The Poll Tax Riots, 2005, oil on canvas, 98-1/2 x 134 inches (250 x 340 cm)
Dexter Dalwood’s cultural roots lie in the experimentation of ‘60s rock and early punk. He left school at 16 to pursue a career in music, playing with a number of bands including Bristol-based punks The Cortinas. Dalwood discovered painting in the late ‘70s: ‘a light came on’, he says, ‘and I became really fascinated’. He went about studying the great masters with characteristic thoroughness. In London, at both Central St Martins and the Royal College of Art he fought against the prevalent teaching style, then still infused with the remnants of abstract expressionism and the ideal of ‘true’ painting. Instead, the pluralism of the ‘70s, of Andy Warhol's Factory, William S Burroughs' literary cut-ups, David Bowie’s lyrics and David Salle’s pastiches were an inspiration. From his punk beginnings, Dalwood kept the defiant and fiercely independent attitude as well as an experimental, DIY approach to creativity. Following in the footsteps of pop artists such as James Rosenquist and Richard Hamilton, ‘sampling’ became integral to his practice.
CatalystSince 1998, Dalwood’s works have primarily depicted figureless spaces: interiors linked to the tragic passing of celebrities (Kurt Cobain’s Greenhouse, 2000; Hendrix’s Last Basement, 2001), as well as symbolic places (Bay of Pigs, 2004). He often starts with a single catalyst - a date, a name – from there drawing a personal line through the world’s political and cultural history. In The Brighton Bomb (2006), on the 1984 IRA bomb at Brighton, Dalwood borrowed Jean-Michel Basquiat’s aesthetic and colours which, in his memory, were particular to that period: the acidic pinks, yellows and blues of the painting thus refer to the ubiquitous ‘80s shell suit. Dalwood builds up his works gradually through visual and conceptual association. ‘I want to create images which make you think about other images’, he says. ‘The painting works as either a foil against your imagination or places a new, stubborn image there.’
Looking around the Tate St Ives show is a singular history lesson. Painters are explicitly quoted – Willem De Kooning, Henri Matisse, Clyfford Still, Cy Twombly amongst others. This borrowing is never irreverent, nor is it an ironic end in itself. Rather, it speaks of Dalwood’s intense admiration for and thorough knowledge of the painters who came before him. ‘To walk into an empty gallery of Nicolas Poussin paintings or Ed Ruscha paintings still gives me a thrill equal to untrodden snow’, he says.
CollagesIn Death of David Kelly (2008), a tortuous tree trunk cuts obliquely across a flat deep blue with a bulbous moon overhead and ripped earth underfoot. The tree is Lucas Cranach's, and the ground Edvard Munch's. The sky is exactly as it was on the day of David Kelly's passing. Kelly was a biological warfare expert involved in the British government’s enquiry into weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; he committed suicide on July 17 2003, in the woods on Harrowdown Hill. His death came as a profound shock to the British public. The compositional reduction of this painting is altogether more potent because Dalwood relates it specifically to this man’s story. In a few pictorial gestures, the artist questions the political circumstances of Kelly’s death and places it within an artistic context. The visual minimalism that characterises the work stands in stark contrast with Burroughs in Tangiers (2005), a vibrant composition that combines collaged newspaper and cards with painterly quotations, including part of a Robert Rauschenberg. This is the third work Dalwood has made about a writer who has particular importance for the artist. ‘Burroughs is complicated for me’, he says. ‘I’ve been with him for a long time. With him there isn’t one single incident.’
Pulsating with the sheer urgency of the present, Dalwood’s work constantly questions what an image of ‘now’ would look like, and what painting can be today, at the beginning of the 21st century. ‘I always thought that if I could be the person who assembled stuff and painted in any way’, he says, ‘the parameters of painting would keep moving outwards.’