Tim Dodds: In The Pelican, 36 Limestreet, Newcastle
Exhibition text by Frances Woodley: Thoughts on Painting in the Pelican
“…wonderful things can be accomplished in the studio when it is shut off from the outside world. Working again and again with the same wretched pigments, the same frowzy brushes, the same paint stained walls, can be exactly what is needed to bring something worthwhile to life.” James Elkins, What Painting Is (1999)
The pelican is a hermetically sealed glass apparatus used by alchemists in which base material is circulated in the hope of transmutation. Its name, like its shape shape is derived from the bird to whom various myths are attached. The circulatory system is an apt metaphor for a painter’s studio, at least for a painter like Tim Dodds. Other than materials for painting, little of any value gets into Dodds’ metaphorical pelican, only mere scatterings, the detritus of packaging and building. The materials are abject: plaster, polystyrene foam, cardboard, a discarded feather. In Dodds’ studio, as in the pelican, the hope is that transformation can be effected; in this case, into shimmering succulent painting rather than the perfection of essence and element. The pelican is not a safe place, its circulations are a risky business. With nowhere to escape, the gases given off in its hermetically sealed apparatus make it prone to explosion. Yet, the energy that causes the pelican to auto-destruct is, in Dodds’ studio, channeled into works of art.
Dodds is a painter of still lifes, a tradition that requires the painter to paint objects set up expressly for the purpose of painting. But his are no ordinary objects, they are abject bits of stuff thrown together ‘as if’ they were objects. Others who indulge in this practice include the painters Ivan Seal and Jonny Green. The abjection of these models neither precludes their individuality nor potential for expression. Not for public consumption, such models escape the pelican only when in painted form. Then, with nothing else to go on, the viewer has no other option but to be drawn into the mysterious transmutational process of base paint with abject material that is recorded at its surface. It is now here that the painted model becomes subject to, what Nicholas Davey terms, “hermeneutic ambushes”, interpretations that the artist could neither have envisaged or foreseen. But back in the pelican, having had their moment, the models themselves are no longer of consequence; they await either extinction or reincarnation.
Gérard de Lairesse, famous for The Art of Painting in All its Branches (1707), writes at length on the regulation of still life painting in ways that have a curious relevance here. In his discussion of flower still life he expresses his approval of the making of models for painting “when the life is not to be had”. But such approval is qualified: “for no perfection is attainable without the life” he says. Evidently the making of rough models in the absence of the real thing was a common practice for the still life painter at that time, yet it was a practice whose truth was contested. But for Dodds the rough model is the real thing, and ready to become more so in painting.
With regard to the regulation of backgrounds, de Lairesse is so particular it makes you want to weep. No such regulation of backgrounds occurs in the acid yellow and scorching pink backgrounds of Dodds’ recent paintings, yet there is just as much attention to the background’s function of bringing the model to sight. For Dodds, unlike de Lairesse, the backgrounds are objects in their own right. The superimpositions of models on dripped, crinkled, dragged, and coagulated paint, are intended ambiguations of space and volume, colour and light, background and foreground: “I’ve added stand oil, marble dust and other things to play with the surface quality of the backgrounds in these paintings. I was also thinking about the models that Jonny Green makes. They’re garish, slightly vulgar, cheeky things. In my yellow painting, when I stuck the feather into one of the objects, it immediately became some sort of raffish, historical character to me.” This is interesting not just for what it says about how Dodds feels about his models and their backgrounds, but also for the doubt it casts on the sealed up nature of the pelican. Dodds’ pelican evidently opens itself up to the world as and when required to feed its babies.
Dodds’ painting is not without regulation however. For instance, he always uses a perspective frame, a regulatory device that while physically absent, remains visible through the dynamic sightlines it sets up for the model when painted. The use of this frame requires precision: “It is a measure of truth” and “just as important as the subject matter”, he declares. Alchemy too has its truth but it rather depends on what is believed in by the alchemist, and what is hoped for, as to whether transmutation of base elements is capable of the extraordinary transmutations to be seen in Dodds’ pelican.