DICK BIXBY                       June 2006

CRYPTO   -    Process of Perception


Bixby’s career stretches from the nineteen-sixties with work in many media and his output is still prolific today.

‘Life and all the phenomena of life suggest     sources of picture-making to him’.

R.C.Kenedy V & A Museum London 1977

Already by 1967 his work was of quality, quantity and interest to earn him a one man-show in Argentina’s National Gallery in Buenos Aires. After his participation in the Open Book Show at the Victoria and Albert Museum 1977, much of his career was spent outside the UK.

Many of his works have been acquired for the collections of the Arts Council, the British Council, Switzerland’s National Museum in Geneva and the National Museum of Israel in Jerusalem, among many others.

Since his return to the UK, Bixby has continued his work with unchanged curiosity, passion and

intense painterly skill.

CRYPTO the process of perception has fascinated Bixby for many years and inspired his latest work.

This interest led him to the 14th and 15th Century tradition of religious painters who made a series of paintings to go round the church. Perhaps nine separate images would surround the major panel or altarpiece.

Churchgoers (in other words everyone) would understand the meaning of each of these scenes, and how they added to the meaning of the main painting. The average person no longer understands the symbolic meaning of such images.

With the painting ‘polyptych’, or multi-image painting, Bixby hopes to find out people’s impressions and understanding of it by means of a questionnaire.

If a dialogue can be established between viewers and the works of art, now just as in medieval times, then ‘viewers learn about themselves through their aesthetic response’ as Kathrine Carlisle put it in response to a show of Bixby’s work in Singapore.

Rather than individual pieces, Bixby’s new black and white paintings combine many images within each canvas. The question is whether we can distinguish them. This exhibition should provide some answers.

A selection of Lithographs from the ‘Open Book’ 1977 exhibition and line drawings will also be on show.

A stunningly beautiful and stimulating exhibition in the ideal location – a large former warehouse for woollen exports, with great dramatic possibilities on Exeter’s Canal Basin.

Please see below for reviews from: Heinz ohiff, R.C. Kenedy and Mike Hope.

REVIEW of ‘Crypto’: Mike Hope (University of Plymouth)

Dick Bixby is a name which I suspect is all but forgotten by the majority of the art world and certainly by the vast majority of the British art buying public. It is therefore very timely that the delightfully situated, Gallery Terracina, has given the platform for Dick Bixby to show his ‘Crypto’ series which he has undertaken over the last eighteen months. His new works are a powerful testimony to his abilities not only as a painter but as one of the most able draughtsmen of his age. The intensity of the very large canvases is brilliantly offset by the bare white walls and natural granite pillars which carry the structure of the converted warehouse in which the gallery is housed. Likewise the clever ways in which a number of old fishing nets have been strung between two granite piers emphasises the powerful strokes and lines which are such an essential part of his work. These nets also serve as a division between his new work and a display of elements from his previous output which stretches back over forty years. A highlight for me of this work is his absolutely sensational pen and ‘Rotring’ ink drawings of female figures. The fluidity of his line and the creation texture through repeat line is at once both redolent of his early 1970’s work and yet very contemporary. Likewise his lithographic portfolio from 1977 simply reinforces the feeling of being in the presence of a master draughtsman.

For the last few years he has been resident in Devon and has had a number of small scale exhibitions. His reputation in Scandinavia and Germany his very high and this exhibition gives the art world in the South-West the opportunity to start to  appreciate the quality and range of work which he has been producing over many decades.

Gallery Terracina and its owner/curator Cristina Burke-Trees deserves our gratitude for bringing Dick Bixby and his remarkable body of work to the attention of a wider audience.

Mike Hope

Director of Arts and Exhibitions

Peninsula Arts

University of Plymouth

REVIEW of “Crypto” : Heinz Ohff

Art is not derived – as most people think – from nature. Art is derived from art. It moves along its own paths, according to Paul Klee ‘parallel to nature’.

Dick Bixby has of late given his special attention to the works of Klimt and Schiele, the great Viennese designers who were the first to carry the theories of another great Viennese into the world of art: those of Sigmund Freud.

These few introductory cues will suffice. Perhaps I should mention Beardsley and his work which we in Germany call ‘Jugendstil’. This style is also evident in the work of Klimt and Schiele; the pure line, seemingly very simple, yet irrevocable once set – a difficult task for the artist.

It is against this background, culturally and historically, that this art must be considered. The viewer needs an awareness of this – just as the artist does – to feel at home with the drawings that Bixby presents.

Of course he has neither copied nor imitated Klimt or Schiele – not to mention Beardsley. Art indeed originates from art, but not by mere imitation. An immense amount of innovation has to be added; new aspects that were never previously seen. And this holds true for Bixby.

