The rather dense press-release that accompanies Tomory Dodge’s new show at Alison Jacques Gallery alludes to an obsessive mark-making process generated by an intense doubt about any system he uses to make his work. It tell us Dodge deliberately ‘derails’ them by an alternation of over-painting and excavation, so it seems he would like to take a place amongst the history of modernist painting’s doubters and dissidents – Manet, Duchamp, Picabia, de Kooning, Guston et al. But it is Gerhard Richter in his ‘abstract’ mode that immediately and unavoidably comes to mind here. His soft-focus abstractions – Squeegee Paintings and the Cage Paintings – relentlessly remind us of the contingency of effects created by constant and ‘dumb’ physical pressures exerted by the artist upon the painted surface. As we leave the 20th century further and further behind us Richter is widely promoted – backed with a great deal of critical certainty – as the master of doubt in painting. How have successive generations of artists working with abstraction dealt with Richter’s various ‘end games’? Is Dodge’s painterly detournement agile and flexible enough to add to this?
I’d like to consider Dodge’s smaller works before we move on to the large pieces. They introduce us in a microcosmic fashion to techniques and approaches that are extended and extrapolated in the larger works. We get close up and personal with Dodge’s ‘handwriting’ and ‘grammar’, as it were, in Stacks, Pool and Tuesday Morning in particular.
The paintings ease us into a cool choreography of layered, squeezed, stretched, slathered on and scraped up painterly turns and phrases. The creamy colour sequences, scratchy patches and thick rectangles are more relaxed and economical in these small works. Exquisite streaks of oily pigment collide and coalesce in what seem ideal chance encounters. Except they are not…. Tuesday Morning is composed of two abutted canvases that are in fact mirror images of each other. I don’t know if you are familiar with Rauschenberg’s Factum 1 and Factum 2, both from 1957? Factum 1 looks like the classic combination of gestural painting and found imagery that was beginning to define Rauschenberg’s work, another improvised one-off from the realm of urban hinterlands. But Factum 2 meticulously repeats Factum 1. The spontaneous poetry of the rubbish heap can be copied, codified or cloned, even! The slightly off-kilter symmetry of gorgeous blues, creamy whites and pinks of Dodge’s Tuesday Morning are very different to Rauschenberg’s distressed surfaces but in the same way they throw our notions of the authentic and lyrical ‘in the moment’ gestural painting into a hall of mirrors. And I guess this is where Dodge is determined to keep us in the new large scale works.
In the darker tonal range of Sick Boy in the main gallery layering and scraping hides and reveals partially buried colour; highly seductive passages of oil paint glow with deep reds and melt away in dark blues and greens to great effect. The darker works have something of Fiona Rae’s more mysterious paintings about them, I’m thinking about her Night Vision in particular. In Dodge’s Miss November spatial tensions are created when painterly contours are dynamically punctuated with odd off-kilter square or oblongs of thick intense hue – interruptions which work best when placed at the painting’s edges. The paintings of lighter tonal range such as Stutter feel strangely constrained for all their painterly incident, almost meek where the artist’s intentions are decidedly disruptive. They err on the verge of the tasteful… Some pieces suffer from a feeling that we are just seeing snap-shots from a much more vast canvas. But I guess this is the price you pay for staying constantly ‘on the move’ and accentuating process over finish or completeness?
In the large paintings I found myself scanning Dodge’s dense patch works of possibility, bouncing from gestural echo to echo, left dangling from a multitude of painterly loose ends. Like it or not doubt haunts the history of abstract art. Some have tried to slather it in the vagaries of a spiritual quest or use the logic of systems and geometries as their comforting certainties. But maybe doubt – that inner flaw or fissure – is what keeps abstraction as a way of making and thinking about art intensely alive and intensely human. There’s a lot to admire in Dodge’s visual energy and dexterity in painterly attack. Prolonged engagement is rewarded by what I could only describe as painterly Drama by Detour. Yet as with Richter, Dodge shows us doubt with confidence. Perhaps we could ask if his flaw is a little too external?
Tomory Dodge is on at Alison Jacques Gallery until the 17th of April