Travel to the Ancient Land of the High Tech Dragon

Terry Dixon in China

Cliff Hocker

Terry Dixon, Overload, 2016, mixed media, 30 x 48Terry Dixon is on his way back to China.  On July 12, 2016, the Illinois-based artist visits Guangzhou to give a lecture about his work at the United States Consulate there. 

This makes Dixon's fifth trip to Asia's most powerful emerging economy. And the deep Asian immersion is influencing new approaches in his work.

In Overload, the characteristic grid structure of Dixon's figurative abstracted style is gone (although the grid is suggested by the double frame on which the work is mounted). The human figure in much of Dixon's geometric style of figurative abstraction is the black male — he's gone too.  Also absent are the characteristic, linear elements that Dixon calls his “intuitive and abstract kinetic lines.”

Terry Dixon cover art for 2009 issue of IRAAADixon hasn’t abandoned these elements in his other recent and current work but his signature style is evolving. His forays into other lands encourage his forays into other styles. Compare, for example, Dixon's fractured plane imagery that appeared on the 2009 issue of the print IRAAA (shown on the right) and the gridded styles of his later work (shown below).  

Terry Dixon during trek along the Great Wall of ChinaIn 2014 a U.S. Department of State grant sent Dixon and five other College of Lake County art professors to China for ten days during their spring break to give lectures, meet students and show their art.  They spoke of their experiences as artists and the influence of American culture on their work.  Their "America through Art" exhibit of 36 paintings and photographs covered a broad swath of Americana from urban landscapes to abandoned NASA launch sites.

After that first journey, Dixon returned to China three times on his own. He visited art gallery districts, talked with gallery and museum directors and served as a visiting artist and art professor.  He stayed two weeks at a time in August or during the winter college break.  

Modern, Exotic and Raw

On Dixon's original State Department-funded visit, the art educators stopped in Hong Kong and the mainland cities of Guangzhou, Xi'an, Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing.  These metropolises are in China's Guangdong, Shaanxi, Hebei and Jiangsu provinces.

Contemporary and older architecture in China. Photo: Terry DixonThat first trip left Dixon with lasting visual and cultural memories. “The best way for me to describe my experience is summed up in three words — modern, exotic and raw,” says Dixon.  “China is a booming country, and all major and medium-sized cities are very modern. The country is exotic, having 55 different Asian minorities with their culinary, religious, art and social traditions. 

  • Traditional neighborhood in China. Photo: Terry Dixon

China's raw aspect is the juxtaposition of ancient and modern cultures, coexisting as one.  Turning down an alleyway, there are neighborhoods that seem to visually reverse into a time warp — and this was simply mind blowing.”

As he repeatedly visits China, Dixon continues to find interesting subjects for his art in its large population, political structure, transportation, economy and the out-of-control pollution.  

Old, crumbling buildings in foreground. Contemporary architecture looms behind. Photo: Terry Dixon“These topics have continued to filter through my visual comprehension, and I have started a creative journey of how to translate this content into my artwork,” Dixon says.  “The experience in China has been a big influence on the couple of pieces that I have already completed.  I am experimenting with more abstract version of calligraphic brush strokes, and combining them with my intuitive mixed-media and line-style art pieces.  

The observation of culture, color, architecture, patterns and language have played a big part in thinking in a different direction in my art pieces. I usually carry a sketch book with me and create art pieces while I am traveling overseas.  Random sketches of things that I see during the day have powerful outcomes in my creative process.”

Terry Dixon, Looking Left, diptych, 2016, mixed mediaBasic transport vehicle in China. Photo: Terry DixonDixon’s first Asian-themed piece, Looking Left, explores the dynamic facial expressions of a Chinese man.  This diptych breaks up the top portion of the man's body to create a fractured portrait of him looking at a scooter to his left.  Photographs Dixon shot while traveling in China document his fascination with old and new methods of transporting packages.  Men and women still transport items on scooters and large three-wheel bikes with wooden pallets at their rear.

“In my second (Asian) art piece, Overload (shown above), I am focusing on the transportation of goods, with a modern twist,” Dixon says.  “The image has a man on the three-wheel cycle who is carrying 3D cubes that I created in the computer. They are stacked very high. Packages are constantly a juggling act for these transporters." 

Overload detail of crumbling building"The computer-generated cubes are a focus on China's modernism and hi-tech infrastructure that is juxtaposed with past technological advancements. The abstract and tattered building that I created on the left is representative of its old and crumbling architecture, which is present among more advanced architectures."  

