JAY, YEEZY... AND ANDY:
A CONVERSATION WITH ARTIST ANDY DIXON
Above: "Ballroom", "Duchesse On Horse (after Velázquez)", "Green Bouquet", "Matador", "Purple Portrait", "Red Nude", "The Embrace"
Interview by Marilyne Blais
All work by Andy Dixon
Canadian artist, designer, and musician Andy Dixon is a true renaissance man. He became known in the '90s Vancouver punk scene, playing in bands like d.b.s. and The Red Light Sting. Later, he would continue making music with solo projects (Secret Mommy), start his own music label, Ache Records, work as a freelance graphic designer and – create art. In recent years, Dixon has been focusing exclusively on painting, developing a body of work that contrasts refined subjects with bold colors and expressionist strokes. Although his subjects are often romantic, Dixon’s style and palette take away their idealism, pointing to an alternative beauty found within the imperfections. IRL had the following conversation with Dixon, discussing more of his recent work:
From what I gather, you've been keeping busy. What do you have on the horizon?
I have just been picked up by Rebecca Hossack, who does the art fair circuit and has galleries in London and New York, so I am delightfully busy making things for my new family there.
How do you reconcile your many identities as a painter, musician, and designer?
Honestly, I don’t. I tried for many, many years, maybe even decades, but eventually I had to admit defeat and choose one. I felt like I was not excelling at any single thing I was doing as much as I wished.
Do you think there were repercussions to that choice? What were they? Can you make a direct correlation to the way your work evolved?
I suppose there are repercussions to every choice one will ever make, but without a time machine and some kind of comparative test, how can we ever say what they are or would be? On the other hand, yes, there is a very direct relationship between the evolution of my work and the choice to concentrate solely on it. Before making that choice, I was working on pieces only when I had an approaching exhibit. It’s all I had time for between band practices, recording, performances, remixes, etc. I didn’t have a studio, even – I would just make work in my apartment or in my father’s basement. Since making the choice to concentrate on visual art singularily, I am in my studio almost every single day. I have been going at that pace for about three years now and am very happy with what that is doing for my work.
What is fine art to you?
I haven’t put too much thought into defining something like that. A quick Google search tells me, “Fine art is often defined as a creation intended primarily for aesthetic purposes and mainly evaluated according to standards of beauty and meaningfulness.” That seems right on the money. I recognize the importance of categorization in some cases. In electronic music, where options are infinite, I obeyed rules and adhered to categories for making tracks such as, "this is my electro-acoustic album so I can only sample acoustic instruments for it." It creates a container in which the artist’s job is to attempt to fill it completely. In this case though, it doesn’t feel very important.
Your recent subjects have been associated with painting's history and tradition; nudes, still life, portraits, period scenes... I wonder if fine art in itself is in some ways a subject in your paintings?
I think that’s a great way to put. I’ve said before that I make paintings of paintings. Your wording is better.
Do you often use paintings as a point of reference?
I always have some kind of source material while working, because I’m horrible at drawing or painting from memory. I have a pile of art history books that I source from, as well as a massive and ever-expanding folder of saved Internet images that I pull from – images of paintings, animals, women, and objects of wild extravagance.
I am definitely inspired directly from paintings, and I appropriate pieces of old works as a kind of allusion to my predecessors, but I wouldn’t say that I reproduce. I’d say that I sample these images from art history much like a musician samples from musical history. In music, this would be the difference between parody, like Weird Al, and sampling, like rap music. I don’t want to be Weird Al. I want to be Kanye.
Luxury is also an overarching theme in your work. How would you describe luxury?
My relationship with, and views on, luxury is ever-expanding. My 180 degree spin from being a punk teenager, overly-sensitive and misguided about the concept of "selling out", to a 34-year-old man, who listens almost exclusively to rap music is a result of getting a bit older and gaining the intellect to contemplate wealth and the quest for it with less judgement and knee-jerk reactionism. I find those comfortable with their desires to be an extremely refreshing change to the '90s guilt-ridden model of viewing the actualization of one's desire as a weakness or a character flaw. I’m trying to shed my DIY punk guilt so, for me, living my life more hedonistically is courageous and brings me closer to a state of authenticity.
Do you see a connection between luxury and painting?
I do, yes. Earlier, we were talking about fine art being a subject in my work. Lately, I have just been zooming the lens of the camera out further to reveal the environment that this art might be in – ballrooms, formal dinner parties, mansions, etc. There is most certainly a connection between luxury and fine art. It’s apparent even in modern rap music – Jay-Z rapping about his Basquiats and Warhols alongside his private jets is a clear example of how the acquisition of fine art is seen as a status symbol in pop culture. Since fine art has no direct or practical value, or at least it can be seen that way, it becomes a symbol of ultimate frivolousness. I think there’s something almost magical about that concept. I love the something-from-nothing story.
