By Jeff Doyle
2 October 1951 – 25 February 2008
On 25 February 2008, the Australian art world lost one of its finest ceramics artists when Lex Dickson died suddenly from the unforeseen side-effects of the cancer therapy he had so recently come through seemingly with success. Lex was born in New Zealand where he still has family (parents) and friends, and had travelled widely before settling in the northern regions of Sydney in the early seventies. After some time in Terry Hills, he and his wife Sharon built a studio, kiln and house at Clareville, overlooking Pittwater. That local area of the Sydney Northern beaches, combined with Lex’s continual re-assessment of his wider South Pacific origins, was to find maturing artistic expression in much of his work of the last decade, as his potting practice moved into that of narrative and historical interpretation presented through ceramic art.
In his youth, Lex travelled in South East Asia, Africa and Japan, where he encountered and trained in ceramics, notably with Tamura Goro in Hagi, Japan. From these Japanese wood-ash practices, in combination with the admired techniques of African styles and vessels, Lex developed his mastery of numerous glaze styles – above all, fire ash techniques (shino, charcoals etc).
From the very earliest, Lex’s work was always exquisitely finished and conceptually beautiful. As well as his handling of a beautiful lexicon (an accidental pun if you’ll allow it) of patinas, textures and colours, the early and middle period works in flatware, vases, cups, bowls and sometimes curiously shaped ‘buckets’, were often literally marked by the presence of Lex’s hand. These markings often look Japanese, but the aetiology is wider than just that. Maori and South Pacific heritage, with their body scarring, tattooing and bi-laterally symmetric animal carving styles, are one ‘source’ area; certainly Sino-Japanese calligraphics are another – the hand as pen, stylus or quill, marking and even scoring through the surfaces of the clay, are significant characterising markers of Lex’s style in the 1980s through to the 1990s. The great living Spanish artist Antonio Tapies is another major source. Indeed, more speculative research on Lex might well show how much the Catalans inhabit Lex’s gestural vocabulary: Picasso of course, but perhaps more preferentially Miro, Gaudi, and Tapies allow that sweeping, excoriating ductile marking. So otherwise beautifully fluid and vitreous surfaces are scored and slashed at to show the layers of clays, indeed to expose the very process of the artist’s hand making the work-as-narrative; and therein we also see the very history of the firing. In a way, this is most Japanese, also Catalan, and, obviously and finally, Dickson’s own amalgam; the almost perfect surfaces are sliced, cut, even flayed, to display the pieces’ underpinnings.
Many of his works in the 1990s were huge square-ish platters, for tables or sideboards – some are even slightly or semi-convexed wall tiles; memory pulls up the majolica dishes, plaques, and heraldic shields of Renaissance Italy, so massive and heavy, yet they defy gravity as they almost float free of the walls and brackets supporting them. Their surfaces are mosaics of texture and vitreously smooth enamel – stripes here, fluid drops and spottiness there, diagonal crossings and quarterings (that heraldic effect again) on another – most are luminescently, vibrantly coloured. Contrapuntally, most are then ‘written’ upon, with at times an antique ‘make-your-mark-here’ cross, a pictogrammic graph, an aggressively elegant aleph, a comforting exquisite zero, at times signs that suggest fossilised or alphabetical scrawls. What this does is to make formally functional vessels and plates into near-stories.
Lex Dickson at Totem Gesture exhibition, 2005 Robin Gibson Gallery, Sydney; photo: Michel Brouet
Even then in the nineties, much of the work was hinting at other narratives – local and very topographic associations: vases, plates, and just plain geometric-shaped objects, hinted at peninsular feelings; local Northern Beaches landscapes feature magnificent headlands, where stratigraphy unfolds multicoloured rocks and soil layers in a range of earthy colours, sea-bashed scourings and textures from the febrile to the smoothly pebbled; surf and sand are complemented by the billowing fullness of sails and clouds sweeping across and above Pittwater. These pieces were self-contained mini-histories and micro-geologies and hinted at more extreme adventures to come.
