“Losing Juliet Changed Me and My Paintings Forever”

Yesterday I went on a quite extraordinary studio visit to an artist that I’ve followed for a long time. It was extraordinary for several reasons, but mainly because the artist Rodney Dickson and I have got more in common than we’d both like to admit.
Visiting New York to research Outsider Art practice, my exploration so far has led me to believe that not only is the term unhelpful, but those artists who’ve experienced traumatic, and I mean truly traumatic, events, should come into a special category of their own.
Rodney has talked very movingly on film about losing his wife of 35 years, Juliet, who took her life almost 2 years ago, in 2016. Juliet took her life in their shared studio and living space after suffering from a severe and enduring episode of depression.
Our lives have crossed paths several times without either of us really realising it. Originally from Ireland, Rodney studied in Liverpool, entering the John Moores Painting Prize, the Prize I used to run. Rodney is one of the relatively few artists to receive a commendation, in the 1987 show.
During a splendid lunch (probably the best I’ve been offered by any artist during a studio visit I have to say!) our conversation turns from painting to our shared experience of being bereaved by suicide. Rodney has questions for me…lots of them!

5a6942511d000039006acbdb

Rodney Dickson in his studio

Surrounded by his paintings, for the next 3 hours we talk about every aspect of our unwelcome shared experience. We talk about how it felt to not be left a suicide note. We talk about how it felt to be the person to find our loved one. We talk about our flashbacks, those lucid, 3D visions that drop in front of our eyes at the most inopportune moments. We talk about everything in a way that you can never really fully share with people who haven’t walked your path. Although over a decade separates our experiences, we agree on many things; that neither of us would be sitting having this conversation without the love, support and understanding of those around us; that we accept that we’ll never really have the answers that we crave and especially that talking helps.
It’s when we discuss the transformative effect of our traumatic experiences that we both agree that once the worst thing has happened, it gives you a fearlessness, such that enabled me to make a BBC film about our shared experience, and then travel half way across the world alone.
For Rodney, he has developed the courage to not only pick up his paintbrushes again, but to embrace some significant changes in his painting style. “The day after Juliet died I decided that I wasn’t going to paint anymore. There was no point. Eventually, after almost 9 months, I decided that I did actually want to paint again. It’s who I am. The first time I stood in the studio ready to paint, my head began to throb with an intensity I’d never experienced before. It was like my brain had short-circuited. Everything had built up and it was too much to take. Over time, I stood in front of my paintings again, and, after that, the almost unbearable intensity started to reduce and, eventually, I could paint again, just as had before.”

5a69436b1d000017006acbdd

Artist Rodney Dickson
When you lose someone you love it becomes a line, a marker, in your history. Our life experiences are split in two. There’s everything that happened before you lost that person, and then there’s everything that’s happened since. When we move across the studio to look at Rodney’s work, that marker in his life is immediately evident in his practice. Rodney’s paintings defy gravity with their heavy layers of oil paint, sometimes applied to the board straight from the tube. The once dark and heavy palette is now light and somehow more fragile. The surfaces are just as densely painted. The weight of the impasto and the texture created are mesmerising and as soon as I entered the studio I can smell the paint.
Once, every inch of the painting surface was covered in paint. Now some areas are left bare, revealing the raw surface of the board, exposing a vulnerability, rather than building a shield of paint armour in front of the viewer – a metaphor for what this experience does to you. It leaves you exposed, staring at parts of yourself you never knew existed, in a landscape that you don’t recognise. Slowly, like Rodney’s paintings, you regroup, build a different you with the same components, just put together in a different way, a new way.

5a6944191600002800138bfe

Painting by Rodney Dickson
Our mutual willingness to be open and honest about our shared experience, and our love of painting, evolved in an afternoon of intense and deep conversation.
Rodney walks me to the subway. It’s easy to get lost in this part of Brooklyn, and I’ve never visited this neighbourhood before. As we say goodbye, I think we both know that although this was the first time we’d met, it was an afternoon that neither of us will forget anytime soon.

5a6945591600002600138c00

The Artist’s Palette

Why ‘The Art That Doesn’t Know Its Name’?

