Rex Dixon: Surprising Himself

Painter Rex Dixon grew up in grey, post-war London, and taught for years in strife-torn Belfast, but in 1985 a series of lucky events brought him to the Caribbean. First in Jamaica, and more recently in Trinidad, he has absorbed images and ideas from the everyday life of the islands into his idiosyncratic abstract expression of style. Bruce Paddington encounters Dixon's richly puzzling paintings and investigates the role of serendipity in his life and work

Detail of Those Frozen Cities of the North (2002)Detail of TV Coverage (1997)Dixon at home in Trinidad. Photograph by Bruce PaddingtonDixon with his wife, UWI scholar Patricia Mohammed. Photograph by Bruce PaddingtonDown the Islands (2003) from the Maracas SuitePhotograph by Bruce PaddingtonRex Dixon at work in his Maracas Valley studio. Photograph by Bruce PaddingtonRex Dixon. Photograph by Bruce PaddingtonThe Wild Beast I Never Saw in Namibia (1998)Vista (1996), by Rex Dixon

London during the Second World War was not the most idyllic
place or time to spend early childhood. Rex Dixon, born in the city at the
outbreak of the war, spent his earliest years being evacuated from the Blitz
and dealing with wartime anxieties and privations.

Although he was born into a working-class family, Dixon was bright enough
to attend a good grammar school. His first job, when he was 18, was in an
insurance company, meticulously recording sums and figures. After two years
of this drudgery, he decided a white-collar career was not for him; he resigned
and began a journey of self-discovery. He wandered up and down through England,
waiting tables, washing dishes, even working as a garbage collector, before,
at the age of 27, finding his true vocation at art school in Devon.
Later Dixon taught art in Belfast, even during the dangerous 80s, when
the perils of life in the strife-torn city were magnified by his English
nationality. But British art schools were facing a funding crisis; Dixon’s
contract with the New University of Ulster expired and was not renewed, and
he found himself on the dole. He spotted an advertisement in the Times
Higher Education Supplement
for painting positions in Nigeria, Tasmania,
and Jamaica. He applied for all, and took the first post for which he was
accepted, at the Edna Manley School for the Visual and Performing Arts in
Kingston — another serendipitous development. He moved to Jamaica in 1985,
and has lived continuously in the Caribbean ever since.

It is not surprising, therefore, that migration is a theme consistently
confronted by Dixon in his art: a man’s coming to terms with the abandonment
of his birthplace, distance from family and the familiar, and finding continuity
despite relocating himself in a new environment. His work draws inspiration
from his own rich and diverse history.

“What happens is that there is a certain period of assimilation
which occurs, of time elapsing, before one digests a visual experience,”
he explains. “My paintings refer to, among other things, real and imaginary
landscapes, to nostalgia, to certain states of mind, and to the persistence
of memory.”

The popular label for the style of Dixon’s work is abstract
expressionism. When he was in art school in the 1960s, abstract expressionism
was a major influence on young artists. The European name for the movement
was Tachism, while the main British version was the St Ives School
based in west England. Its defining characteristic was its view of the painter
as the conduit through which emotion appeared on the canvas. While impressionism
involves an optical illusion of nature, an abstract expressionist painting
is a receptacle of the marks, strokes, drops, and dollops of the painter
on canvas. It is less observational and more existential.

Dixon’s work in particular is sometimes reminiscent of the celebrated
drip technique of the American artist Jackson Pollock. Dixon makes use of
the “all-over” method, in which emphasis is less on the controlled brush
stroke and more on the instinctive and emotive gesture. In order to obtain
the required gestures, he uses his arm rather than his wrist, achieving a
bold, exciting, and completely different feel. This technique inevitably
leads him to produce large works, although he does paint some smaller pieces
using a staining technique, rather than his preferred and more dramatic arm
movements.

David Boxer, curator of the National Gallery of Jamaica, has aptly described
Dixon’s style as involving “the staining of raw canvas — rather than painting
in the traditional ‘brush-stroke’ sense: staining and then pouring, throwing,
dashing, splattering, dripping paint which is allowed to flow, coalesce —
and sometimes mingle and mix as in a marbleising technique. Brilliant saturated
colours are allowed to interlock in these irregular, but organically shaped
patches. They are inevitably densely packed within the ‘all-over’ structure,
large opaque areas of dark ‘ground’ are allowed to act as a counterpoint
and to isolate swatches of intense colour.” Boxer adds: “And how that works!”

But Dixon’s paintings are not just expressions of form and colour: they
include icons, motifs, graphic elements. His work is largely a conversation
with himself. As with all artists, it is really about an enduring, probing,
and somewhat querulous relationship with the medium he has settled down
with: the paintbrush, paint, and canvas.

Dixon identifies the graphic element in his work as “the personal signature”.
“The autographic handwriting is very important to me,” he says. “That started
when I was in Belfast. I was very interested in the graffiti. I would go
one day to work in the city, and see that somebody had written something on
the wall. The next day somebody else had written something on top of it. I
saw these walls with multi-layered messages and I was interested in using
that as a painting technique.”

Living in the Caribbean has certainly influenced Dixon’s work.
During his 13 years in Jamaica, from 1985 to 1998, he was affected by images
of downtown Kingston. In some ways, he found the graffiti and burnt-out
buildings reminiscent of Belfast. Dixon’s painting went through a dark phase;
he had seven paintings in a 1997 exhibition curated by David Boxer, called
“Black as Colour”. He explains the technique he developed at the time: “I
was working with a mixture of aluminium and blackboard paint, and also used
chalk. So the paintings became like blackboards. The aluminium paint gave
me the feel of sunshine shining on the aluminium. You had that glare. Zinc,
or aluminium, is what you associate with Kingston, as it is everywhere alongside
the graffiti. I was always a colourist, but I did go through a period that
was very dark.”

