The title of this exhibition comes from the phrase used by U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War, “kill them all and let Buddha sort them out,” that indicates the confusion they experienced in distinguishing between enemy and ally. But this vulgar expression also sums up the profound horror and futility of a war, echoing ongoing tensions and conflicts in race, nationality and religion in today’s world.
Having traveled and researched extensively in Vietnam and Cambodia over the last five years, Rodney Dickson witnessed the aftermath of conflict in its indiscriminately brutal form. It is from this point that his artwork proceeds, especially as an Irish-American painter who lived through the troubled years in the 1970s in Northern Ireland.
Dickson has chosen the route of mediating conflict through aesthetics. For this exhibition he has executed a group of bold and delicate, simple and complex paintings that reflect his empathy for the “victimhood” that such brutality ultimately corrals all of us into.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is a large and luminous triptych titled Kill Them All and Let Buddha Sort Them Out. On the right panel, seven skinny military planes of unidentified nationality are lined up in the air vertically. Their advance anticipates the violence to come, in contrast to Dickson’s portrayal of them as seemingly innocuous paper planes. On the left panel, three giant missiles penetrate the scene of terror and confusion. Overwhelmed by these weapons of mass destruction, human figures are vulnerably drawn with pencil and their depiction is reminiscent of children’s drawings, with potential to reveal both innocence and horror. The center panel shows a flower field leading the viewer to a peaceful escape from the tensioned-filled adjacent panels. A “paradise” still exists Dickson seems to say.
Other works in the exhibition include a series of small portraits executed on thick canvas without stretchers, demonstrating a more subdued, somber side of the war. The partial source of this work is the portrait photographs taken by the Khmer Rouge of arriving prisoners who knew their fate would be torture followed by execution.
Rodney Dickson was born in 1956 in Bangor, Northern Ireland and studied at the Liverpool Art College. Since 1997, Dickson has lived in Brooklyn. His work has been exhibited throughout Europe, the U.S., Vietnam, Korea and Japan. In 2003 Dickson initiated the first art residency program for contemporary Vietnamese artists in New York under the auspices of the Ford Foundation.