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Preview of Tomory Dodge and Denyse Thomasos: Directions to a Dirty Place

January 31, 2013

Tomory Dodge and Denyse Thomasos (1964-2012) use paint to create spaces—whether natural or architectural—on their canvases. At the same time, they remind the viewer that, in fact, we are looking at a painting. Though Dodge’s more recent paintings are primarily abstract, his work involves creating territory on the canvas that is somewhat overlooked: strange places we have all experienced but sometimes wish we hadn’t.  In Tomory Dodge, a catalogue co-produced by ACME and CRG Gallery, Jeffrey Ryans mentions a Victor Hugo quote that aptly describes the places Dodge is trying to (re)create in his work.  Hugo writes about locations that are “somewhat ugly but bizarre, made up of two different natures…ends of trees, beginnings of shops, ends of beaten tracks, beginnings of passions…forever marked by the passerby with the epithet “sad.” In Dodge’s work we become the passerby, and we connect to the scenes in his paintings because we’ve experienced or imagined them before. For many people, these places hold mystery, and maybe even nostalgia.

Thomasos, on the other hand, is interested in creating interior spaces that reflect her personal and cultural history.  Thomasos moved from Trinidad to Canada when she was seven years old and felt isolated in her new environment.  This feeling echoes through her intense, contained spaces.  Her paintings often pertain to displacement as well as works that comment on slavery, genocide, and imprisonment.  The political statements reside in the structure of her work and the isolation and displacement in the interior, weaving together her personal and cultural history through color and line.

I will discuss a few of the pieces in the upcoming SECCA exhibition (opening March 22nd) that articulate core elements of the artists’ respective practices.  Dodge’s 2003 Debris Pool exemplifies his interest in places where nature and the beginnings (or endings) of urban life and industry meet.  He has many underlying themes in his work, but this particular painting relates to apocalypse and aftermath.  In this piece, we are seeing what could be the wreckage of a storm or a pool that has been neglected and filled with dirty detritus over time.  On first glance you might not see that you are looking in a pool because of its abstracted nature and Dodge’s use of paint.  Globs of white are the reflections in a sickly green pool of water.  An image of a pool full of floating debris is not necessarily an attractive one, but Dodge makes it seductive through his celebration of paint and color.  The piece, like many of his works, is a reminder of entropy: the inevitable and constant decay of matter present in everyday life. Thomasos’s 2003 painting Along the Yangtze, Boat is an abstract, almost monochromatic piece in which one can find the structure of two boats in its geometric network of white lines.  The Yangtze River is the third largest river in the world, and it has been a life source for Chinese people for thousands of years.  Thomasos is using abstraction to create an interior space—the boat—which represents travel as well as displacement.  It speaks to her own feelings of displacement as well as the uproot of people who were affected by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam.

Dodge’s more recent work is significantly more abstract; bright color and gesture are essential to his pieces, and the titles of each become increasingly important in the reading of each painting. Dragon Teeth (2010) has a bright array of colors against a green background reminiscent of the acidic water in Debris Pool.  The strong lines in the piece move the eye downward (as if each brushstroke could be imagined as a sharp tooth) while the rainbow colors contrast with the danger implied in the title. Behind each brushstroke one can see multiple layers of paint, and in effect, the painting is about painting and the overwhelming power of color. Thomasos’s 2010 painting Albatross is similarly abstract and vibrant—asserting that at its core, this piece is a painting regardless of the architectural allusions she creates within it.  The piece uses line and gesture to create a building structure that is initially unclear, hidden by the layers of paint and a variety of colors.  Hearing the title, I am immediately reminded of my high school English class and reading “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  In the poem, the albatross becomes a metaphor for burdens and obstacles.  In the painting, it seems that the albatross represents the obstacle of containment and the burden of isolation.  The architectural forms in the piece could represent a jail as well as a more personal loneliness; one that many experience in the movement across borders.

Both Dodge and Thomasos are using paint and gesture to shed light on spaces that we might wish to overlook, ignore, or avoid.  They fashion ambivalent spaces that call to question some of the horrors of history, and some of the promise that arose from the ashes.  Though Dodge’s paintings are “exterior,” combining nature and the crumbling outskirts of industry and Thomasos’s paintings are meant to be interior, representing containment and isolation, they are both working to create an atmosphere—a specific place that spans perimeters and geography.

I encourage you to experience the exhibition in person.  Directions to a Dirty Place will be on view until September 1, 2013 and Tomory Dodge will be giving an artist talk on Wednesday, March 20.  Please visit the SECCA website for more details.

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