Chris Dyson

With a practice spanning decades, Chris Dyson has remained something of an outsider to the Australian art scene. Refusing to conform to the dominant artistic modes of contemporary art, Dyson has instead been driven by a deep necessity, or urge to explore artmaking as a kind of state or “place you go to.” His works across painting, drawing, and sculpture combine figuration and abstraction to produce a surreal and unsettling vernacular style that belies categorisation.

Chris Dyson has spent the better part of fifty years producing a prolific body of work, including drawings, paintings, and sculptures. However, there is scant evidence of his legacy on the internet; a rare and refreshing phenomenon in the age of the “career artist,” and emblematic of Dyson’s general renegade spirit and inclination to follow his own path. “When you’re young you’ve got that pressure of having a career, of getting somewhere. That drives you mad. Once you get over that, you’re alright,” he says from his home in Stuart Mill, Victoria.

Dyson’s oeuvre is diverse in thematic content, style, and medium. His artmaking is driven by an internal necessity, or urge to explore whatever takes his interest at a particular moment in time. “Artmaking is kind of a place you put yourself in,” he explains. His recent drawings combine figuration and abstraction to produce a unique and unsettling vernacular style. Simple shapes merge into otherworldly characters, incongruous lines meet to become outlandish figures, familiar elements are assembled into surreal scenes. His figures are uncanny: both human and machinic, biological and elemental. Each drawing is shaded softly to give curve and dimension, gently nudged to life with a palette of graphite, soft pinks, blues, browns, yellows, and greens. This interplay of the bizarre and familiar evokes the practice of collage: images stitched together by the mind’s eye.

Born in Perth in 1952, Dyson moved to Melbourne with his parents at the age of seven. He recalls loving art in primary school. As a teen, his high school didn’t offer art; however, Dyson lived in a caravan out the back of his parents’ house, which he painted with poster paints in psychedelia, inspired by Jimi Hendrix album covers. His path towards art was encouraged further when his mum gifted him a set of oil paints. “But they sat there for a while,” he notes, “I was a bit afraid to use them, I didn’t really know how to use them. Eventually I tried them out and realised how much more magical they were than the poster paint colours.”

At the age of twenty-six, Dyson came across an advertisement for lessons in the city with an artist named Erica Huppert. Each lesson cost $1.50. “She would just have cut-outs of flowerbeds and things from Women’s Weekly magazines and she would give you three of them and you’d have to make a picture out of it,” recalls Dyson. “I went as far as I could with that.”

He continued to paint, mainly by himself at home, but was more actively involved in the music scene during this time. This included stints with iconic Melbourne bands from the 1970s, including alternative feminist band Stiletto, and High Rise Bombers—Paul Kelly’s first band upon moving to Melbourne. “I’d play pretty often, five–six times a week. And I would paint when I got home. I couldn’t sleep, so I’d paint. That became more and more interesting.” He had friends who had been to art school, and so he picked their brains. “I applied for a number of art schools and got knocked back, but then finally got into the VCA [Victorian College of the Arts]. So, I stopped playing music for a while and just really enjoyed the three years I spent studying there.”

Painting remained a prominent focus, and Dyson went on to teach at the VCA as a lecturer until 1998. Dyson cites the interplay between structure and improvisation as a common thread that ties his music and artmaking together. “It’s all coming from the same place, that’s the way I look at it, whatever that place is.” But beyond that he says, “I’ve never really liked describing my work. You know, painting’s for looking at, music is for listening to.”

Dyson’s influences, themes, and approaches to artmaking vary both according to his moods and interests at any given time. “I don’t look for meaning, I don’t think my works mean anything.” To illustrate this point, he cites one of his big influences as Mr. Squiggle. “I was always amazed what he could make with his pencil nose. I think he’s underrated in terms of his place in art history, for the way a line always becomes something.” This doesn’t belie any kind of conceptual laziness or lack of rigour, but rather a deeper understanding of the spiritual and metaphysical aspects of art.

During his masters at Monash University from 1995-96, Dyson started incorporating elements of popular culture and Islamic art into his work. This precipitated a fascination with the decorative elements of ecclesiastical art throughout art history, from Byzantine to Renaissance art, and he cites his Catholicism as a major touchstone in his approach to art and life. “Catholic history is tied up with art history; they go alongside each other almost up to the Reformation,” he explains. His ongoing series of works that reference and reconstitute the iconography of the Doge of Venice are testament to this line of enquiry.

However, these interests have run against the grain of the era. With the 1990s came the height of postmodernism and conceptual art, but Dyson says he didn’t vibe with it, which made it hard to get shows. “I wasn’t interested in it, I didn’t want to teach it either. It sort of became an issue at the VCA.”

Instead, his practice remained embodied and aesthetically driven. “It was probably my reaction against all the conceptual theory stuff. I thought, ‘I’ll get into decorative art, that’ll really annoy them.’” But Dyson believes there is a presence and power in the decorative. “The way I work is, if I get onto something I go a long with it. I’m really excited. And then one day I wake up or I go in to the studio and I’m just not interested. At all. It just disappears. The desire. I did a number of pictures where I was just drawing say, a square. You draw lines in and out until you get to the middle and you get this sort of visual play. And that was good for a while then it just disappeared. Then I did memory landscapes for a while. Some of the other pictures I start and leave then come back to . . . I just make it up. I’m really surprised by the amount of work I’ve done because I don’t really remember stuff much, I sort of do it and then do something else.”

After living in a shopfront in west Footscray for six years, Dyson was evicted due to its commercial zoning. From there he found himself moving further and further out of the city, as property prices soared, until he found himself in Stuart Mill. “One of the reasons I got this place is, it’s quite large and I had all these paintings to store. I’ve been carrying them around with me for years. So that’s the reason I came here, but basically the whole house is a studio.”

Dyson has two dedicated painting rooms in the house but does a lot of work at the table in “what’s called the dining room.” Gone are the days of up-late drawing. “I like it in the morning now. I get up and have a coffee and I start drawing, usually. Then maybe after I do all the domestic things you have to do, sometimes I might just play my guitar or go up to one room and start working.” Sometimes Dyson will stare at the canvas all day in a state of contemplation, trying to imagine where it might go. “Then I realise there’s no point forcing anything, I just have to sit and wait.” This undefined melding of art and life typifies Dyson. For him, art is an energy, a constant practise of going into the zone, of introspection, exploration, and desire.

This profile was originally published in Artist Profile, issue 66 

Chris Dyson: small works 
2 – 23 March 2024 
Flinders Street Gallery, Sydney 

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