His innovation is the de-personification of female bodies, which, nevertheless, he carries so close to the viewer that one can almost sense the body heat. However, no matter whether single, ‘fugitive’ or in pairs, they remain constrained between heaven and earth, in a sense of super individuality, allegorical. If one comprehends a series of these drawings as a continuous story, it seems to be a tale without action and without moral.

Even the composition of the drawings has something like a narrative flow. The fugitive nudes – are they fleeing from someone or are they running towards someone, arms outstretched? – have bodies that are merely outlined in the majority of instances in an X-shape fashion. Just the head is finished very clearly and detailed and seems to be composed of innumerable extremely ornamental lock of hair.

This is even more evident in the drawings of nudes in pairs. There the hair appears to grow into abstract shapes like the foliage of a tree. These ‘heads’ – with or without a face – are always the central feature of the drawing, no matter whether they are located in the middle of the composition or not. They are always the first thing to attract the viewer’s attention; within these heads the content and statement of the drawings as a whole are concentrated.

All things apart from these heads are mere attributes, not superfluous, but not of primary importance. They can rather be taken as a question; a cross-beam to which the nude – running, escaping or moving towards something – seems to cling – or is it in her way? Who has put it in her way? Has she used it as an aid to her escape, or as a piece of string like that of Ariadne, to find a known or unknown destination? What unites the two reclining women? Is it love? An earthly or even heavenly symbol? What links them together in ornamental substance from above and from below – those fish eyes or those peacock feathers?

And what does the fugitive lady suddenly hold in her hand? Is it a single blade of grass, several of them? What has she grasped in her flight – if such it is – to hold on to, and that proofed to be deceptive?

And what substance clings to the bodies of those two beautiful crouching nudes? It could be pubic hair, but also pollen, last year’s leaves, moss. Ants?

There are innumerable questions of this kind. And certainly there are answers to all of them. Bixby’s drawings literally provoke the answers. But one hesitates instinctively.

An interpretation and explanation made to quickly could easily bring about a loss of the mystery in these pictures.

Yet another question: which mystery? The mystery of the eroticism, which certainly is hidden somewhere in the background of these very sensual – though never obtrusive – illustrations? The mystery of the female psyche, which can be more absolute than that of the male, or more severe, and yet always remains more tender?

No doubt, Bixby is also relating something of this to his parables. Simply the mystery of life? That would be to general a concept.

‘There sleeps a song in all things’ wrote the German romantic poet Joseph von Eichendorff in one of his poems. And he continued: ‘that are dreaming’……

Without being automatistic Bixby’s drawings seem to have been drawn up from sub consciousness, or and wide-awakeness. Between this intermediate world, between dream and reality, sub consciousness and wide-awakeness, his nudes are at home; goddesses of the psyche, perhaps even Erinyes (Eumenides), fashioned in dreams, who are apt to pursue everyone who spend enough time getting acquainted with them.

‘This text is dedicated to R.C.Kenedy, whom I met only once, but to whom I felt very close. Berlin

                              Translated from the original German text of Heinz Ohff

REVIEW: R.C. Kenedy (Director of VA Museum, London).

Richard Bixby’s work has been familiar to me for over a decade. During this period we have remained in close contact and every phase of his superficially at any rate very varied-seeming career is well known to me. I was first attracted by his art- nouveauish line drawings. These presented females in the nude translated into the printed circuit patterns of contemporary electronics as though the body’s machinery and its vitality drew the animal’s energies from processes which could be reproduced by technology – and it is characteristic that Bixby is interested in robot - making as well.

There was, thus, a strange counterpoint effect between form and content in these early compositions. The silhouettes harked back to an outmoded style and the thematic message was highly forward looking; but this was not self-evident on first acquaintance. Suddenly confronted by these designs and unprepared for their strange ambiguities, only their immaculate beauty impressed the viewer and technical proficiency of a high degree served only to stress Bixby’s preoccupation with personally defined icons of ideal perfection. Bixby’s images illustrated strained, allusive poses and it is no use denying the fact that the feminine body’s extreme tension conveyed notions of perverse and/or mysterious tendencies. The very precision of the detailing and the execution seemed to specify a cruelty and it was difficult to decide whether this harsh, impersonal, almost sadistic note described Bixby’s own attitudes or if the critic was meant to ascribe this absolutely heartless, uncaring and violent indifference to a universe in which the artist might have lost faith.

Not that these are questions to be resolved in this commentary on Bixby’s work.

It is one of the outstanding virtues of his oeuvre that these exclusive and seemingly antagonistic questions are repeatedly raised by every new phase in his progress and it is also his considerable achievement that these unanswerable puzzles, which overshadow all his activities, are increasingly more difficult to define and less easily translated into words. There is an unease which emanates from all his best pieces; he neither simplifies, nor overstates – but tries to establish coordinates within which his own vision is stated.

Bixby’s development as one of the important artists of the late twentieth century – and this, always nature oriented stance relates his interests to the scientifically motivated disposition of a great many artists of the Italian Renaissance.

