Stephen Dixon – Savage Indignation
17 September to 6 November 2004
Solo exhibition of recent work
Stephen Dixon is a wounded man. He is taking it personally. He is siding with Jonathan Swift, the eighteenth-century satirist, who wrote his own epitaph for his tomb in St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, declaring himself 'lacerated' by the 'savage indignation' he felt at the inhumanity he saw all around him. For Dixon too, the creative urge, before it takes the form of words or images, is nursed as an inner hurt, a deep-seated sense of grievance (also of grief) that the world is corrupt, and in danger of being corrupted further.
However strong the emotions that inspire it, they are voiced in Dixon's latest work through a range of extremely subtle and refined techniques. He had a degree in sculpture, and had been making abstract forms inspired by landscape before he enrolled in the Ceramics Department of the Royal College of Art in 1983. It was there that he began modelling figures in clay.
His grotesque characters, packed with the knockabout energy of the circus, targeted political issues of the day with a vehemence only partly disguised by their folksy, fairground appearance. Twenty years on, his new work is no less urgent, no less involved with the big stories which have dominated the news media in the last weeks and months. Yet, because of his long association with this world, he now understands that no single image, no single object can hope to encapsulate the web of claim and counterclaim which makes up contemporary politics, both domestic and international. Reports are refashioned on a daily basis, as some new piece of information is squeezed out of the system, turning previous certainties on their heads.
Dixon navigates this sea of unknowing with the skill of a master mariner. There is no glimmer on his cultural horizon so large, or so small, that cannot provide some clue to our present position, or our future direction.
He decorates the surfaces of his plates and over-sized bargees' teapots with a layering of printed, painted and drawn imagery culled from the widest range of sources. The modelled figures still appear, but more sparingly, as ideas emerging into three dimensions that have been more amply explored in two. Some of his imagery - Dürer's 'Whore of Babylon', Leonardo's sketches for 'The Battle of Anghiari' - has long been regarded as iconic, but is revitalised, given fresh relevance by recent events. In 'Paradise' it rubs shoulders with the photograph of the Palestinian boy dressed as a suicide bomber, an image which will surely be as defining of our own times as the Renaissance masters' were to theirs.
The appropriation of instantly recognisable images from the Renaissance or from ancient Greece and Rome immediately proclaims Dixon's serious, high-minded approach. Yet in finding these landmarks jostling for position with less familiar material, roughly transferred onto the intrinsically fragile material of ceramic, we might feel that the very foundations of civilisation are somehow jeopardised. Not that we can be so sure any more where the bedrock of our civilisation is to be found.
The uncontrollable monster Frankenstein may appear a more pertinent symbol for our times than the unattainable ideal of a Greek Venus. The shadow-hand diagrams of the mule and the elephant, emblems of the main US political parties, seen on the plate 'Babylon', are a chilling reminder how something completely insubstantial, innocently playful to look at, can represent a literally world-shattering power.
The interplay between the flat images and the applied seals, casts of cracker tokens or Monopoly pieces is deliberately open, a mirror of the fluctuating ways in which information is commonly presented and received. The titles have been added last, not necessarily to unlock any fixed meaning, but as a signpost, a verbal prompt to ways in which the visual images might function or coalesce. Invariably terse, they direct us back to the richly suggestive images and forms of the individual pieces, where we find a model of a kind of freedom: Dixon again identifying with Swift, who in Yeats' verse paraphrase of his epitaph, 'served human liberty'.
Timothy Wilcox © 2004
Timothy Wilcox is a freelance curator and teaches at the University of Surrey
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