“I’m interested in a kind of apocalyptic fantasy that seems to lurk below the surface of the American psyche. It’s an association of catastrophe and disaster with redemption and transcendence. The terrible takes on an air of desirability. One of the ways I try to reference this is to imply a kind of sickly, if rapturous, delirium.” —Tomory Dodge
We are honored to speak with abstract painter, Tomory Dodge, for this month’s issue of Psychology of Aesthetics and Politics Magazine!
One of the most important abstract painters to emerge from Southern California in recent memory, Tomory is best know for his paintings which showcase his mastery to build myriad kinds of spaces or architectures or masses that simultaneously seem impossible and completely natural. Drawn from photographic sources as well as imagination and memory, he applies masses of paint in bold, fluid gestures to create often viscerally charged scenes. While the paintings may appear, in the words of critic Bob Nickas, to be the product of “spontaneous combustion,” they are, in fact, the product of months of deliberate work, “of intention rather than intuition.”
What has less often been explored, however, are the political and psychological undercurrents of his work. In light of the current political climate in the United States, we asked Dodge if he would mind answer a few questions about the intersection of politics and art, and he graciously agreed.
In 1998, Dodge received his BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, and in 2004, he received his MFA from the California Institute of the Arts. His work has been the subject of solo exhibitions at CRG Gallery in New York, NY, and the Knoxville Museum of Art, TN, among other venues. He has also been included in group exhibitions at institutions in Berlin, Germany; Liverpool, UK; and Los Angeles, CA.
Q: Thanks so much for joining us this month, Tomory!
Tomory Dodge: It is a pleasure to be here and speak with you about my art and all of the wild current events going on right now. I am no political scientist, but I believe that we as artists have a responsibility to be engaged with the world in our own unique ways.
Q: Absolutely. My first question is about how you might even go about defining abstract painting, since you are so often identified in this way. Feel free to return to this more later, but first, how would you define abstract painting, and would you consider yourself an artist who makes abstract work, or else what would you consider your relationship to abstract painting to be?
Tomory Dodge: Abstract painting is so broad that any definition would probably have to focus on what it isn’t. Like, “painting that doesn’t seek likeness”, or something like that. I would say I make abstract work. I at least make work that is abstracted.
Q: What do you think of the state of abstract art in 2016? Abstraction seems to have made a big return in the last ten years, from hard-edge intricacy to expressionist gestures, but a “zombie formalism” backlash has already begun, which seems weird because there’s rarely a backlash against figurative painting except possibly during the late 1960s in some circles.
TD: It’s difficult to speak about the state of abstract art because it’s such a vast thing. The whole “zombie formalism” thing is real, but it’s important to keep in mind that it’s a small aspect of “abstract art”, or even abstract painting. It shouldn’t be seen a representative of everything. There’s some work that gets labeled as “zombie formalism” that I think is actually really interesting, there’s a lot that I don’t, but I think it’s a mistake to be too quick to categorize and label art without really looking at it. It’s funny because one of the main and most damning critiques of this latest incarnation of process-y, all-over abstraction has been that it’s visually seductive to a point, but ultimately empty and really all about commerce. Now there does seem to be some kind of swing away from abstraction and embrace of figuration. The thing is, I think the same damning critique can be made of a lot this figuration. It makes me wonder if this reaction or “backlash” is more akin to a change in fashion rather than symptomatic of some deeper cultural shift. Perhaps time will tell.
Q: Another thing that abstract painting still often gets accused of is that it’s frivolous. I’d argue, though, that abstract painting places a demand on the viewer to have to make decisions about what she or he is looking at, to either collaborate with the painting to make meaning or else to simply leave aside having to know and just experience the work. What do you think?
TD: I agree with your take on abstraction, but I often wonder if I’m the best person to ask about abstraction. My relationship with abstraction has always been an odd one. I have never been a “true believer” in regards to the role of abstraction in my own work. I came to abstraction through representational painting, or, perhaps more accurately, my painting has largely been driven by an interest in the perceived line between the abstract and the representational. My early landscape based work was very focused on places and things in various states of degradation. On one hand I was interested in the actual landscape I saw, one that was strewn with trash and other detritus. But on the other hand I was interested in subject matter that could act as a springboard for exploring the border between the figurative and abstract.
At what point does an object loose its function, cease to be recognizable and become an abstract form, and in the context of painting, at what point does that form become a mark or gesture? And, is there any trace of that original object or it’s transformation remaining?
This formed the basis for my pathway into abstraction. I think it’s kind of an unusual one because as my work has come to be seen as abstract, it still maintains certain connections to representation. At times I think it’s even debatable to what degree my work is abstract. There are purists who would say it’s not really. But at certain point insisting on a strict division between the abstract and the figurative is kind of missing the point. I would like to think that I’ve done my part to blur any division between the two.
That said, there may be something of a feeling currently that art without some kind of overt referent is not able to deal with the current political situation. I think that’s unfortunate because it’s limiting. Like you implied in your question, I think abstract art in some way has always been geared towards the notion of the transcendent and to assume that because of a given political situation the transcendent is no longer important seems like a huge mistake to me.
Q: Before we get to how your work might relate to politics in the US in 2016 and going forward, could you talk a bit about your current work, not in terms of explanations but just some comments on the images you’ve chosen, and how they fit into your work as a whole and in current art?