The Manly Regional Art Gallery & Museum exhibition Running on Instinct, 2005, marked the major significance and status of his work, culminating the previous decade or so with the accolade of a major solo show in an important regional space. It also marked the manner in which Lex’s trend to narrative had evolved into full blown ‘histories’. The important wall mounted Whakapapa Staff and Family Canoe pieces of the early 2000s, recalled Polynesian-Maori heritage, while other similar narrative sets invoked personal family history, the life and topography of the Northern Beaches. Alongside these wall-mounted works at Manly, and subsequently at major shows at Gibson’s Gallery (Surry Hills) and Stephanie Burns in the ACT, were a number of highly innovative free-standing ‘totemic’ poles. In their first iteration these took two forms: ‘table-sized’ or small poles, of no more than 1 metre height in groups of 2 or 3 or even singular poles, and 2 metre high sets or solos, usually, but not exclusively, for the outside. Both forms comprised one or more steel central vertical support-rods fixed into the ground or to a mount, upon which a number of near-spherical hollow bulb-like rings were mounted. Any one totem might have every bulb a different style of enamel, patina, or colour; some had crystal-faceted surfaces rather than being smoothly rounded. Initially they appeared to be reminiscent of baroque columns, of Maori and other indigenous, or ‘Indian’ totem poles of the Pacific Rim. To this reflection added the developing sense of their Asian, indeed Tibetan and Japanese Buddhist, nod to prayer wheels; these columns are at once dynamic and comforting, while serenity is their key effect. There is a tremendous sense of movement and a rhythmic undulating flow as we read across the edges or layers between spherical bulbous boundaries and the rhythms effected by the interplay of forms – spherical, faceted, nearly polyhedric for some globes – from one pole to the next and back again. It is said that one may not dance to architecture (often), but one can, should, sing Lex’s poles, I think.
Lex’s latest work in the mid to late 2000s further developed this narrative and totemic tendency. Although still making exquisitely formal pieces (the large platter/plaques and vases), in his last show at Robin Gibson’s in December 2007 he also presented an even more innovative set of significant ‘totem poles’. In (unfortunately for us all) these last examples, Lex was combining the ceramic globes with other materials (woods and metals), recalling as before indigenous Pacific-rim totemic forms, Tibetan prayer wheels, and even iconic stupae or stellae from Hindu-Islamic traditions. The height of many of the totems doubled, with some of the groups of 3 poles ranging from 2 to 4 metres, and the top-most elements resembling burnished metallic or burnt-wooden two-dimensional alpha-numeric graphs, banners or flags. As with all great art, these works managed to transcend their material and form – they are simply, quietly and elegantly spiritual. Controversial for some was the blend of non-ceramic elements with the continuing beauty of the Dickson ceramic formalities and surfaces. The evolution of the maturing vision which these late works signal and the realisation of that loss are almost beyond comment.
By 2008 Lex Dickson had established a considerable professional reputation. His work was collected widely in major institutions from the National Gallery of Australia and University of Technology, Sydney, to regional galleries, notably Manly, and held in important commercial and private collections from Japan to London; his importance and maturing vision was recognised, along with the value of his shift into a genuine artistic narrative mode. In the last decade he had exhibited extensively in NSW, ACT and Victoria to increasing critical acclaim and commercial approbation. His chief galleries were Robin Gibson in Sydney, where he held more than a dozen solo and group shows, Stephanie Burns, (formerly of the ACT, now Yass), Fusions in Brisbane and numerous regional galleries around Australia and New Zealand.
Above: Lex working on the veranda outside his studio; photo: Marni Dickson
Bottom: Totem Gesture (detail), 2005; Robin Gibson Gallery, Sydney; photo: Michel Brouet
Top left:Bowl, 2006, Tall Tales and True, Robin GibsonGallery Photographer: Michel Brouet
Top right: Platter, Tall Tales and True exhibtion, 2006, Shino and Tenmoku Platter,2003
Bottom left: Vase, shino, h.50cm 2007; Fingerprints, Robin Gibson Gallery Bottom right: Vase, shino, h.53cm 2007; Fingerprints, Robin Gibson Gallery
The artistic loss to the region is incalculable. The most delightful, amicable, intelligent and integral artist, lover of the All-Blacks, surfing and sailing too (and yes these elements do not merely sneak into the locale and topography of the works they are instinct within it), above all Lex is, and will continue to be, mourned by all who met him, chiefly his beloved wife Sharon, their two children, parents and the many relatives and countless friends and colleagues. His artistic legacy will continue to grow, and as time unfolds the maturing vision will be seen as a most important addition to the narrative of Australian-Pacific art.
Jeff Doyle, Senior Lecturer, English
School of Humanities and Social Sciences,
Article from The Journal of Australian Ceramics 47#2