Two and Two Makes Ten: Rodney Dickson in Conversation with Jeffrey Morabito
As his show continues at David & Schweitzer Contemporary in Bushwick (until March 28) the artist sat down with JEFFREY MORABITO to discuss his philosophy and experience of painting.
There is no title for Rodney Dickson’s show, nor are there any titles for the paintings. Compared to some previous shows at this gallery, the walls are sparsely hung. The less-is-more approach makes sure there are no distractions from his heavily loaded paintings. The weight of these paintings comes both from the physical amount of paint that has been slathered on and the psychic power that comes off. Even though the paintings are abstract, between chunks of paint it feels as if an image is waiting to burst through. Globs of oil paint are easily over three inches thick. But there are also some spots so thin or just completely bare, showing the white of the panel through. No paint is hesitantly applied. Every touch, or absence of it, is delivered with conviction.
RODNEY DICKSON: Someone once said that you can tell what type of painter someone is by looking at their palette.
JEFFREY MORABITO: I actually don’t see a palette.
I don’t have one. I mix directly on the painting. If I need one I’ll grab a piece of wood or cardboard but I normally don’t use a palette.
The most pressing question I had coming out from my last studio visit is about the famous Philip Guston quote you mentioned, the one about the ghosts in the studio. Its when you first go into your studio there are many other people in their with you; mentors, friends, family, other voices of influence. But then the longer you stay inside working, one by one they leave the room. And eventually, you will leave the room too. For me this is a quote that draws a line in the sand about what type of artist you are. When I first heard this quote, it answered a lot of questions for me. For some other people, however, it brings up more questions. I find the way you paint is very much in that territory.
I think it is exactly the way painting works for me or other painters like me. That quote puts it well but you can put it another way, athletes talk about getting in the zone. You can learn all the elements of making a painting and be very good at it and still what you end up with is just a painting. And somehow the sum of its parts has to end up more that just a painting. two and two has to be more than four, two and two has to be ten.
Frank Auerbach spoke about it one time; he described it as the magic of painting. Something happens . . . it’s hard to describe in words, its more of a feeling, spiritual is a word I don’t like to use, but it is something like that.
Right, if it weren’t for the overuse of the word spiritual I would definitely define it as something spiritual.
Transcendence is another word that I think applies but I don’t like to use it cause I’m not a Buddhist you know. I don’t like the sound of it but it works. So Guston’s quote is a pretty good one. It describes well the territory that I work in.
You ever feel like you delay finishing a painting on purpose?
I don’t know, but probably, maybe subconsciously. I used to work on my paintings for a year, I’m trying to get more quick at doing them. Ironically it takes more courage for me to do that. Its kinda like if you’re working on something for a year it should be good, because you know what you put into it, but if work on something for an afternoon there must be some doubt there because you didn’t put much work into it. So I’m trying to find the courage to call it finished sooner. Now I feel working on them for a year kind of killed them in a way, maybe not killed them but they became something else, but maybe they didn’t need to become something else.
I use to think with Frank Auerbach paintings, he would work on them for years, and he would change them everyday, and in the end it ends up with a few marks here and there. I don’t know if anyone knows what they’re like in the first day but I’m curious, I think on the first day, they might be good. I just wonder between the first day and the last day the difference is very slight. It’s only something very slight that he feels, that if we say, we couldn’t really see a difference. I’m curious about that.
Sometimes just on the first day when I paint the surface white and I have a white painting I think it’s done, it’s already fucking beautiful as it is. What more would you want than a white painting? Its beautiful, its calm, it’s meditative, its fantastic, there’s already so much there, so why spoil it. And whenever I start a painting its miserable, nothing’s happening, but when something is happening, you don’t want to go to bed that night, so that’s also why I’d keep on working on them. And the thing that I never care about is ruining a painting. If people say, it’s finished, you’ll fuck it up tomorrow, I’d say who cares, I think it’s about learning more.
In a related question of fucking up your painting, perhaps a more appropriate term would be destroying. I feel there is an underlying sense of violence in your work. I don’t know if its something you think about or it’s just part of who you are as a painter.
I don’t know either. Art critics would say it comes from where I’m from, Northern Ireland. I grew up in a violent society. I’m not much of a violent person, but I understand violence. I also think there’s a deep sensitivity to them, and there’s subtle things going on, and garish things going on, and all the different elements we do in our life. But there is violence in them, but I don’t see it anymore, I used too. In the same way how I don’t smell oil paint in my studio anymore.
Maybe, I have thought about this before, what is perceived as violence, that maybe I’m injecting an element of drama to it.