Yes, it’s an unusual name for a blog, so I thought I’d explain where it came from.
On the first night I arrived here in New York, on my Travel Scholarship, I was invited to the premiere of Eternity Has No Door Of Escape, a fascinating film by Director Arthur Borgins, which charts the history of Outsider Art:

Outsider art challenges established art historical categories and artistic movements. A translation of the French “art brut”, a term coined by Jean Dubuffet in the aftermath of the Second World War, this label was applied to works produced by artists suffering from mental illness, practitioners of Spiritism, and self-taught visionaries. It compels us to question our aesthetic and cultural norms, and the place attributed to madness in our society. This documentary retraces the tumultuous history of art brut and introduces us to some of its pivotal figures Jean Dubuffet, André Breton, Hans Prinzhorn, Harald Szeemann… based on analyses, interviews, and a treasure trove of rare archival footage, often previously unreleased. It allows us to encounter leading experts in the field, and the key places and institutions where its history unfolded and continues to unfold, in France, Switzerland, Germany, and Belgium. This documentary is also an invitation to lose ourselves in a maze of universes beyond logic and reason, in the works of Adolf Wölfli, Aloïse Corbaz, Augustin Lesage, August Natterer… Art brut is too often overlooked by art history. This documentary allows us to make the acquaintance of this enigmatic, disquieting stranger, and to raise questions about the mysteries of artistic creation.

jan19b-

The film was a trip through most, but not all, of the significant historic moments that have helped to position this type of work in the contemporary art world today. There is a definite European, particularly French, focus which was both welcomed and informative.

 

Following the viewing, there was a Q & A session with New York based art dealer, curator and author Jane Kallir, Harvard’s Raphael Koenig and the film’s Director Arthur Borgins. It was during this discussion that an audience member asked the panel about how useful the term Outsider Art was in categorising this type of art work. Taking a deep breath, Chair of the discussion Koenig described this inevitable part of the Q & A as term warfare. Jane Kallir added that “this discussion has been going on for years and I suppose this is still the art that doesn’t know its name.’

IMG_4906

Of course, she was right. This debate has gone on for years with terms like Art Brut, Visionary Art, Outsider Art, Non-Academic Art, Self-Taught Art….all being used to describe this type of work and it’s artists’ various iterations. Each name seems loaded, not in a way that the artists feel comfortable or happy with, but rather to encapsulate what the art market or the dealers need – a catch-all phrase that brings together a critical mass of diverse work that is now unified in the international Outsider Art Fairs in Paris and New York – which incidentally is the starting point for my trip.
From all that I’ve read and seen, I still feel that none of these terms actually fully encompass the work. An alternative view of Outsider Art is ‘You know it when you see it’, which I admit isn’t a satisfactory theoretical or scientific way to categorise artwork.
Later this week I’m meeting with Becca Hoffman, the Director of the Outsider Art Fairs, to get her take on the name and contemporary definition of Outsider Art. I’ll report back after our conversation.

 

…and so the journey begins.

It seems like a lifetime ago since in 2017 I was given a Winston Churchill Travel Scholarship. Now, it’s 2018 and I’m sitting writing this in a hotel in New York and I can’t quite believe it.

When you apply to the Churchill Trust it’s with a specific project in mind. For me it was a real opportunity to investigate an area of the art world that I’d been interested in for a long time – Outsider Art. Some call it Art Brut, others call in Visionary Art…it’s a discussion we’ll have later.

For a long time the two paths of my life, art and mental health, have run parallel to each other, crossing now and again, but really existing in isolation. For several years I’d been working in the arts while also working in suicide prevention. It was really only when I worked on a photographic exhibition at the Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool that I started to think seriously about bringing the two worlds together.

The same year I left the Walker Art Gallery where I’d been running the John Moores Painting Prize, I made a documentary with the BBC and also complete my Art History and Curating Masters – see what I mean about the two worlds running parallel!

The Trust gave me a grant that allowed me to visit New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Tokyo, Kyoto and Shiga investigating Outsider Art practice. I’ll be sharing my experiences here. My first stop is a pilgrimage to the old studio of my favourite painter…Agnes Martin.