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Is painting dead?

Marsha Pearce ruminates on Rex Dixon’s latest works
Published: 
Sunday, December 8, 2013
Visual Artist Rex Dixon. Photos: Marsha Pearce

In Rex Dixon’s latest exhibition, The Death of Painting: Returning Painting to its Essence, he questions the demise of the practice of using brush and pigments and insists that painting is still a justifiable means of communication. 

 

“I am not saying painting is dead, but I am exploring what you can do with it as far as communication, when you think of what advertising does, or what videos, films and performance art do. Painting is competing with all of these things,” said Dixon.

 

Dixon is not the first person to consider the collapse of painting. The 19th century French painter Paul Delaroche is believed to have declared the death of painting when he saw early technological inventions in photography. In 1921 five Russian avant-garde artists said farewell to painting, pronouncing the practice obsolete in the context of their society. In response to the Russian Revolution and the civil war between Bolshevik and anti-Bolshevik factions, the artists sought creative forms that would be practical and useful to everyday life. Artists like Aleksandr Rodchenko, therefore, turned to graphic design and photography.

 

In later years, painting would come under threat of termination again. The rise of conceptual art in the 1960s in both Europe and North America, came with less painted images as ideas took precedence over aesthetic factors and the form of the finished work. 

 

“Painting was seen at that time as an old-fashioned way of working,” Dixon said. It is against the background of conceptualism that Dixon would confront painting’s relevance in his fine arts bachelor’s degree thesis entitled The Death of Painting, which he completed in 1971 at the Stourbridge College of Art in West Midlands, England.

 

Over his 40-year career as an artist, Dixon has remained focused on the validity of painting. He has taught in the painting departments at the New University of Ulster in Belfast, Northern Ireland and at the Edna Manley School of Visual Arts in Jamaica. He has also exhibited his work both regionally and internationally.

 

In our present-day context, Dixon’s concern about the potency of painting is still the subject of much discussion. For example, art critic Jed Perl writes in his recent article The Rectangular Canvas is Dead: “Painting, which for centuries reigned supreme among the visual arts, has fallen from grace […]. Which is not to say that painting is dead, or dying, or even in eclipse: excellent paintings have been done in the last few years […]. 

 

“But the painter’s basic challenge, the manipulation of colours and forms and metaphors on the flat plane with its almost inevitably rectangular shape, is no longer generally seen as art’s alpha and omega, as the primary place in the visual arts where meaning and mystery are believed to come together.”

 

It is precisely this basic challenge of the painter that Dixon takes up in his new body of work. He presents us with his evolved style, one that has moved from a largely gestural approach to the consideration and incorporation of strong geometric shapes: rectangles, triangles, diamonds and parallelograms. His new paintings are a mix of chance—letting the paint do what it wants—with more controlled treatments of the surface of the canvas in a technique that demonstrates his manipulation of form to produce works with varying degrees of spatial depth. 

 

In a number of his pieces, dark triangles can be interpreted as deep openings into which we can fall. He destabilises the two-dimensional surface so that in many instances it loses it flatness. 

 

“All of the paintings are about space in the picture plane. I think I am playing with surface and depth,” Dixon said.

 

He also engineers colour placement in this series of paintings so that we get the effect of simultaneous contrast, that is, he positions colours side by side so that they interact and affect the value and intensity of each other. In his masterminding of form and colour he skillfully shows painting’s communicative power. 

 

He cleverly expresses the transition from dawn to dusk in the piece Morning Noon and Night, he conveys the kinetic energy, the rise and crash of water in the painting Breaking Wave, and he articulates a silhouetted palm tree in the tropical heat without stereotypical picturesqueness in his piece called Palm.

 

While his paintings are created in an economical, almost minimalist manner, they speak volumes. Images of chevrons and parallel lines in his art call to mind road signs: pedestrian crosswalks and traffic symbols among others, which do the work of communicating information to us. Seeming to draw on those signs, Dixon illustrates the capacity of painting to relay data and to be full of meaning. It is this essence to which he returns in this exhibition. 

 

Today, amid the plethora of computer art and other forms of expression, Rex Dixon is doing his part to ensure that painting has a heartbeat. Painting is not dead, and Dixon continues to draw breathe from its existence and possibilities. 

 

“I maintain painting as an activity, and I keep myself alive in it by changing my style a lot,” he said.

 

 

The Death of Painting opened on November 22 at Soft Box Gallery, 9 Alcazar Street, St Clair, and continues until December 21. Gallery hours: Mon-Fri 10 am-6 pm, and Sat 10 am-2 pm.

 

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