On Wednesday, artist Harry Dodge came to the Tufts University Art Gallery to give a tour of his current exhibit “Harry Dodge: Works of Love.” In this collection of Dodge’s work from largely the past 10 years, Dodge goes from room to room, choosing pieces from the exhibit to explore physicality, space and the metaphysical world they inhabit.
Dodge is a sculptor, author, performer and educator. Although he came into the art world ‘late,’ i.e. his late twenties, he has been an important member of the California art scene since the ’90s. He was a founding member of the San Francisco performance space, “The Bearded Lady,” described by the gallery as “a touchstone for a pioneering, queer, DIY literary and arts scene.”
His former exhibits include “Mysterious Fires” in 2017 at the Grand Army Collective, “The Inner Reality of Ultra-Intelligent Life” in 2016 at Pasadena’s Armory Center for the Arts and “The Cybernetic Fold” at Wallspace in 2015. “Works of Love” is his first solo exhibit in Boston. Currently, he is working on his fourth book, “My Meteorite (or, Without the Random There Can Be No New Thing),” which will be published this year from Penguin Press. Dodge is a multi-talented and multi-disciplinary creator: he works with cast bronze, spray paint and found objects. He also loves books, frequently referencing them in his art. He plays automatons, fake YouTubers and elderly people in his films.
“Pure Shit Hotdog Cake” (2017), a multi-tiered structure dripping with colors, is chief curator Dina Deitsch’s first choice from his oeuvre.
Dodge explains that, despite its messy flair, this is one of his more organized pieces.
“It was one of the only pieces where I had actually drawn out the thing beforehand. That doesn’t happen that much,” Dodge said. “Normally, when I’m in the studio I work I don’t know what’s gonna happen, and I really like to dance with the materials, and let them resist, and have a conversation … It’s a more improvisatory model.”
Despite the logistical planning, it’s clear that Dodge isn’t afraid to improvise. His first attempt accidentally led to a different sculpture in another room, “Multiform Elsewhere.”
“I was making ‘Pure Shit Hotdog Cake,’ or so I thought, and then all of the sudden something happened,” he explained. “I was listening to the materials … and I was like ‘Yeah, that’s done.’ I tried to make it again, and I ended up making ‘Black Transparency.’”
One gets the impression that every creative process for Dodge is an odyssey of ideas. In his 2003 work “Emergency Weapons,” Dodge laid out sticks and everyday objects for himself, and then made himself construct a weapon in less than three minutes. The result is a hodgepodge row of upgraded knives and Play-Doh containers in resin with nails sticking out.
“Often I would take part of a dish soap bottle and stick a nail halfway out, then put clay to stop up the holes around the nail, and then pour in this two-part resin I have that dries in like, two and a half minutes, and then just put some handle down in there,” Dodge said. “They came out to be kind of like popsicles and kind of cheery in a weird way, and also these awful, brutal, horrifying weapons.”
This is by far the most political of the “Works of Love” exhibit, and Dodge created it response to the Patriot Act of 2001. If the government should come for our civil liberties, “Emergency Weapons” suggests, what could we grab and go? But as soon as we make the work literal, more questions arise.
“There was this added idea that in this military industrial complex we’re in right now they’re not gonna be helpful, as brutal as they are,” he said. “[The] edginess of the vigilante, this kind of DIY-justice — and that’s awful as well.”
Dodge loves to play with materiality.
“I’m a sculptor. I love objects. I’ve always loved objects. You know, it’s so intense, how much I love matter and materials and objects. And so there’s a kind of loving feeling, or a kind of libidinous feeling that I’m exploring and celebrating,” he explained.
He treats them not as static rocks in the stream of life, but a part of them. Dodge almost befriends his materials before he works with them.
“I need to see them peripherally for months maybe, or years sometimes. And so … when a sculpture comes together, it could come together pretty quickly,” he explained. “[But] when I get a new studio, it’ll take months sometimes to be able to become fertile.”
Dodge uses language in a different way than physical materials, but language also plays a major role in his work, from captions on his drawing to his wry and obscure titles.
“I tend to think that my body is a few steps ahead of language, and so if I let my body work with materials, I’ll get answers that leap ahead of things I might come up with in language, in my mind,” he explained.
“It’s rare that a piece will surprise me because I’m trying to be with it while it’s being made,” he observed. “I have a lot of knowledge about what I’m doing in a non-language kind of knowing … I usually finish a whole body of work, and I’ll title for three or four days … And I sit down will all of the pieces, and I try to look at them one by one, try to figure out what the vibe was … and what I wanted to get across.”
There are other interactions between the material and the immaterial that Dodge explores in his work, particularly through technology.
“The virtual is material, which is to say thought is material, or sometimes I even call them thought-object,” he explained. “It’s not that that doesn’t have form, it’s not that it’s formless, it’s a mental set of energies that has a form and it’s very, very specific. And I’m interested in reminding myself of all the times those things are specific, they’re not nebulous. They’re just hard to pin down in language, is what it is.”
Dodge’s language is not non-physical either; he loves gesticulating, and the complex philosophical ideas he suggests seem to invigorate him more than draw him into pensiveness. He can even be whimsical at his own work; he checked his reflection in a mirror embedded in a sculpture of cast-iron bronze seconds before the talk started. But even with the bold colors and humorous captions of “Works of Love,” the performative is not always false.
Dodge said that when he experiences fear as an artist, he tells himself, “Well, you gotta just tell the truth.”
“If you try and fake it,” he said, “it’s gonna go wrong.”
“Harry Dodge: Works of Love” is on exhibit at the Tufts University Art Gallery through April 14.