This enigmatic question 

                                          was the question of my life!

                                          Did I prefer the part to the whole

                                          or the whole to the part?

                                          No, I wanted both:

                                          The part of the whole and the whole

                                          and that this should transcend all contradiction

                                           Gunnar Ekelöf (1907 – 1968)

Born in Edinburgh in January 1990, the painter Sophie Dickson graduated from the University of Brighton in summer 2012 with a First Class Honours Degree in Fine Art (Painting). Following some residencies in China, she concentrated on developing her practice while based at the APEC studios in Brighton and Hove, before having a major and very well-received solo show in Brighton in November 2014: she later travelled back to China.  Mounted in a huge loft-like space in Brighton's Circus Street and funded by the British Arts Council, this 2014 exhibition – entitled Junk Is Beautiful – supplied ample evidence of the breadth and depth of Dickson's practice. The work was distinguished by an invigorating play of the part and the whole, drawing and painting, colour and structure; intuitive improvisation and orchestrated construction, the contemporary and the time-tested.

The title of the up-front yet subtly orchestrated show carried an immediate impact, appropriate for an artist who continues to handle so confidently such a (rich) range of (ostensibly humble) materials, conjuring new life from the patina of time. The idea that junk can be beautiful alerts us to the many complexities which can attend the making of art today. Several years ago the philosopher Umberto Eco produced two extensive volumes on the inter-related themes of Beauty and Ugliness. Dickson is no stranger to such worlds of discourse and analysis. But as an artist who knows in her bones that fun can be a serious matter, and vice-versa, her preference is for the sort of language found in the fragments and aphorisms to be discerned on the edges of the video cassettes which she sets now and then into some of her pieces, reminiscent of the poetic inscrutability of the title which the pianist Thelonious Monk gave to one his compositions of the late-1950s: Ugly Beauty.

Such a dissolving of previous opposites into the paradoxical unity of a poetics which is simultaneously two  and three dimensional, chaotic and ordered, intimate and upfront, playful and meditative, lies at the heart of a practice redolent of a wide-ranging sensibility. Dickson's elective affinities embrace, for example, Motherwell, Rauschenberg and Basquiat, Schwitters and Vedova and her various installation pieces are testimony to a handling of the large and the three dimensional as convincing as it is confident. However, if the often generous scale of Dickson's work owes something to her appreciation of the 'full arm sweep' of the Abstract Expressionism of de Kooning, it is no less apparent that this artist is equally literate in the more intimate reveries of Howard Hodgkin. Re-visioned aspects of collage and assemblage evince the fruits of a fundamentally painterly temperament, able to fashion fresh resonance from the age-old dialectic of art: the play of the raw and the cooked.

The founding example of Cézanne encouraged Braque to pursue the image, not as a matter of mentally verifiable pictorial representation on the surface of the canvas, but as a tactile, textured manifestation of the mysterious, open-ended integration of image and material – of the mental and the haptic, the physical and the poetic. For Dickson, such a dialectic of material and meaning is crucial. Far from the calculated casualness and much-trumpeted 'shock' factor in YBA work of the recent past, here is artist who is able to take that factor of mysterious integration which so concerned Braque into a parallel yet clearly independent and different realm of contemporary poetic sensibility.

Aware of the importance of the viewer in an age of 'relational aesthetics', Dickson is more than happy to embrace the fact that her work may be open to many an interpretation. At the same time, she relishes the challenge of bringing the materials of her art into the sort of conditions and relations which can speak to (and of) her own aesthetic sense. Worlds away from the studious reduction of much Arte Povera, Dickson works with relish with oil, spray paint and boot polish, masking tape and metal paint; with brooms and mops as well as hand, pencil and brush. She aims thus to inflect her drawings and paintings, the diverse bricolage of her found objects and strikingly configured ensembles, with a variegated balance of open and closed space, of weight and structure. Pursuit of such balance is crucial to an artist who today offers a strikingly fresh slant on that archetypal testament to the faith of a painter which Matisse communicated once to Bonnard, on a humble postcard: “Vive la peinture!”. 

Michael Tucker

Michael Tucker was Professor of Poetics at the University of Brighton until his retirement in summer 2012. A curator of many shows of modern and contemporary visual art and a specialist in Nordic culture, he has written widely about the arts, including publications on Alan Davie, Jan Garbarek, Andrzej Jackowski, Ian McKeever, Ørnulf Opdahl, Kenneth White and Frans Widerberg. In 1997 the University of Sussex awarded him the (examined) degree of Doctor of Letters, in recognition of “distinguished contributions to the advancement of learning”; in 2012 the Royal Norwegian Government made him a Knight: First Class of the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit, in recognition of “outstanding service in the interests of Norway”.