liverpool, where he lived until 1997, believed it, too.
But Dickson, who grew up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, has supplemented his income in America over the years by teaching and painting houses.
“And construction work, which I hate, and hope never to have do again. But I might,” he said.
The reality is that almost all artists in New York scrape a living, he said, just like anywhere else — even those with a big reputation.
And Dickson, who has two shows running concurrently in Manhattan, has a big reputation, which he brought with him across the Atlantic.
Heralding one exhibition, a Guardian critic wrote: “During his years living and working in Liverpool, the Irish artist Rodney Dickson has been the liveliest force on the North of England painting scene.”
Nowadays, the affable and easy-going Dickson makes art in his studio on a quiet block in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn. He and his wife, Juliet Hone, a sweater designer, have also made the former candy and cigarettes warehouse their home. (Some still come to their door asking for merchandise, particularly at Christmastime.)
They’re part of the spillover from the Williamsburg section, which, some say, has the world’s greatest concentration of artists. But most of his neighbors on his Greenpoint street lead mainstream lives, have regular jobs and are raising families, not unlike the one he grew up in.
Dickson was born in 1956 in Bangor, Co. Down, and was raised in nearby Newtownards. Other than his father’s musical talent, there was nothing in his background that pointed to a career in the arts. His parents were schoolteachers; his brother manages an OTB store.
After various jobs didn’t work out for Dickson in early adulthood, his mother argued that a couple of years of college studying something he liked might help his future prospects; she suggested art school. “Neither she nor I nor anyone else thought it would lead to me being an artist,” he remembered.
That quickly changed at Liverpool Art College in 1979. “On the first day, when I arrived, I knew I wanted to be an artist. I met people who were like myself,” he said.
The location helped too. “A lot of Irish people feel comfortable in Liverpool,” he said.
Dickson went to Amsterdam in 1983, after graduation, but he ran short of money within a year. He returned to the comforts of the “artists’ grant” in Britain. “The dole,” he said, laughing. He then spent five years in his wife’s native Devon before moving back North to Liverpool, where he established himself, in the eyes of some critics, as the country’s leading neo-expressionist.
One wrote that Dickson’s work was “making most of his young British contemporaries appear as though going through the motions.” On another occasion, the same critic said: “Far too many people have failed to recognize he’s potentially one of the most potent image-makers internationally.”
His fans were as varied as journalist Eamonn McCann, snooker legend Alex Higgins and the Progressive Unionist Party, which campaigned to have his portrait of his friend Higgins hang in Belfast City Hall.
All the while, Dickson was happy in Liverpool. “But I had done all I could do art-wise. I wanted to move onto to something bigger,” he said.
He didn’t like the idea of London, nor was he fond of New York where he’d lived in 1992 as a resident in the P.S. 1 International Studio Program, (At the time, both Northern Ireland and the Republic were participants in the program. It has since been discontinued.)
“There were two murders outside my door in Sunnyside and several people were beaten up,” he remembered.
But in 1997, Dickson and Hone decided “to accept the challenge to see if we could do it.”
The couple continued to travel frequently to Vietnam — which they first visited in the early 1990s. More recently they’ve extended their interest in Southeast Asia into Cambodia.
Some have suggested to Dickson that he’s attracted to places with a history of conflict because he grew up in the Troubles.
“Artists don’t always know why they do what they do,” he conceded.
Dickson argued that he might understand those societies better than most. People in places like Vietnam and Northern Ireland are more secretive than say Americans, who are brasher and far more open. They learned to tell less than they knew, “to keep their mouths shut.”
And those who see war up close are less likely to have a romantic view of violence. A major theme of his work, he said, is the “futility and stupidity of war.”
Some of his school peers ended up in prison for terrorist offenses, mainly on the loyalist side. They were just like anyone else, in most cases, he said, “but put them in a certain situation and they react in this way and they become capable of something awful.
“In Vietnam I met some very nice people [who’d been involved militarily], but I don’t think I would have like to have run up against them during the war,” he said.
One of the current shows, “Imperfect Record” at P.S. 122, is dominated by massive Vietnamese-themed posters by the Northern Ireland painter.
Dickson said that his work is a mix of abstract and figurative styles, though sometimes one or the other is more evident. The extent of his range can be seen in his major show “Let the Buddha Sort Them Out” at the M.Y. Art Prospects in Chelsea.
Dickson is now as inspired by his New York surroundings as by his travels abroad.
“It’s always exciting,” he said. “We’ve had dinner parties where nobody was from America, and no two people were from the same country.
“It’s intellectually stimulating and there are more artists here than anywhere else, and more interesting people than anywhere else,” Dickson said.
“It’s so acceptable to be an artist. There are places where it’s not,” he said, citing the examples of Liverpool and Northern Ireland. “You have to justify it to yourself and to other people.”
Yet there’s a downside to that. “A lot of people who become artists don’t need to be artists,” Dickson said.
There’s a lifestyle that goes with it, a whole scene, he said, that makes it attractive and trendy.
“I’ve seen enough bad art in New York to do me for a lifetime,” he added.
However, technical ability, which can improve over time, is only one aspect of the equation. The artist has to have something to say, in Dickson’s view, and also be compelled to paint.
“Art students sometimes ask me ‘should I become an artist?’ and my answer is usually: ‘No. You should get yourself a life, a job and some money. Have a family, do what people do.
“‘But if every morning, you wake up and you feel compelled to make art, then I guess you better be an artist.'”

“Let the Buddha Sort Them Out” is open at M.Y. Art Prospects, 547 West 27th St., is showing through Feb. 18. (Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.) “Imperfect Record” will show at PS 122, at First Avenue and 9th Street, until Jan. 29.

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