Three different aspects of Rodney Dickson’s creative interests are on display at his new show, Paintings 2009–2019, at Undercurrent. The descending stairway at Undercurrent’s entrance displays 22 of Dickson’s sketchbooks, all black and identical in size, suggesting 22 Gideon Bibles from 22 hotel rooms. Attached to the wall, the sketchbooks descend with the floor line. Inside, one finds more than two thousand black charcoal drawings, notes, and project ideas. The drawings depict faces, nudes, and some landscapes, and the somewhat private sketches are very direct, swift and expressionistic in style and impulse. Often the charcoal imprints itself on the opposing page. Large black and white masses on paper suggest monumental ambition, and they also led us to display the sketchbooks intact, like Assyrian tablets, rather than as individual paper drawings on the wall. Presenting the sketchbooks this way leads us to a larger appreciation of the artist’s process as whole.
Rodney Dickson is best known in New York for his large, extremely thickly executed oil paintings. They are abstract, but their presence is so physical, and at the same time visceral, that they confuse, question, and blur the line between what is abstract and what is real. These paintings do not imply, allude, or refer to either landscape or figure. However, the thickness and viscosity of the paint itself suggests the magnitude of internal, inner friction in its physical and metaphysical senses. In a way, Rodney’s paintings state that the act of creation is first and probably the only real thing. Some paintings appear as though they were executed in one day, but most were painted, scraped over, and painted again. Through this process, the paintings become sculptural terrains of paint and color. The thick paintings take forever to dry; it can take up to 10 years for the oil paint to harden fully. In the meantime, the paint shrinks dramatically, changes color, and collects layers of dust. These processes of aging and time are much more present in Rodney’s paintings than their smoother, slicker cousins by other artists. Typically, an art work is considered finished when artist has stopped working on it. In this case, the artist plays a part in a multi-year process that gives the painting its final visual appearance. Only when they are only fully dry and hard, with no fluid liquid left in them, with all their time-formed textures, reminiscent of skin, is that appearance available to the viewer.
Importantly, Rodney Dickson’s works are not monochromatic, cool, minimalist objects. He paints using the complexities of whole range of colors. His paintings are not simple; they are suggestive and open-ended. They are the opposite to rational, industrial, execution-style art projects. Rodney Dickson’s art has more in common with Monet, or Delacroix, or Van Gogh, and the more romantic, emotional, and baroque side of abstract expressionism. Theatrical play with light and shadows creates separate, whimsical sides for these paintings. In Paintings 2009-2019, we have several examples of these paintings, anchoring the exhibition.
The largest piece, never before exhibited, is Shanty Town, occupying an entire wall. You can see this work as an installation, or as a painting; it is a collage of colorful stapled, canvasses/rags. Dickson began it in 2011, and the work remains in progress. In some way, the work is a political piece about globalization, poverty, and real estate. But it also suggests a very poetic, almost nostalgic, rags to riches myth. On the formal or art historical side, it can be interpreted as an artist studio. Through the ages, artists have depicted their studios, giving them the opportunity, as with self-portraits, to make a statement about the world and themselves. Recall all the Rembrandts, Courbets, Kahlos, Van Ghoghs, Braques… In the same vein, Dickson creates a piece that in its spirit resembles Rothko’s paint- and pigment-soaked canvases. But in this work the rags, used by painters for millennia to clean their brushes, are the main actors, covered in the Hollybollywood flavor of glitter.