by Elizabeth Tigar
“I would rather be on fire” read the speech bubble on a painting I first saw at Wally Workman Gallery. The painting was by Andy Dixon, a young Canadian painter, a new artist for the gallery last year. The speaker was a woman. Her leg in the foreground, she was reclined over a sofa–bright pink–with her head on a brightly patterned pillow. Striped robe askew exposing one bare breast, face turned to one side, large bouquet of flowers behind her, she was the perfect image of affluent malaise. In the lap of luxury, her sentiment: how boring.
Walking into Wally Workman Gallery this month for Dixon’s solo show, you would be anything but bored. It is a bit like walking into the Musée D’Orsay, if you were wearing technicolor goggles. Large canvases, featuring classical elements and traditional 19th century subject matter–a noble woman atop a horse, posed portrait style paintings of various men, a classically situated nude–but rather than softly muted tones you would find in the halls of the Paris museum, these images are rendered in vibrant shades, some bordering on neon. The painting style is loose, expressionistic in places, using different combinations of colors to model features and depth: the face of a woman in Red Opera is made up of no fewer than nine different hues. Fine patterns of fabric and foliage are conveyed with lines of oil pastel, layered on top of the paint. You might think this experience would be chaotic, but, remarkably, it is not. All disparate elements and colors come crashing together, and it is a beautiful collision. Harmonious and energetic.
It is also a careful twist (sometimes a jab-twist) on exactly those classic paintings and styles. A riff, as Mr. Dixon might put it. His career has straddled music, design, and art. After a time of soul-searching, and sound advice from his father, Lea, Andy is now dedicated to a life as a painter.
The metaphors he uses in speaking about his art, however, are more likely to reference musical styles than art history.
“The way I look at it, because of my limited education with fine art, is through music metaphors. I see what I do as ‘sampling’ – something I used to do a lot of in my musical period. For instance, when Kanye West samples Otis Redding it is primarily an homage to musical history, but it also a playful re-contextualization of the original song and the meaning of the initial sounds.”
On the subject of Kanye West: one of his most iconic albums is titled My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The tracks are a departure from the kind of textbook, made-to-be-a-Billboard-Top-100, hip- hop tracks on some of his previous albums (“Gold Digger,” anyone?). They are more historically driven, both personal and cultural. They also speak to West’s catastrophically large ego. But it makes for an interesting comparison. The sampling of tracks, from Michael Jackson to Otis Redding, that West uses are the core of what, in my opinion, makes his music so successful. It is about the conversation. And then about the conversion. Hip-hop post- modernism. Dixon has no such ego (I don’t see him interrupting Taylor Swift, or marrying a Kardashian any time in the future), but his art is a great example of a contemporary painter effectively conversing in the post-modern vocabulary.
All disparate elements and colors come crashing together, and it is a beautiful collision. Harmonious and energetic.
Post-modernism, at its core, is about precisely that: taking elements of the classical and reinventing them–or subverting them–into something that is completely different. The success of the movement, I would argue, and why it is still a strong thematic vein of contemporary art is because of the foundation of the language artists are using in making their work. The forms and content are often things that are familiar, “tried and true” even. The manifestation of those are where the transformation happens. And where the artist (or architect) is able to put a different lens on how those are experienced.
Dixon draws from classical sources, from imagery to composition, but his filter, the way he renders and expresses this inspiration, makes his work entirely fresh. It is a carefully composed balance of deference and defiance. This is evident not just in each painting, but the relationship the paintings have to one another. In the Wally Workman Gallery show, for example, there are canvasses such as the above, portraits, still lives, nudes and nobility. Then, there is a toucan. It is beautiful. And twisted in some places. You cannot help but chuckle, and it is clear that Dixon is doing the same, all the while paying homage to the things from which he draws his inspiration.