Well, there are different levels of violence. A long time ago when I was sharing a studio with a few artists, I did this landscape painting. Everyone seemed to like it. I didn’t really like it but everyone was saying, that’s the best thing you’ve done. So it sat there for two or three days and then I painted it over with something completely different. Then this artist stopped coming into the studio, or she’d go whenever I wasn’t there. It wasn’t that she didn’t like me. I asked her why I never see her in the studio anymore. I don’t go when you’re there because you’re too violent. I said what did you mean. She said don’t get me wrong, I love you and your work but there is a violence about you and the way you work that I can’t deal with. I said I’m sorry, what did I do? She said that was a beautiful painting but the next time I saw you had painted it over. In a way it kind of annoyed me because it’s my fucking painting, but it’s an extreme sensitivity to something that could be called violence that decided to paint over my painting and that was considered a violent act.
Well sometimes I destroy a painting just because I can.
Right, knowing my perverse personality I bet I destroyed it just because everyone said they liked it.
Last time I was here, you said some people see a pastoral scene in your work. I think rather than copying nature directly, you are painting with nature.
Yes that’s a good way to put it. I think if the paintings work, the thing they’re getting relates to elements of the world and it includes all those things, including violence. But violence may not be the correct interpretation of it. Certainly I would say there is a ruthlessness in the work, as we discussed, not to be precious and to be prepared to destroy and create without fear. I would say one must have ‘fire in the belly’ to create art, somewhere inside us, there must be some need to create, one must have a reason to make art.
Many artists have had some trauma or difficulty in their lives and this gives them an “edge”.
As we discussed, knowing how to draw well and use paint well will achieve some level of success, but most artists can do that, there has to be something else to bring out the ‘magic’
I hate when people say they like my painting before its done.
I know cause then you’re stuck with it, cause either you agree with them which is something you don’t want to do, or you go out against them which is something you don’t want to do cause you know they may be right.
It’s weird, I’m asking you questions that I already know the answer to.
But that’s the best way since you understand the thing better. I’ve had curators come through here and act like it’s their own place. They don’t get what I’m doing at all and ask totally irrelevant questions. And it got me thinking awhile ago what I would say to curators in the future. I would say in a polite way, I’m going to make some coffee, have a look at my paintings. I’ll be 5 or 10 mins. Then when I’m done, if the paintings did anything for you I’d be happy to talk to you about them. If the paintings didn’t do anything for you, than we can talk about something else. I said it once to John Davis and he said I didn’t come to see you I came to see your paintings, go make your coffee. It worked that day.
Where art has gone now, it’s not a place that I don’t understand, but a place I can’t enter sincerely. It makes me cynical. When it comes down to it there’s always two questions; what to paint and how to paint it. And if you’re talking about things that stray too far away . . .they are very general questions, what are you painting, which you can never answer in one word. And how you are doing it.
If I was to be very formal and technical about your work, I’d say what you’re doing is about how you are taking away the paint, not how you’re putting it on. I think its interesting how you said someone told you, you can tell what type of person a painter is by looking at their palette. And you don’t have a palette.
It sounded like when you had the figure in your work, trying to describe something too specifically, but you wanted to be more open with what you were describing. But the way you’re working now I think you are getting at something more specific in terms of the paint and the materiality itself. If you wanted to put it in context with painting, I think what you’re doing is a very specific position on what painting is. Because what you’re doing is something that a lot of people are trying to do.
I think at some point I realized this is something that I always really wanted to do. But some reason I haven’t done it. I remember one day I had that thought.
I also think this has something to with living in a place like NY. Prior to living here, I think it had to do with finding justification for your position as an artist. Where in Northern Ireland, it’s certainly not an art place like NY. And when I lived in Liverpool, the street that I lived on, I didn’t want people to particularly know that I was an artist. It was a working class neighborhood and they would probably think, argh, that’s a strange guy. But in NY, everyone knows I’m an artist, even on the first day I moved in. It’s not an important thing, but it did occur to me when I was making the change in my work. But the thing I think that is the essence of the work but what I find most difficult to talk about is these words that I don’t like to use like spiritual or transcendent, I think that’s what it is about. And if talking about things like; more paint or less paint, or do I scrape it off. Those things only concern us because we’re painters, but in the end of the day it doesn’t matter how I did it, I could be using a spray gun and making it super thin. It wouldn’t matter if it had that effect at the end of the day. I think I read something about Pollock, or something he said, to the effect of “don’t get hung up on the drips.” Drip painting or no drips, who cares? It’s the end of the painting that matters!
The technical details can be arbitrary.
Yeah, as craftsman, we need to know how to do these things, but people who look at them don’t need to know how we did it. We’re not house builders. We don’t care how a house is built. We just want to live in it.
Rodney Dickson at David & Schweitzer Contemporary, March 2 to March 25, 2018. 56 Bogart Street, between Harrison Place and Grattan Street Brooklyn, Brooklyn davidandschweitzer.com