Nor is it an accident that electronics occupy the place allotted to anatomy in his first experiments with the line. In Bixby’s imagery scientific inquisitiveness concentrates on the phenomena of life to interpret visions. In contradistinction to Renaissance artists, he uses foreknown data to understand the seen; he does not turn to the eye’s evidence to discover new knowledge – but his pictures are, nevertheless, a true combination of deductively and inductively obtained evidence and the resultant harmony of these two incompatible disciplines relates his oeuvre unquestionably to the spirit of the greatest age in European painting. It is natural enough that this questing bent has helped him to extend the horizon of his research. Nudes were much too restricted a subject to satisfy an artist of Bixby’s universally inclined curiosity. Life and all the phenomena of life suggest sources of picture making to him.

This hunger for natural raw materials found its natural outlet in fetishistic diagrams when he was a young man, guided, primarily at any rate, by his erotic conscience; but on maturing, this yearning for tangible and verifiable incentives has in fact become animistic in the widest sense of his pretty indeterminate world. His attendance upon features of a primeval and uncorrupted planet is almost mystical – and for the sake of greater accuracy, he has begun to use the photographic camera as well as one of his recording instruments. His fieldwork with mechanical reproductions is painterly in the purest terms. Only patterns and visions are commemorated through his lens. Rhythms, structures and metaphorically potent events are the result of his expeditions into the virgin forests of the North and he has succeeded in composing visual symphonies by bringing together or arranging sequences of these images. Abstract counter pointed narratives emerge from transparencies when he projects carefully contrasted yet coherent statements with collections of slides, each of which dwells either on significant detail or on composed wholes. In the details he highlights botanic or optic episodes, most of which display peculiar, lyrically charged symmetries – and such is the vital force of these symmetries that most of them have the power to act as metaphors. They represent flower and not-flower; daylight, tears and precious stones at the same time; or pistil and womanhood.

One could, no doubt, continue to list these visual double-entendres ad infinitum but mere catalogues of them would miss their point. Bixby exploits these ambiguities to locate the formal independence of every visually observable occurrence and fact. Having pinpointed fortuitous-seeming structural coincidences, he reintroduces both halves of his meaning in planned and pictorially transformed photographs of dramatically as well as sculpturally designed scenes – and in these the primal apparatus of his own temperament plays an important role.

Ropes are, of course, not the least impressive of these visually employed tools but he weaves their webbed twists and their knots around trees and around rocks, over canyons and waterfalls with an artist’s regard for pure, elemental declarations and he unwinds their story with faithful truth to the pictorial suggestiveness of his theme.

        Found objects of the eye meet, thus, with their exegetic moment of truth in these always binarily conceived statements and his paring tendency gives a quasi-schizophrenic intensity to Bixby’s visually recited epics about boreal beauty of his forests. But his exemplary concern for optic insights has another and equally memorable result as well. Component features are also the raw materials in a great many of his overall designs, especially in his prints; and the repetitively chanted chromatic clusterings are also, without exception, derived from observed realities.

This fidelity to optic realities inspires the latest phase of his art. Light is the autochonous source of visual experiences and therefore, Bixby seems to have been led almost inevitably towards a direct confrontation with the problem of radiance. He approaches this almost final enigma with the same seriousness which acts as a hallmark of quality in his earlier work. He regards the miraculous moment of a scattered fleck of luminosity in a raindrop or on the crest of a wave as an occasion which can either be prepared or awaited in the right setting; and, in this sense, the record of it resembles the testimonial veracity of the imagery in which he records the found objects of nature or the found happenings of flora and fauna.

Discovery is always a find and in his photographs of diffraction he uncovers visual metaphors which, once again, bring out the allusive intermarriage of life with the inanimate object or event. The patterns of incandescence which he captures exploit scientific knowledge and scientific methods to describe bionomic forms in addition to their original, self-signalling halo – and it is very much to the point that he presents his case in this nimbus shaped aspect because the golden circle conveys a reverence for beauty similar to the religious devotion’s cryptography;

which invested the saints with aureole over their heads (although in Bixby’s case this reverence is often a good deal more ambiguous than in the illuminated miniatures of a mediaeval manuscript). Needless to say, however,

this equivocal note is probably Bixby’s most characteristically personal contribution to his own work. It is his style – which must not be confused with its content.

The content is always beauty; but he uses style and stylishness to locate his feeling of astonishment, of wonder and of the admirable in a familiar set of hieroglyphic and symbolical signs – all of which allude directly to the human being’s source-material of experiencing ravishment; and, in this context, the word ravishment is used both literally and allegorically; as, indeed, it appears with a Janus-like bicephalousness or twainness in Bixby’s work as well.

R.C. Kenedy London, 1977 Director of the Victorian & Albert Museum.