Right now close to 70 galleries and special exhibits are setting up wares at Art Palm Springs, an annual desert art fair that attracts a host of eager buyers and collectors. Where Miami is host to a trendier, party atmosphere, Palm Springs has a lower key vibe, designed for an older crowd. There's generally not much Instagram or Twitter action taking place at APS, but this year is different. Suddenly a growing social media storm has pushed one of its showing galleries into a controversy involving allegations of fraud, deception and profiteering. Rebecca Hossack Gallery and one of its artists have found themselves in the middle of a strange story that starts in Vancouver, winds its way to New York and ends up in the middle-of-nowhere Kansas with international reputations, ever-precarious art world money and budding careers at stake.
Andy Dixon is a Canadian punk singer turned visual artist whose bright, pop-y works have won him international acclaim and a loyal following on the west coast. Collectors of his work are drawn to his eclectic use of colour and his ability to skewer the trappings of the worlds of luxury and leisure. Not that long ago he was represented by Rebecca Hossack, an art gallery with offices in New York and London. Dixon left Hossack just over a year ago and while neither Dixon nor Hossack would tell VICE why, friends of Dixon's suggested it was under less than amicable terms. But that is often the case when an artist leaves their representation—it's rare in the small, competitive gallery world to have a happy split. In January of this year Hossack signed a 32-year-old painter from Topeka, Kansas named John Holcomb. Holcomb considers himself an "outsider" artist whose vividly coloured works focus on figures from his rural surroundings, what he described to me as "peasants and Depression-era survivors." Both artists have publically credited Matisse as an inspiration, something that's clear in their bold use of colour and the purposeful simplicity of their figures. But friends and collectors of Dixon's think the similarities between their works are a little too close. Over the past weekend those thoughts culminated in a widely-shared Facebook post by Graeme Thomas Berglund, a fellow Vancouver artist who laid out an emotional case against Holcomb and Rebecca Hossack.
"I feel personally compelled to come to the aid and defence of my friend and fellow artist Andy Dixon. There is an artist named John Holcomb who has been replicating Andy's distinct subject matter, colour palette, process, systems of distinct mark making, themes, and ideologies that Andy has spent years developing on his own. In the case of John Holcomb, he has literally been following every turn that Andy makes with near precision. Andy Dixon paints a high end dinner party scene from the turn of the century. John Holcomb paints a high end dinner party scene from the turn of the century. Andy paints a Ming Dynasty vase with an explosion of flowers brimming out of it. John Holcomb paints a Ming Dynasty vase with an explosion of flowers brimming out of it. In a recent ironic twist, [Holcomb] is now being represented by the same gallery that Andy was working with just a year ago, selling work to their client base without explaining the inspiration or better stated, the near forgeries, that they are hawking to their clients," reads part of Graeme's statement.
It's a powerful and provocative post that has elicited intense support from artists in Vancouver and across the country, including internationally-renowned photographer Jessica Eaton, who called the situation, "absolutely crazy," in her Facebook post sharing Graeme's status.
Viewed side by side there's no doubting the closeness of Holcomb's paintings to Dixon's. The bright colour palette, the references to historical and classical works, even the evolution of subject matter, Dixon's flower-filled vases, echoed down the line by Holcomb's own paintings of vases.
Of course it's plausible in theory that two artists, one in Vancouver and one in Kansas could be inspired visually by similar movements and end up with canvases that share that sensibility. "Jackson Pollock was the most famous of his time but was he the only splatterer of paint? No. Were those other artists ripping him off, well no but perhaps they were overly derivative," Michael Prokopow, a professor of Art History at Toronto's OCAD University, told me.
Where does inspiration become derivation or replication? "If there's a sequence chronologically that Dixon did this work first and Holcomb did it after then, yeah maybe Holcomb's work isn't all that original," Prokopow suggests. And with the influx and wide availability of images across social media, the origins of intellectual and particularly visual property can become skewed.
"The abundance of easily accessible digital imagery creates the possibility of seeing things that you subliminally register and then find yourself doing unwittingly later on. The thing about how culture moves through any time and space, the idea of a zeitgeist or a will to form, can manifest in any number of ways. It may well be that two artists one in Vancouver and one in Kansas, inspired by Matisse can have strikingly similar works," says Prokopow.
But do these similarities constitute fraud or theft?