Your painting style is somewhat reminiscent of french fauvism, but there is also a very graphic element to it that makes me think of screen printing, DIY and street art. How much of it do you think was influenced by your involvement with music and design?
I’m happy that that glimmer of DIY aesthetic can still be spotted in my work. Yes, I have a long history with punk – album covers, posters, t-shirts, and whatnot, so naturally it’s going to be continually present in everything I do afterward. I am always injecting a certain amount of grit into my work. Despite sounding a little hostile towards my roots in punk culture, I’m truly not. There are aspects of it that I feel incredibly grateful for being exposed to during my formative years. The punk scene is essentially an organized religion with the same amount of dogma, and, much like Christianity, this can be said about it: the fundamental principles are very important, beautiful, and valuable – it’s the surrounding arrogance, enforcement, and drama that blows.
Punk and hip hop are two counter-cultural movements with very polarized positions on luxury, gain and wealth. Your transition from making punk music to listening almost exclusively to hip hop in a similar way seems to be informative of you coming to terms with your own desire to subscribe, as you said, to a more hedonistic life style. Do you see a similitude in the type of art you appreciate and make today in relation to before?
Absolutely. I think that my taste and preference in just about everything has evolved alongside my heightened self-awareness and acceptance of these things. In fact, in my punk era, I wasn’t interested in much fine art generally, unless it somehow represented to me a certain amount of underground counter-culture or contempt for, I dunno, the system. It had to be a bit snarky, or cheeky, and ripe with commentary or social function. It wasn’t until I matured in my thinking, realizing that beauty itself is a function – and a very important one – that I began to love Matisse, Twombly, Degas. My coming-to-terms with my appreciation of extravagance didn’t merely change the type of art I made, it drove me to make art in general – at least in a much more serious capacity than I had been making it previously.
Would you say that your work today is apolitical?
I would say that the apolitical presentation of my subject matter, often demonized, is the closest thing to a political statement in my paintings.
Your work is in a way void of reference to more contemporary subject matters. Is there a particular reason for that? Are you trying to avoid social commentary?
I’m not sure if my work is completely void of contemporary subjects. I have done pieces like Tennis Players #1 and #2, the Polo paintings, and Red Dinner, which seem to me to be current in subject. There are also nudes and still lifes which certainly have a place in history, and my work alludes to these paintings, but undoubtedly exist in contemporary society – the naked human form and fresh-cut flowers are just as desirable in today’s world as they were in Italy in 1496, or the Netherlands in 1660. This is the Great Conversation – a dialogue about aesthetic beauty in art that involves renaissance painting, Dutch still lifes, French pop cinema, Cy Twombly, and everything before, in-between, and after. It is a mistake to misinterpret reference as subject matter, just as it is a mistake to misinterpret Jay-Z’s Hard Knock Life as a 1977 broadway musical about an orphan.
I would agree with you here. But while I think those paintings you mentioned refer to things that still exist in contemporary society, they do not point directly to it. Like you said, they read more as part of a “great conversation” encompassing a bigger idea of what art, beauty, or aesthetic can be. In a way, this ties up to the theme of luxury and wealth and how your paintings may work as objects in a system of economy. I see it as the difference between making a painting of Jay-Z versus making paintings Jay-Z may rap about. It's more like the painting is an object of luxury, more than the painting portraying luxury?
Yes, exactly. The objects exist within different contexts throughout history, and I want to play with that a bit. Am I painting a still life or am I painting a historical painting of a still life? What’s the difference to the end result? What does a painting of flowers mean today and what would it mean without our rich history of floral paintings? There’s an invisible line between seeing things literally and seeing things as an exploration into the iconography of art history. When Kanye samples Otis Redding, he is tying himself to a rich musical history, but he is also playing with the context of the original sounds. Would one say that Otis Redding sings on that Kanye/Jay-Z track? His voice is there, of course – but it’s sampled from a different time in history and is being played or performed as a sample by someone else, a new musician. In this way, the song is simultaneously a direct nod to history and something completely brand new. I’d like to achieve that same dichotomy in my work.
And, that’s absolutely correct. I’m so glad that you mentioned this: I am playing with the object within the painting versus the object of the painting itself. I’ve said before that all of my paintings are of plumage in some way – either natural, as in the exotic animals, or manufactured, as in the extravagant outfits in the portraits. The added depth to this is that the painting itself also functions as a kind of decoration for a potential patron – a faberge egg made valuable only by the painting of a faberge egg on it.