Modern Painters

February, 2006
Shana Nys Dambrot on the union of opposing forces

By Shana Nys Dambrot

Part of a generation whose visual lexicon is exponentially larger, more complex and more eclectic than any other in history, thirty-one-year old, Los Angeles-based painter, Tomory Dodge graduated from two of the best academic programmes in the world when it comes to processing this overwhelming information culture – Rhode Island School of Design and Cal Arts – and it shows. Ajaunty, cheekily contemporary sense of flat design permeates his art, which is nevertheless executed in a thoroughly painterly hand and with a combination of obsession, restraint and elegance that can only come from a respect for the techniques of art history’s masters. 

Both with oil on canvas and watercolour on paper – whose blurriness is particularly well-suited to Dodge’s penchant for ambiguity – he demonstrates a lush, gestural relationship to paint’s physicality as a medium. His use ofwide brushes highlights the pigment’s mass and variable topographies, but Dodge’s special gift is finding a way to integrate the flesh of the paint into the demands of his imagery. His formal choices are not only stylistic; the facture directly informs the content by helping characterize the psychological narrative of the pictures. A blocky, planar breaking down of shapes stresses their intersections and refractions rather than modular dimensionality or realism, like a studio exercise on a grand scale; like a cubism that retains reverence for nature, like an expressionism with a sentimental attachment to representation, or just like someone having fun. 

Inasmuch as the paintings are about anything besides the paint, they are about simultaneous decay and expansion, and their fundamental organic qualities apologize for whatever surreal nonsense may occur, creating a subconscious formal space where mysteries are commonplace and an expansive, compassionate treatment of imagined reality makes many strange things possible. His brushwork is expressive, painterly and unstable -giving his images a mirage quality, which his fantasy narratives meet halfway The artist himself describes his work as being ‘often overtly painterly’ although he seeks to ‘avoid involvement in the kind of expressionistic excess that often accompanies such approaches to the medium’. Very few paintings have people in them, and when they do appear they are often small and relatively insignificant in terms of the composition; bodies rendered in the same dashed-off style so that they almost disappear into their surroundings. The main subject of the work is almost always empty space, and any object or figure is thrown into the mix not for narrative impact but to measure the scale of the attendant void. 

One ofDodge’s best-known paintings is from an ongoing wood-land series. The long-fingered shadows of oblique early morning light cast stripes across a shady glen, carpeted in empty beer cans and half-buried litter, suggesting low-brow revelry and a small town just out of sight where several teenagers have recently snuck back into their homes and crawled into bed. Dodge’s relentless painterliness serves the concept well; his quick, energetic brushstrokes deposit chunky bits of tonal colour that blend together just enough to make a coherent, albeit abstract, surface. But because this technique is used in depicting a shadowy forest floor of decaying leaves and litter, the idiosyncratic impasto synchronizes with the visual character of the subject and they support each other to create an illusion of legibility. Another, more dramatic painting is of an amusement park slide at night, seen from the ground against a black, sparsely star-spangled sky. The entire form of the enormous snaky structure is delineated as it is lit from below, so it is rendered mostly in white and ambient pink hues giving the overall effect of a photographic negative, a symbolic calligraphic abstract gesture, and a totally legible image of its intended subject all at the same time. 

lf it were necessary to pick one word that characterizes Dodge’s style, it would have to be ‘synthesis’. He is dedicated to the process of blending opposite impulses – creation and destruction, depth and superficiality, passion and indifference, faith and irreverence, attraction and repulsion, past and present, the end and the beginning – and, improbably, succeeding.