Sandy Mallet

Text to Messum’s Catalogue 2018

There’s a knotty kind of novel about the art world, where the plot hinges on decoding the hidden meaning of a painting – usually an undiscovered old master – identifying a series of crucial symbols, and then painstakingly uncovering their multi-layered references. Art is, for these academic sleuths, a journey strewn with intended obstacles, an intellectual test, with certain, clear ends. Did you get all eight of them? Congratulations – you have the keys to the painting.

It is a form of intellectual satisfaction that plays a part in the weave of the art of many periods. Look at the array of pregnant imagery laid out for us to translate in Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors’ for example, let alone the game he plays with the stretched-out skull in that painting’s foreground. Or see the clear use of narrative symbolism in Holman Hunt’s ‘The Shadow of Death’, where the signs of crucifixion pepper the carpenter’s workshop. These cryptic approaches to art, and the way we are asked to confront and solve conundrums, can have a magnetic appeal, not least because of the idea that there’s a single set of correct answers to be uncovered at the end of it all.

How exhilarating it is, then, to be in a world where images do not seem to be presented as intended puzzles at all, and have a voluminous capacity to carry resonance and possibility, with numerous chances for us to swim in sweet intellectual waters. This is the realm of James Dodds, whose paintings of boats are offered to us with an open-hearted vision, one that is born out of an intense knowledge and dedication to boat-building itself, a vision which is remarkable for the quiet, expansive potency of its imagery.

So how do these paintings work, and just what is it that makes them so different from those pictures beloved by our knotty art world novelists? The first point of attraction is one of intellectual maturity. The world of ideas suggested by James Dodds’ paintings is not one of simple questions and answers: this life is not a crossword puzzle, a black and white vision. Dodds is a sophisticated thinker and is not championing any one interpretation of his work over another. Instead he is aware that the imagery and the way he paints awakens ideas in the viewer, creates suggestions and various roads that can be followed. Dodds himself is insistently not a dictator in this process – and doesn’t have any pre-conceived answers up his sleeve – but he is nevertheless something of a magician in being able to conjure up such fertile and poetic resonances from such a seemingly unadorned set of images.

The resonances and allusions that spring from Dodds’ paintings of boats gain part of their idiosyncratic power from what is a peculiarly pared-down language – he presents his subject matter in such a direct, unencumbered way, the hulls floating against plain-coloured grounds – the very simplicity of the offering hinting at a wide-open range of possible associated ideas. (One is reminded of how the utter simplicity of Japanese ceramic art manages to suggest themes of vast scale and spirituality.)

With the artist’s visible focus set so pointedly on his central subject matter, there is real restraint in the handling of that central focus – it is hardly flamboyant – and the quiet, fluent, technicality of his treatment tells us that Dodds the artist is also Dodds the boat builder, and is someone with a fascinating area of specialist knowledge to impart, to entwine in his work, and to draw on for ideas, narratives and images.

Dodds’ own story has a texture and an importance, a relevance to the interpretation to these works that becomes an interesting point of consideration. He is insistently not the director of what we should think, not wanting to drive our interpretations along specific lines, and is therefore an artist in the shadows, whose persona is not too powerfully a part of his works. And yet his own journey, his two distinct bloodlines – those of artist and boat builder – are noticeable, unavoidable, strongly thematic in his art. Perhaps we can only treat this enigma as a fascinating element of Dodds’ work.

There seems to have been something from an earlier century about the artist’s teenage years, sailing as a mate on board the Baltic Trader Solvig at the age of 15, after which he took on a four-year apprenticeship at the Walter Cook & Son boatyard in Maldon, in his native Essex. And there is something from another age too about the iconic value of a boat, the resonance of the image of a boat as Dodds places it on a canvas, so that it gathers multiple ideas of various boat-using communities – river-using, fishing, sea-faring, from today and from many yesterdays, most powerfully when such craft were essential parts of community life.