Toxic clouds raining pollution in China. Detail of Overload"I placed 3D modern cubes under the linen strips of the mixed-media construction of the building. The 3D cubes are representing technology's advancement that will eventually consume the past." 

"In the top portion of the sky in the art piece, I did a 3D computer rendering of organically shaped clouds, and they are raining down pollution and abstract shaped pieces that are somewhat of an abstract matrix of lines that build the art.” 

Land of Variations

China occupies a geographically large, with many regions and subcultures. “The architecture, dialect, food, tourism, and people are somewhat different in Hong Kong versus mainland China,” says Dixon. 

Contemporary architecture in Hong Kong. Photo: Terry Dixon“Hong Kong was under British rule for many years, so there is still a British influence there.  You will find more westerners in Hong Kong than in mainland China. The language in Hong Kong is mainly Cantonese.  When you get into mainland China, the language is Mandarin. Even though Hong Kong is a part of the People's Republic of China now, there still seems to be a little more liberal and laid back atmosphere in Hong Kong.  You can see the laid-back atmosphere in the trendy boutiques, art galleries, restaurants and in just socializing with the people. 

“Crossing over into mainland China, there seems to be more hustle and bustle and a rigid atmosphere with the locals.  Though large cities in mainland China are modern, the locals are hard workers and keep very busy.  There's a work ethic that I am very impressed by.”

21st-century China is an eye-opener for the American traveler. “I think when the topic of China is brought up in conversation with people, they have somewhat of a misconception of how it is there.  All your major cities in China are modern, just like in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles.  They have modern subways, high-tech and fast rail systems that pretty much make our Amtrak look very much outdated,” says Dixon. “Also in China, the mobile phone is a key tool for a lot of online marketing. In China, people use the social app WeChat to do almost everything related to commerce. The retail market has almost all your major western stores, so when walking into a major mall you still think you are almost in America.”

Personal Encounters

The 2014 lectures that Dixon's group gave were at South China Normal University, Guangzhou University and Xi'an International University. “Many of the students at the universities could speak English, but as it is their second language, it took some time for them to respond.”  The lectures covered topics of society, racism, architecture and technology.  Discussions of relations between society, architecture and technology drew the strongest audience interest. 

Terry Dixon self portrait“Racism always seems to be a touchy topic with people around the world.  Even in China, within their own culture, lighter skin is felt to be more desired,” Dixon observes. 

Dixon was the only African American in the group of professors.  “The whites in my group got stares, but Chinese commonly see more whites in print and video-based media, so it's kind of regular for Chinese to see them.  When you put a slightly darker complexion of a different ethnicity in the mix, then you get more curiosity from people.”

The artist without the shadesThe reception he has gotten on his continuing travels is a mixed bag. “It is disheartening how Western media has poisoned people's minds in the world,” Dixon says.  “I get stares, but these stares are confused reactions, because I am a fair-complexioned black man.  So the Chinese person's reaction is confused. Is he Latino, mixed with white, mixed with darker Italian?”

Dixon met mostly art students during his first tour of China. “But on my independent travels back to China, I did have an opportunity to talk with different gallery directors,” says Dixon. “Looking at the exhibitions and art collections has been an interesting experience.  The artwork in China is impressive, and technical execution of many of the art pieces is very well done.  I had an opportunity to look at various art in the traditional approach and the more abstract styles of work.”

Roboticized States of Being

Terry Dixon, Robot Man, 2014, mixed media, 24 x 36Terry Dixon's career spans 29 years of professional art creation and college-level art education.  Digital media and mixed media are the two sides to Dixon's work as a visual artist.  In 2013 Dixon used a computer to make an abstract mixed-media animation that is posted on YouTube.

Terry Dixon, Robot Man 2, 2015, mixed media, 36 x 36Lately, Dixon has been working on an additional body of artwork entitled Robot Man and Robot Man 2. These two new art pieces abstractly focus on how technology has merged with human beings.

 “A large amount of my intuitive and abstract kinetic lines are present in these two pieces.  My two dimensional lines are used as a form of animation to move the mixed media elements,” says Dixon. 

In the 2009 IRAAA cover art, Dixon’s “lines” are prickly — seeming to rise out of an aesthetic that he shared with Jean Michel Basquiat. Now, in the "Robot Man" series, the Dixonian line clearly signifies technical drawing and electronic circuitry — another evolution.  (Enlarge images to clearly see these details.) 

Terry Dixon’s plans for new work involve animation, videography and experimentation with sculptures.   

IRAAA contributing writer Cliff Hocker lives in Richmond VA.