Visions of the Future Present
What does love have to do with the quasi-mechanical, abstract sculptures, drawings, and videos by the Los Angeles–based artist Harry Dodge in Harry Dodge: Works of Love, on display at the Tufts University Art Gallery through April 14?
Like industrial artifacts, strange, squat tabletop sculptures cast in bronze await inspection near the entrance to the exhibition. Their appendages reach out with no clear purpose. One arm of the piece Invisible Helpers (Works of Love #2) holds up a row of square pegs beside a second arm with a circular hole, both arms tilting together as though captured in motion, ready to do a job that will remain forever inexplicable to the viewer.
With Invisible Helpers, Dodge asks viewers to focus on the irresolvable tension between the two arms. “When you have two disparate things placed in relationship to one another, it’s the space between them that becomes complicated,” said Dina Deitsch, director and chief curator for Tufts University Art Galleries.
Towering over the tabletop sculpture, another piece, topped with a large, curling hot dog, sports a pair of arms carrying panels whose intent is unclear. Brightly colored paint appears to drip from one platform to the next in this multi-layered work of wood, urethane resin, aluminum, paint, a sock, and stainless-steel hardware called Pure Shit Hotdog Cake. The title is provocative, the bright colors playful, the arms flung out as if joyful, and the freshly dripping paint—achieved with the urethane resin—technically masterful.
But, again, what’s love got to do with it?
“I’m talking about love as a fleshy energy, a flowing (of maybe-as-yet-imperceptible particles) that exists in all of the spaces we have heretofore considered to be empty. A kind of ether-as-love,” Dodge wrote in the gallery brochure.
Dodge is as much a conceptual artist as a visual one. “His work is informed by his rigorous engagement with the world—from science fiction to critical theory,” Deitsch said. “He is as much a writer and a reader as an image maker or sculptor.”
A faculty member at the California Institute of the Arts, Dodge received his M.F.A. from the Milton Avery School of the Arts at Bard College. His work has been featured at the Whitney Biennial and New Museum in New York. In the early 1990s, he cofounded The Bearded Lady performance space in San Francisco, where he wrote, directed, and performed in several full-length videos. In 2002, his feature film, By Hook or By Crook, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.
In his 2016 video Big Bang (Song of the Cosmic Hobo) —one of three in this show—Dodge plays a “low-rent automaton” who purchases a particleboard cabinet from IKEA, smashes it to bits with a sledgehammer and sets out to scatter the dust into the Grand Canyon. This piece addresses “connectivity in the digital realm,” Deitsch said.
Where is the line between the virtual and the material? If humanity is the expression of technology, can we always find humanity in technology? How do we find the physical body, for example, in a computer screen? These questions recur throughout the show, as Dodge’s work turns from simple mechanics to contemporary tools from our digital age and beyond.
While much of the work in the show examines a futuristic present, some harkens back to the past. In 2002, Dodge created his series “Emergency Weapons” in response to 9/11 and the Patriot Act, legislation that widely expanded the U.S. government’s surveillance authority, picking up on a previous political moment that has some resurgence now.
Looking around his studio, he asked himself how he’d manage to defend himself against an encroaching authority with nothing more than the supplies he found on hand—in his case, art supplies. So he gave himself five-minute time limits to create a series of weapons out of Play-Doh cans, nails, socks, flashlights, more traditional art supplies, and ordinary household items.
“As sculptures, they have a rawness to them, like a caveman’s clubs,” Deitsch said. “They’re very violent, but on the other hand, there’s a sad, pathetic tone here, as they ask, What is the capacity of art to really protect oneself from aggressive government forces? Maybe not very much.”
“Harry’s interest in machine thinking, artificial intelligence, and what’s on the cusp of research is at play throughout the show,” Deitsch said. “A lot of the works invoke a quasi-functional, mechanical quality, but remain fairly ‘low-tech’ in their construction and materials.
“For instance, there are a lot of flat surfaces made from plywood, wood burl, or painted metal on the sculptures that the artist describes as ‘screens’—not quite the touch-sensitive surface of your iPhone. In general, there’s a lot of awkward fumbling happening in the work through these type of material gestures—that’s funny of course—but also an expression of how one navigates our raw and messy humanity within this advanced technological world we now live in.”
Deitsch curated the show with Dodge, bringing his more recently created work from a 2018 show at the nonprofit JOAN exhibition space in Los Angeles to Tufts and contextualizing it with older works. To install the show, Dodge spent ten days on-site, where he organized his drawings in irregular and stacked clusters, to complicate the ideas in his work with more disparate ideas and aroused emotions for his viewers to consider. “In the drawing installations, he carving up the space as if they were sculpture,” Deitsch said.
“It’s exciting to see the show speak to the campus across disciplines,” she said. “We’ve had incredible response from both students and faculty as well as the broader arts community in the area.” Several classes have been held in the gallery along with a series of talks, and a poetry reading. The artist even gave a robotics class an assignment on building metaphysical robots.
“Harry’s exhibition gives us the opportunity to explore the ways in which an artist’s deeply material studio practice can also be a devoted conceptual project,” Deitsch said. “This show asks us to rethink our notions of disciplinary categories and the generative capacity of visual art.”
The Tufts Art Gallery is located at 40 Talbot Avenue on the university’s Medford/Somerville campus. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Thursday until 8 p.m. For more information, visit http://artgallery.tufts.edu.
Rob Phelps is a freelance writer based in Quincy, Massachusetts.