James Dodds: Paintings
Exhibition at Bircham Gallery
James Dodds has changed course a few times during his professional career. Having trained as a shipwright from the age of fifteen, he enrolled at art school, first at Colchester, then Chelsea, as a student of painting. Having made the transition, probably not an easy one, from building boats to painting pictures, he worked his way into largescale abstract compositions. In 1981 he continued his studies at the Royal College of Art and changed from abstraction to figuration. If we believe his own account, this was because he thought figurative painting was what was expected at the Royal College. This may well have been so, yet his subsequent development suggests that it is a less than satisfactory explanation. We can only speculate on a fuller one. A salient feature seems to be that when James changes course, he does not simply give up one position and move on to a new one. He carries essential and vital aspects of the earlier over into the new position. Changing course does not deny an underlying sense of continuity and identity. James’ earlier experience as a shipwright, of boats, of the sea, of maritime tales and tall stories, of the wide world as seen from Maldon, had not been abandoned and forgotten when he became an artist. It continued to occupy a major place in his imagination. And its richness of imagery, of myth and magic, of associations with poetry and history, its inherent symbolic and metaphoric power, was probably simply too much and too strong to be confined within the alluring yet ultimately vague expressiveness of abstract art.
An exhibition of Max Beckmann’s triptychs at the Whitechapel Gallery seems to have acted as a catalyst, and the influence of Beckmann is openly acknowledged in many of James’ works of the ’80s. It was not only the format of the triptych itself with its potential for narrative and compositional complexity that attracted the young artist, but also Beckmann’s combination of the mythical with the subconscious, the faraway with the contemporary, and, perhaps above all, the powerful expressiveness with which the German painter forced his grand, multilayered and often brutal phantasies into a tripartite framework reminiscent of medieaval altarpieces, made by craftsmen rather than by refined aesthetes. An art which, for the older painter, was the culmination of a life which had seen devastating service as a paramedic in the Great War, the debaucheries of Berlin during the Weimar Republic, and prosecution and exile under the Nazis, now provided a mould for James’ own youthful ‘Sturm und Drang’, his protracted and stormy transformation from a swearing shipwright, a sweating carpenter, to the inspired and visionary painter that he is today.
That was an entirely legitimate and appropriate use of an earlier art. That is what older masters are there for: to help younger ones to give shape and form to their inner turmoil and to open ways forward to articulate their own concerns. When James, a little later, gave visual expression to the battle within himself, in his picture of a “Carpenter Wrestling with an Angel”, he again employed the art of the distant and not so distant past. The motif is from Delacroix’ or Rembrandt’s version of an Old Testament subject, of “Jacob Wrestling with the Angel”, a parable of the difficulties of human faith. If this was anything to go by, we would know the outcome: after a long struggle, lasting all night, the angel wins. In the case of James’ picture, I am not so sure. The carpenter is a cubist figure, made from solidly carved, planed and fitted surfaces. The angel consists of curves sweeping down from above in elegant lines as if designed by Giotto or Fra Angelico. Perhaps one should not wish for a winner to emerge; the shipwright’s desire to make and to fit together hard objects must be accommodated with the evasive yet persistent musings and inspirations from above. That is what art is made of.
As James’ views of his own art became clearer, the influence of Beckmann gave way to that of others. The densely filled compositions with multilayered symbols, metaphors, allegories etc., perhaps indicative of a youthful ‘horror vacui’, gave way to a monumental vision which accommodated both the ‘making’ of a figure, an object, a picture, and the forces of inspiration, phantasy and wit. Again, earlier artists offered a hand in this, the ‘classical’ Picasso of the twenties and thirties, or Diego Rivera, the Mexican muralist. The result are beautiful images of rounded, swelling forms, monumental in the way in which they dominate over the flat surface and the limited boundary of the picture. they fill the frame with little if any background, and whether they are boats, sailors or voluptuous females reclining on a beach, their protruding and receding outlines, like Hogarth’s line of beauty, engage our view in a “wanton chase” around their large, attractive bodies.
These bodies often are still not all they seem to be; their titles refer to other layers of meaning, ironic, sardonic or just witty: “A Foolish Boatman”, carrying the vessel that should carry him, is obviously autobiographical; “Three Men and a New Boat” may seem to celebrate the shipwright’s trade in beautifully simple and monumental forms, yet as the title implies, it also hints at adventures to come and, maybe, another book to be written.
In all these pictures the sea is never far away, a lifelong friend, danger and temptation. Sailors are Odysseus or an Old Mariner “surprised” by a Sirenlike Greek Goddess. Or they are young men on safe ground contemplating maps of the end of the world in “Journeys Never Made”. Whether they are telling tall stories or dreaming of travels beyond their reach, we do not know. James invents narratives as he composes his pictures. It concentrates his mind and gives a very personal coherence to his thoughts. Yet that does not mean that in looking at his pictures we have to guess what the artist’s private thoughts might have been. For him a painting may have been a way of working out a personal problem, conscious or not. For us there is, in the first instance, enough pure visual delight in the pictures to enjoy, and as we do so we may find that our own mind begins to construct its own narratives, sometimes around basic and familiar human activities, like a mother breastfeeding her child, or a gardener planting or protecting young seedlings. Such scenes of caring are depicted in the simplest possible forms, with grand sweeping lines both defining the figures and protecting, at their centre, the small and vulnerable creatures. At other times the stories are more violent, of men fighting; or bizarre, of a detective pursued by his own raincoats. Here, memories of comicstrips or films come to the fore, both dark and ironic. And then, again, there may be literary associations, of poems and adages, of fairytales and local stories of wild men.
The visual strength of James’ pictures is sufficient to allow us to pursue such narratives without becoming anecdotal. His style of drawing and painting is generous, guided by a clear perception of an object’s or figure’s overall shape and form, to which details have to yield or become subservient. It is a style naturally suited to largescale imagery, even to monumental wallpainting, and is the more remarkable as we consider that the other branch of imagery in which James has established himself with equal authority is that of smallscale and highly detailed printmaking. This does not mean that he does not vary his style of painting for specific purposes. The struggle between carpenter and angel is also one between different styles of depicton, and the sirenlike Goddess is positively precious in her seductive allure. James’ latest works are relatively small pictures of simple, individual objects, taken out of their — invariably — maritime context and presented enlarged, as monumental objects in front of a plain ground. Deprived of their familiar environment and their normal service function, they open themselves up to new interpretations, perhaps not sufficiently sharp and precise to be called symbolic or allegorical, but certainly suggestive and associative. A heartshaped shackle in monumental isolation remains, in the first instance, just that, and as such it is beautifully and lovingly depicted. Yet its still recognizeable function of somehow holding things together, of keeping them tight, acquires a more specific association by the fact that its distinctive shape is no longer seen as being determined by its practical function. Looking like a heart is now its new pictoral function, and the small and useful object, familiar to sailors, becomes — through enlargement and isolation — a general visual metaphor of human love and trust. It may take a shipwright to understand fully the functional purpose of these objects and to depict them accurately and quite realistically, but it requires the eye and the mind of the artist to detect, and to make apparent in the depiction, shapes that evoke associations and feelings of a general human concern.
Thomas Puttfarken 1999
Department of Art History and Theory
University of Essex