When I talked to Holcomb on the phone from Kansas earlier this week he was very emotional about the accusations of creative robbery.
"I've just been going through all the emails of people calling me 'a piece of shit' and 'a worthless loser.' These people started messaging my family, my friends. My uncle got one the other day that said I was a fraud and a hack," he said.
When I shift the conversation to the works themselves, he quickly lists off his inspirations, naming everyone from Matisse, Gaugin and Warhol, to well, God.
"Anybody who ever paints, we owe everything to Matisse. He is like the dad I never had. At our core, I believe that those of us who are meant to be creative and those of us born to be creative, that is just a gift that comes from, however you want to describe it, I personally describe it as God." Not mentioned in the slew of visual guides is Andy Dixon. "I don't know Mr. Dixon. I've never seen his work in person," he says. Though he does admit to some similarities once pressed, particularly when I inquire whether he looked at Dixon's work more closely once there was a possibility he could be represented by his former gallery. "Well I am familiar with his work. Yeah, I saw similarities with his earlier stuff. I haven't seen any of his stuff in the last year or so. We're talking about in 2014, I had seen the similarity."
So what about the gallery itself? Surely, Rebecca Hossack, a gallerist who has been in the art world for decades would have noticed that a painter from Kansas had a remarkably similar aesthetic to an artist from Vancouver she herself represented just a year ago?
Holcomb claims he visited Hossack's space in January of this year on a personal trip, his first time in New York City. Rebecca happened to be working in the gallery that day and after talking about art and his work, Holcomb pulled up some of his paintings for Hossack on his phone.
"She's the one that brought up Andy. She said that it makes her very angry when people rip off her artists. And I said, 'I agree.' I understand that concept because I've lived it. I worked as a printmaker for so long and I had someone rip off my ideas directly," he said emphatically.
He then says Hossack asked him to send the gallery some of his pieces so they could evaluate them in person. "It's only when I got to New York that they said that my stuff looks completely different in person and again, I'm only trusting their opinions, I have not seen his work in person and I don't think you can grasp how many different two-dimensional and three-dimensional, tactile experiences there are."
I reached out to the gallery myself and was told they had no comment on the situation and suggested I get my answers from Holcomb. Where Hossack may be able to say that up close the two artist's pieces have enough tactile differences to warrant signing Holcomb despite the similarities, would a buyer understand these subtle nuances? Would a novice collector in Palm Springs this week instantly recognize a Holcomb from a Dixon? Strangely enough Rebecca Hossack's info page on the Art Palm Springs website still lists Andy Dixon on their roster.
And the business side of this curious case of potential artistic duplication is perhaps what's most alarming to some of Dixon's supporters.
"I think that's possibly, arguably the craziest part about it that he's being represented by the gallery that Andy had just left. Inspiration is a crazy thing but I think on the business side is where the true shock is for this case," Greg Adams, a friend of Dixon's told me.
There is always a precarious nature to the business of art. The market can cycle from boom to bust quickly and behind every big purchase are whispers of a looming bubble. A commercially viable artist with an aesthetic that is attractive to buyers is an enviable prospect for an international gallery. Dixon's work can sell for tens of thousands a piece and has popular appeal. And so does Holcomb's it turns out.
A recent Instagram post from Holcomb shows one of Hossack's employees holding up a painting with a caption proclaiming he sold all of his latest works at a recent art fair.
And that is where perhaps, a weird story about a possible creative copycat becomes a test for the commercial art world in general. For Andy Dixon, it's no longer an issue of an artist whose homage has fallen too close to the line. It's now become a legal battle for the preservation of an aesthetic and commercial career he says is years in the making. "Our client is deeply concerned, there is a line between on the one hand paying homage or legitimate appropriation, and on the other willful taking of someone's entire way of painting. The line is crossed when there is imitation that is substantially similar to the original," Dixon's lawyer Paul Bain wrote me.
With Dixon having hired legal representation, it may ultimately be up to the courts to decide whether Holcomb and Hossack are willfully profitting from an artistic deception. In the meantime, Holcomb appears to have expanded some of his cultural inspirations. Yesterday, he put up an image on Instagram with a long caption that credits a list of artistic heroes like Warhol, David Hockney and Basquiat for inspiring his work.
At the bottom of that list? Andy Dixon.
Lead image: Andy Dixon's work on the left, John Holcomb's work on the right.
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