It is through these kinds of associations that one can start, inescapably, to find the power of the imagery that lies within Dodds’ work. At one level one is lead towards ideas to do with the role of small craft, and their history, particularly on the East Anglian coast, where the artist has lived and worked. There is a volume of connections here, to do with specific narratives and craft. At another level one is drawn towards the possibility of encountering ideas associated with boats on a more symbolic or mythological plane – boats, for example, signifying the journey from the material to the spiritual world.

This is part of the breadth of ideas that can possibly be reached by Dodds, exactly because he is quite open with the potential interpretation of his imagery – he is not to be tied down, and does not intend to tie down the viewer. In fact, what you discern as you gather your thoughts when contemplating these works, is that you can begin to learn just as much about yourself as you do about James Dodds in this process, as it is your selection of interpretations that become the focus of intrigue. Indeed, one finds these are thoroughly modern, thoroughly intelligent paintings, created in a very poised and beautiful way.

Individually these works tell individual stories, some historic, some personal, each leaning in to maritime and boating traditions, whether grand or local. The Bounty’s Boat (no. 33) depicts a replica that was built of HMS Bounty’s boat at Falmouth Maritime Museum. It was one of two replicas made, the second built by Mark Edwards at Richmond Bridge Boathouses (where in fact the Messum family once built boats) for the epic recreation of Captain Bligh and his crew’s 4,000 mile journey in 1789.

On a far more intimate scale, Danish Boat Stern and Danish Boat Bow (nos 23 and 24) record a boat that caught the artist’s eye at the side of the road after he had made a visit to the new maritime museum at Helsingør in Denmark. After seeing the masterly array of grand exhibits in that museum, it was this modest craft that was to lodge itself in Dodds’ mind.

Perhaps most personally of all, the painting My Old Ship (no 2) recreates the Colchester Smack Shamrock that the artist sailed as a boy. It is a portrait of a boat viewed with particular intensity, using a palette knife to scrape and layer on paint, vigorous and familiar.

The technique that James Dodds has developed has, as one would imagine, been driven by a particular focus and technical fascination, and deeply supports the ideas of creating a pared-down language in order to provide a powerful and open platform for imagery.

Following his apprenticeship as a shipwright, there had been rising opportunities for him to learn his new trade as an artist. He joined Colchester School of Art aged 19, then followed seven years at London art schools, first at Chelsea, then at the Royal College. Something of the combination of all these environments fed into his developing technical achievement, from Cook’s boatyard to art school.

From their very ground up, Dodds’ boat paintings display a particular idea of the artist’s sense of care and honing. He prepares his canvases in an old-fashioned way, choosing a fine linen, and applying two layers of rabbitskin glue as a conservation measure, then adding two layers of white lead paint (these days almost impossible to get hold of ), over which he finally paints a covering layer of his own creation of burnt umber. This makes an initial dark ground from which to build upon, in addition the burnt umber has the effect of sucking the oil out of the paint, and so establishing a dried, slightly uneven look. The next stage is drawing the lines of the boat in white chalk on the burnt umber, ensuring accuracies of line with battens and chords, using techniques that originate as much from the shipyard as from art school. After this comes the colour – Dodds’ steadfast palette of reds, blues, yellows – each pigment applied, sanded, sponged off or scraped down with a curved Hudson’s Bay skinning knife. It is through this layering and scraping that the artist develops the muted lustrous quality that is such a distinctive textural element of these paintings, and which underpins their subtle power.

The studio that the artist now uses looks directly out onto the quayside at Wivenhoe. It places him at the heart of a community he knows and has known well, in touch with the ancient boat building yards of the River Colne, a part of a meandering Essex coastline, of East Anglia and its boating and fishing communities, their specific narratives and vessels. It is an environment that provides constant fodder – though Dodds journeys internationally too – and his local maritime knowledge is encyclopedic. The works he creates are a gathering of deep and wide understandings.

The paintings themselves, of course, will happily shrug off all this analysis, and sit quite splendidly on their own – supremely well made, strikingly direct. Whatever it may or may not speak of or allude to, this boat is beautiful, and the artist has recorded it quite simply, carrying that beauty forthrightly to me. Perhaps in the end that is what needed to be decoded, the test that needed to be got right. These pictures are exquisite, unbarnacled objects in their own right.

Sandy Mallet