TD: There are two strains to my work right now. One is focused on spacey, dreamy imagery. A lot of this work has a kind of Sci-fi, deep space feel. Not all of it is dark, but all the paintings so far have a kind of hard to locate quality, like they may be spaces a million light-years away or maybe interior spaces that exist nowhere else. I’ve dealt with space imagery before. Several year ago I made a series of what I refer to as “space junk paintings”. They were dark and seductive. I had sense then, and feel even more strongly now that they were about death or transition in some way. I was working on them at the height of the financial crisis and there was this sense of uncertainty as well as a sense that world I become used to was ending. It’s interesting that I’m making these paintings now that are similar in so many ways to those earlier space paintings.
The other strain is figurative, at least that’s how I think of them. They basically consist of “figures” comprised of interconnected parts. They don’t resemble figures in the typical sense. They’re barely recognizable as such. I kind of think of them as “post human,” but even that may be a stretch. They’re basically a series of connections. I guess they’re kind of a way to develop forms and, hopefully uncover meaning by connecting a series of points and allowing an image to emerge. Thinking of them as figures is probably some sort of default. But this Idea of connections plays a role in the spacey work too.
Q: In the current political climate, it sometimes feels as if something like art is frivolous compared to the challenges we face as a society, but I’m not sure that’s true. Art might not save lives, but creativity is a necessary part of being human, and humanity is something we need to keep reminding ourselves of in dark times. What do you think? Does art still has the same place in society that it did a year ago? And have recent political events changed your relationship with your work?
TD: I think you could argue that art is actually more important now than it was a year ago. Dark times without art are even darker. I think it’s important to resist the notion that making art and political action are somehow mutually exclusive activities and that a person needs to choose one over the other. One can do both and one can even do both simultaneously.
As for my own work, I think there may be a change that has something to do with the recent election, but I feel that it’s really too early to sum it up. I usually resist trying to explain or make sense of my work while I’m still making it. I’m still trying to fully understand work I made ten years ago, so it may be a while before I can fully comprehend what I’m doing now.
Q: To follow up the previous questions, if you agree that people need art (of all kinds) and that abstract art is challenging in a good way, do you see your work specifically or art in general as having a role in helping to move society forward and away from the brink, so to speak?
TD: I guess my current take on things is that artists need to make their work now more than ever and they need to make their work better than it’s ever been. By that, I mean it should be as meaningful as possible to the artists themselves.
I think there is a tendency to try to make art that is overtly political in situations like these. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, but I have often wondered how effective that work is when it comes to anything other than “galvanizing the base.” I kind of think it’s the less overt work that is truly dangerous to would-be tyrants because people tend to connect with it first on a very human level.
Q: Do you think that figurative painting, or setting aside painting altogether in favor of forms of art that lack clear medium definitions but that are oriented toward dialogue and politics, are better suited in some way to handle current politics? I agree that the strongest protest is for artists to all make their own unique work and not let the current state of America suppress anything, but do you think we’ll see a swing away from object-based art toward more interactive things like video or installation? A better way of what I’m asking is this: is there such a thing as “political art,” and if so, do you think there will be a shift toward it?
TD: I don’t think any medium is better geared toward political content than any other, but if you’re talking about activist art—art that’s made with a clear political message and a clear political effect in mind, then I think some mediums may be better than others. I think work that is activistic, almost by definition, needs to be public and certain modes of working definitely lend themselves to that. I think work that is activistic always has to deal with the problem that good activism, or good politics may not be “good art” and vice versa. Not that the two are opposed in some way, but you’re often dealing with two separate universes of concerns. I guess it all depends on what draws you to art in the first place.
Q: The poet Charles Reznikoff labeled some of his more repertorial work “newspaper poems,” meaning that some of his writing was very close to simply being current events retold in poetry that resembled news stories more than lyric poems. Is there an artistic equivalent to that, and what do you think it might be? And if it does exist, what do you think your work’s relationship would be to it, and what relationship (if any) would it have to shock and unrest on the left?
TD: I’m sure there is a visual art equivalent. I think it relates to the notion of the artist bearing witness and that being a political act in itself. In that sense, there are any number of visual art equivalents. I don’t think it needs to be specific to any medium or discipline. It’s difficult to say definitively how that’s present in my own work because abstraction doesn’t function quite that way. I think traditionally the notion of witnessing implies a degree of specificity that abstraction isn’t interested in so I think you have to think in terms things being slightly removed or distilled into another state.
Q: Considering the current climate, what advice would you give to a young artist about how to figure out the relationship between her or his work and current events, or would you simply advise them, as you noted above, to find what’s their work and pursue it?
TD: It’s hard for me to give advice because I feel that I’m in the same boat as everyone else right now. I’m trying to figure out what this sudden political change means for my work and how my work is going to address it.
One of my dilemmas is that good politics/good art split again. I should clarify that I don’t think my work and politics are incompatible, quite the opposite, but I see my work as partially driven by things other than conscious intention— the subconscious, accident, chance, desperation…etc., and I don’t think that lends itself to constructing or communicating a concise political message. Therefore, in my case, the current political climate will probably be addressed in more subtle terms, less direct ways.