“The Blue Boat”
Exhibition at University of Essex 2001
James Dodds has established himself as one of the leading artists in East Anglia and well beyond. The forthcoming large exhibition at Firstsite at the Minories, which is expected to tour further afield, will continue to consolidate his reputation. There are three strands to his output, oil paintings, linocuts and illustrated books, published in small editions by his own Jardine Press. The strands interact, in that both pictorial motifs and book illustrations may re-emerge from the printing press in multiple and therefore accessible copies. His most popular success so far are undoubtedly his birds-eye-views of familiar places by the sea-side or on the river, including Wivenhoe and Brightlingsea, Southwold and Cromer. The paintings, after some initial experimenting with abstraction, are figurative, mostly with elaborate and multi-facetted narratives dominated by human figures and never very far from the sea, from boats, from sailors or shipwrights, from local myths or maritime dreams. His iconography has very much grown out of his own life and experience. Born in Brightlingsea, James left school at 15 and trained for four years as a shipwright at Maldon before studying painting for twice that time at Colchester School of Arts, Chelsea and Royal College until 1984. It has often been remarked how his craft training has fed into his artistry; the boats he paints are well made, just as the pictures themselves are well made.
This is particularly true of the works now on show in the University Gallery. They are recent works, and in a number of ways a departure from most of his earlier painting. While most earlier works were packed with action, with detail, with allusions to myth and reminiscences of memories and dreams (a very early example, the triptych Solidarity from the early 80s, is on permanent show in the foyer of the LTB), more recent work tends to concentrate on essentials – essentials of form and shape, but also of meaning and feeling. This concentration comes, I think, from a developing sense of maturity and security; having outgrown his period of romantic “Sturm und Drang”, James is now aiming at grander forms and simpler emotions.
The paintings gathered here are different from most of his other work in one other respect: there are no human figures. These are images of inanimate objects, in the terms of the traditional academic hierarchy of genres, “still lives”. Yet contrary to the traditional still life, which would normally show a more of less complex composition of different things, these pictures are of a single object. What joins them together is their maritime nature; the centre, to which they all relate, is the Blue Boat. In a number of ways the show is a monumental variant of a small book which James published last year, called ABC of boat bits. As “an introduction to sailing a Winkle Brig”, this booklet was meant to introduce James’ children (and other neophytes) to the basics of sailing by describing, in alphabetical order, the terms, objects and phenomena with which the sailor must be familiar. Each page is given over to one letter and accompanied by appropriate illustrations of the respective objects, an Anchor, a Block, a Clew, etc. The exhibition cannot claim to be as systematic or extensive as the book, yet it shares with it the close attention and study of individual objects, the understanding of their practical purpose and the artistic grasp of their essential shape and form.
To call the paintings “still lives” is perhaps not quite correct. The French call still live “nature morte”, and at first sight that seems to be an appropriate description of a single inanimate object in front of a more or less closed, sometimes completely undefined, background. Yet on closer scrutiny these works show themselves to be very much alive. This, I think, is due to two factors. One is that by seeing seemingly normal, unimportant objects in unusual isolation, our eyes feel free to explore other aspects of the picture, its formal composition, the relationship of object to format and frame, the traces and marks of paint and its workings. We can see in the final product the history of its own making. Both within and underneath the surface of the picture we detect remnants of earlier stages, of the initial drawing, even traces of earlier pictures, now over-painted. Following the shape of the object we realize how lines create volume. And attending to paint and brushwork we register and respond to the suggestive harmonies of colour relationships and the feelings and emotions they evoke. These pictures are as much about painting and its processes as they are about boat bits and their uses.
But they are also, inevitably, about boat bits. There is no doubt that these are anchors and shackles and planks. Yet here we come to the second reason why these “dead” things seem to be so much alive. In isolation, removed from their normal, everyday context, they become almost magical objects, monumentalised icons; and while we may be more or less fully aware of the profane function which these objects are meant to fulfil, we are only too ready to attribute to them, in their pictorial form, further meaning. They present themselves as potential visual metaphors. Whether we are sailing people or not we are all aware of the enormous symbolic, even mythical connotations of the boat, from the ship of fools to the voyage of life, from the burning of boats to the carrier of hopes. Floating in front of its dark background, the Blue Boat, small as a boat yet monumental as an image, is open to all sorts of readings. It would take us too far to explore this central theme of the exhibition – it is a theme that permeates the whole of James’ oeuvre to date and a theme that every viewer must pursue according to his or her own experience and imagination.
A more humble object is the shackle. As dictionaries remind us, shackles, in the first instance, are metal clamps that limit and restrict our freedom. For the sailor, however, they may have different, more positive connotations; as they hold things together, we must be able to trust them and to rely upon them. James’ own definition, in the ABC of boat bits, is: “A Shackle is a U-shaped bit of metal closed with a pin, used in many places to join things together”. “Used in many places to join things together” suggests a wide field for the possible transferral of meaning. And if we then find a Heart Shaped Shackle, purposefully designed to hold two ropes in place, the object itself, despite its hard-edged, metallic nature, may seem to suggest something more romantic. As early as 1992, James had painted a still life called Air Mail Letter with Heart Shaped Shackle; the half-open shackle rests on a photograph of a mother with a small baby, which seems to have emerged from the airmail envelope. Once we see the shackle as an object that joins all sorts of things together, from ropes to hearts, the Broken Shackle, hard solid metal broken by the rust of old age and too much tension, acquires it own poignant meanings.
The centrepiece of the show remains “The Blue Boat”. In James Dodds’ oeuvre it follows from a long lineage of predecessors. Looking at it now, without sailors in it or waves around it, I cannot think of a more impressive and convincing example of a shipwright actually building a boat without leaving the painter’s studio.
University of Essex