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Sleepless (2011, oil on canvas, 72x110”) by Tomory Dodge
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.
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.
RISD alum Tomory Dodge
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?
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
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.
, Graduate Studies