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Abstract Analysis


Sleepless (2011, oil on canvas, 72x110”) by Tomory Dodge

Inspired by artist Tomory Dodge 98 PT, who graduated from RISD more than a decade before he arrived on campus himself, Arthur Peña MFA 12 PT interviewed the Los Angeles-based painter and then welcomed him to campus to give an artist’s talk on April 17, 2012.

The Brooklyn Rail has called Dodge’s paintings “luscious, tactile and seductive,” and his work is included in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Yale University Art Gallery, among others. Here he responds to a few questions posed by Peña.

Art Peña: There’s a real sense of space within your paintings and if we say your work is “abstract,” this implies a collision of the traditional representation of space (Modernism) and the call for flatness in abstraction (via Greenberg). Do you see your work existing between these two systems?  

Tomory Dodge: I’ve always wanted the work to exist in a kind of in-between space. This goes back to my interest in the idea of liminal spaces that partially drove my early desert landscape paintings. But it applies in terms of how I worked my way toward abstraction as well.

 Tomory Dodge headshot
RISD alum Tomory Dodge 98 PT 

Shortly before arriving at Cal Arts for grad school I had stumbled across the idea of liminal space as it applies to modern cities and suburbs. The idea as I came to understand it was that if you look at a map of any given city you’ll see a collection of grids and shapes that all align nicely and it appears very orderly. This is inaccurate though, because in actuality there are often spaces in between these grids and shapes that don’t fit into the city’s official plan. Think of the areas around train tracks, empty fields in industrial zones, places that seem to not fall under any particular jurisdiction and so on.

I basically came to see “painting” as a finished map, but wanted to explore the potential for the in-between spaces. When I arrived in California I started to look towards the desert as a huge liminal site. As the LA metropolis spreads eastward there are a lot of weird places like abandoned military bases, strange, unexplained, solitary ruined houses, incomplete subdivisions, etc. I started to look towards these things as subject matter. I didn’t want to just document these things through painting however. That seemed like a good project for a photographer. I wanted to use them as the basis for a painterly exploration. It seemed that foregrounding the materiality of the medium was a way to put the image in a precarious state, where it would continuously threaten to dissolve into what I thought of as abstraction at the time.

I was still ambivalent about abstraction at this point. I was definitely intrigued by it but saw it as a very problematic enterprise. My next flirtation with it came almost as a joke. I started painting explosions. The “explosions” began to get less and less literal until they were basically suspended brushstroke shapes floating on a kind of hazy background. So basically I was making paintings that “looked” abstract. They were still made the same way one would make a representational painting. To a large extent they still are, although the space has been getting progressively shallower and any recognizable forms are gone. Some of the recent works, especially the new stripe paintings, start to fall into a kind of illusionistic abstraction which I find really interesting, partially because it’s such a blatant violation of the notion of a “pure” abstraction.

The whole Greenbergian conception of art was something I was very wary of for a long time. I still see it as a dead end and generally wrong-headed. I should say, however, that I’ve really become a huge fan of post-painterly abstraction since then and my love for Ab-Ex has only grown. I’m not a big Greenberg fan, but many of the artists he championed are people I draw from constantly.

AP: What’s your take on, or relationship with, the idea of “the death of painting,” especially in regards to abstraction? Do you see this question as passé? 

TD: I think it is kind of passé. It’s not an idea that I pay much attention to these days and I haven’t for a long time. Clearly painting never “died,” but there was a time when I felt it was an idea that I needed to come to terms with. I spent a while trying to figure out what the relevance of making a painting (representational or abstract) was. It basically became apparent to me that the so-called “death” of painting was really a realignment of the paradigm of Western art that was set in motion largely by modernism and the development of abstraction.

I don’t think painting ever became irrelevant. It just was no longer more relevant than anything else. There was a real equalizing within the art hierarchy in the ’60s and ’70s that continues to this day. Still, painting presents a space for so many investigations that can’t really be done as effectively in other media. We live in a world that still operates primarily through two-dimensional presentations of information. It may be inherent to the wiring of the human brain, but as long as that is the case, painting will always have significance.

As for abstraction, when I was an undergrad I did think it was kind of irrelevant, or at least very rooted in the past. I just didn’t have a really strong understanding of it. I had always loved DeKooning and other Ab-Ex painters and so on, but for me – and I think for a lot of other people in the mid-90s – it seemed very academic and kind of alien. Keep in mind; this was a time when John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage were the really exciting new thing. At that point I couldn’t imagine becoming an “abstract painter.” The discourse surrounding it that I was exposed to was still very much rooted in Greenberg and it all seemed very inaccessible to me. It had come from another place.

In the end I think it was partially that “alien” quality that eventually drew me towards abstraction. I tend to be attracted to things I don’t understand. Of course, there is the old adage that abstract and figurative painting is really the same thing and I think that’s probably truer now than ever.

tags: alumni, Graduate Studies, Painting, students

Providence's riverfront park offers a great setting for drawing and sketching, just across from RISD's Mandle Center for
Living and Learning.