For LEEN Magazine, June, 2016
By Elliat Albrecht
On my desk sits a photocopied image in a cheap IKEA frame. The caption reads, “When you are not rich you either buy clothes or you buy art.” The line is attributed to Gertrude Stein, but whether it was really hers or not, no matter: in the picture above, a woman is seated in small room with paintings hung on every nailable surface around her. She is stark naked, a satisfied smile on her lips.
I’ve never been rich. Hell, I went to art school - the poverty line and I have been so close that we stayed up late to tell each other secrets. But if I were wealthy, after I bought exotic animals and a basketball team, I would buy art with fervor. I would buy it like it’s food because it feeds me even better than the real thing and doesn’t have trans fats or whatever is bad for you these days. Even with very little money, I entertain the compulsion to own art by saving for editions, trading with kindly cooperative artists or drawing my own ballpoint knockoffs of the things I really want to have. This urge is not uncommon. An earnest desire to live amongst art for art’s sake is a perfectly nice and honourable thing. However, when the price of an art object reaches a certain point and it becomes attainable only to affluent buyers, conditions of ownership become complicated. An artwork’s function is split in two when it’s bought to be hung on an expensive wall: it suddenly becomes both an art object and a luxury asset to be envied.
Art is too often treated as a market commodity, making headlines not for its creative virtue or social impact but for how well it satisfies the capitalist agenda. Look at today’s cash-crazed artworld: did there ever exist an era before hangovers from champagne-fueled art fairs, glossy magazines and invite-only previews of millionaire's private collections? Technically yes, but it was ruled by rich merchants who commissioned paintings of their sumptuous possessions, pale wives, and yippy lapdogs in order to have concrete proof of their social standing. Before there were Instagram selfies with fanned-out cash, there were oil paintings of prized horses and plump naked women. Before that, pharaohs hoarded Egypt’s finest crafted objects to assert their financial dominance, carrying the beautiful relics with them all the way to their graves. I know this, because I’ve seen The Mummy Returns twice. In English art critic John Berger’s 1972 seminal book Ways of Seeing, he wrote that before anything else, paintings are objects which can be bought and owned. Art was hijacked as a showman’s tool before it had a chance to really be anything else.
Andy Dixon is hyper aware of art’s relationship with money. Signifiers of wealth abound in his large acrylic paintings, which take as their subjects stately lords, reclining nudes, ornate ballrooms, the kind of sports that only rich people know how to play (think squash or polo) and bathing beauties. His paintings borrow content from Renaissance art, biblical imagery, Flemish still lifes, photography, iconography, cinema and sometimes even soft pornography - when I first met him in 2013, he told me he had recently found inspiration in a stack of vintage Playboy magazines discovered at the bottom of Main Street. He paints in delicious vivid man-made colours: peacock blue, lipstick pink, Tropicana orange and mint green. His palette looks like it was dreamed up in a candy store or on an acid trip. This, paired with his rough line treatment and lofty subject matter, has often been cited as a juxtaposition of high meets lowbrow sensibilities, the autodidact who wandered into the Louvre. He works on the floor in his airy Vancouver studio, drawing overtop his paintings with oil pastel, stepping over unstretched canvases in his bare feet, always immaculately dressed in a shade the rest of us couldn’t pull off. Andy’s work has received an increasing amount of attention in recent years for good reason. His paintings embody a refreshing combination of calculated smarts and unmitigated beauty, the latter of which too much contemporary painting shies away for fear of academic disdain. Unabashed, Andy embraces beauty with gusto.
Like his works, the Vancouver-born artist himself is bright, cheeky, complex and a fusion of influences. What one fruitful Google search will reveal is that as a teen, he toured the continent with his punk bands d.b.s. and The Red Light Sting. Image results show youthful angst, piercings and spiky hair. In 1999, he started his own label, Ache Records, and after transitioning into a career as a graphic designer, released solo music projects under the pseudonyms Secret Mommy and The Epidemic. Delightfully, Wikipedia lists his instruments as guitar, piano, vocals, and computer. After tiring of his stint in design, Andy made a conscious choice to gravitate towards drawing and painting, drawing from magazines and art history books for inspiration. Self-taught, he has a natural skill for form and colour; his works are skillfully composed and well balanced even in their saturated excess. It’s easy to see how Andy's sensibility for electronic music has influenced his art: he paints as if he’s sampling art history and culture, recontextualizing imagery and aesthetic strategies to give them new meaning. If Andy were a song, he would be a track uploaded to the web by a teenage genius who mixed a Philadelphia rap battle bootleg with a Beethoven sonata.
Andy’s newest paintings, shown for the first time at Winsor Gallery in the solo exhibition “Expensive Things,” are no strangers to themes of decadence and patronage. They depict familiar tokens of abundance: fine violins, exotic fruit, lush nudes and distinguished wooden ships, riffing on the kind of banal imagery that typically adorns the walls of the moneyed. However, when Andy’s tongue-in-cheek paintings are hung in a commercial gallery with a pricelist behind the desk, an awkward tension arises. The demographic that Andy gently mocks is likely to also be the same type of patron that buys his work. Undeniably attractive and inoffensive at face value, the paintings satisfy the same innate desires as traditional oil paintings collected by the well-to-do - they affirm wealth while toting innocuous cultural credibility. This doesn’t go unnoticed by Andy. He painted ornate, gilded frames directly onto each of the canvases, confining the pictures with indicators of their status as purchasable commodities. This strategy is a self-deprecating acknowledgement of his role as an artist-labourer in an art market kept afloat by the chequebooks of collectors. Andy makes a knowing foray into a system rife with class divides, where artists can often only thrive if they cater to the tastes of the kind of opulent class that uses the word “summer” as a verb. He upsets a tradition of patronage long biased towards gratifying capital by ever-so-gently directing the gaze towards the purseholders themselves.