His 1997 painting Vista, shown at the Grosvenor Gallery in Kingston,
explores this technique. After working on a series of black-and-white drawings,
he wanted to find a way to absorb reflected light. He was able to contrast
the hot sun on a galvanized zinc fence with the shaded interiors where light
is absorbed rather than reflected. Dixon saw it as the difference between
capturing the hot, searing sunlight of the tropical Caribbean and the diffused
European light.

He sees his work as a synthesis of abstract expressionism, the romantic,
and the classical. It marries the figurative and the abstract. At some periods,
his paintings are more figurative, at others, more abstract; but, while the
casual viewer may see only the abstraction, Dixon is always aware of the
figurative elements.

His paintings involve a dialogue between geometric forms and improvisation
or serendipity. Many contain vertical stripes played off against gestural
marks, such as Frozen Cities of the North, which he painted after
returning from a trip to Toronto. This was the coldest country he had ever
visited. His hotel room was on the 17th floor; in the painting he conveys
the feeling of the high rises and the frigidity of the weather. Compare this
with his painting Maracas Suite: Down the Islands (2003), in which
he tries to capture the spontaneity, the liveliness, and the colour of the
islands. While both paintings are based on a similar vocabulary of technique,
one is warm and vibrant, the other decidedly cool.

During his time in Jamaica, Dixon met the woman who was to
become his wife: Patricia Mohammed, a Trinidadian scholar at the Centre for
Gender and Development Studies at the Mona campus of the University of the
West Indies. In 2000, Dixon and Mohammed decided to move to Trinidad. They
built a house in Maracas Valley, east of Port of Spain and just north of the
UWI St Augustine campus. Dixon spends long hours working on his paintings
in the happy seclusion of the studio he and his wife built about 30 metres
down the slope from their plantation-style house.

His work continues to attract critical acclaim both in the Caribbean and
internationally. Since his first solo show in Birmingham in 1973, he has
exhibited every two years at least, and his work has been included in a number
of prestigious group shows. He represented Jamaica in the Santo Domingo Biennales
of 1995 and 1997, and was one of seven artists (the only one not born in Jamaica)
selected to participate in the acclaimed 1994 “Home and Away” exhibition at
the October Gallery in London. He is still invited to show his work each year
in the Jamaica National Gallery’s annual exhibition.

In 2001, a year after his move to Trinidad, Dixon had his first show in
his new home country, at the CCA7 gallery in Laventille, followed by an
exhibition at Gallery 1.2.3.4 in 2002. He spent much of the last year preparing
for his latest one-man show at the National Museum and Art Gallery in Port
of Spain in December 2003. He’s excited about the new work included in this
show: a series of large paintings, including the diptych Wide Sargasso
Sea, No. 6
, inspired by Jean Rhys’s novel.

“Wide Sargasso Sea represents an imaginary situation,” he explains.
“Nobody knows where it is. The painting in some ways reflects my journey
across the Caribbean, looking down from the window of a plane and seeing the
various levels of the sea, and the various depths of colour.”

Much of Dixon’s work speaks to motifs within painting that
are drawn primarily from his European training and background, but his influences
are constantly in motion, his imagination always engaging with what is around
him. The Caribbean has incrementally added to his European sensibility over
the last 15 years, a sensibility which has been aided also by his voracious
reading of fact and fiction about the region, all of which is equally blended
into his art.

In the last few years, Dixon has travelled extensively with his wife,
to the Netherlands, Canada, Haiti, and Japan. He is usually inspired by
some aspect of his trip, and either paints on location — usually in his
hotel room — or else waits until he returns to his studio in Maracas Valley.
In 1998 Dixon and Mohammed traveled to Namibia; the experience resulted in
one of his most popular pieces, The Wild Beast I Never Saw in Namibia.
The painting is replete with colourful animals and childlike forms, all products
of Dixon’s fertile imagination.

While Dixon has no interest in teaching again, he often acts as an informal
adviser, and he has surely inspired his wife to expand her research horizons
to include the examination of images and iconography in the evolution of
Caribbean identity, in both print and multimedia.

Dixon is aware of the view among many contemporary artists
that film, installation, and conceptual art are more valid expressions of
today’s changing world than painting. However, in an age when advertising
has taken on the role of making myth visible, he is passionate about the
relevance of his chosen medium.

“What I am trying to do is produce a painting which is not out of date
but is indeed valid for 2003,” he says. “Painting is something that I do
every day, even if it doesn’t have a great market future. I’m continually
searching for a new vocabulary — when you paint, what you try to do is surprise
yourself.

“Every painting is a new act of creation. Painting has been around for
a long time, from cave painting, man’s first artistic endeavour, to post-modernism.
I feel it will never completely die out as a creative expression.”

NO ORDINARY EXPATRIATE

“The English painter Rex Dixon, who came to Jamaica in 1985, after living
in Belfast, Northern Ireland, for several years, is arguably the most notable
expatriate to settle in Jamaica in recent years. Dixon’s paintings and works
on paper are, in essence, visual diaries, in which he records his impressions
and experiences by means of formal and informal abstract elements, fragmentary
images, and occasionally text. He arrived during a period of intense social
unrest and the work he created in response to Belfast evolved seamlessly
into work inspired by the Jamaican environment. Despite this responsiveness,
there is no self-conscious attempt to ‘Jamaicanise’ his work, which distinguishes
him from many other expatriate artists”.

Veerle Poupeye and David Boxer, in Modern Jamaican Art (Ian Randle Publishers, 1998)

  • http://abstractartlesson.com/ Abstractart Lesson

    Rex Dixon has gone through hard times. And I understand where he comes from when he is painting.