Metal

Distorting Reality

By Lara Bongard

March 2021

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Artist Alex Dodge lives and works between New York City and Tokyo. Like his fluctuating surroundings, Dodge tries to find a balance between seemingly opposing forces in his paintings: the analogue and digital, the chaotic and structured, the real and imagined – to eventually find a state of synthesis, where these forces merge together into richly colourful and tactile anthropomorphic scenes that obscure, distort, and make us question our sense of reality. In their silent, poetic presence, his subjects are as imaginative as mysterious and unfathomable. We talk to the artist about his fascination with the tension between the visible and invisible, his use of ancient Japanese printing traditions, challenging energy and defining authenticity, and how a painting suddenly becomes a prophecy of our current times. 

 

Hi Alex, how have you been doing in these times of major change, with the pandemic and social unrest? How has it influenced your work?

 

It’s been something, hasn’t it? I have to say that compared to many people we’ve been really fortunate. My wife and I arrived in Japan just before new year's 2020. Our plan was to set up our studios, spend 3 months, and then head back to New York. Within a week the news headlines in Tokyo shifted from Carlos Ghosn’s brazen escape to a new virus in Wuhan. We actually considered leaving early to return to the presumed safety of New York. We figured that it was just a matter of time before the virus jumped to Japan, which it did but without the surge of cases happening elsewhere, so we stayed and a 3-month trip turned into half a year.
Prior to leaving for Tokyo, I had finished a body of work that would be shown at the Independent art fair that March in New York. The largest painting titled I’ll turn back the tides of time in which the figure is wearing a surgical facemask that is all too common now. In addition to prophetic paintings, I also do astrological investment advice!
Just kidding, the mask was among a number of ways to play with identity while allowing my love for pattern, color, and textile to prevail. I assumed that people would read it in relation to the masks worn during the protests in Hong Kong, which were in full swing back then. A week after the art fair, however, New York would begin to lock down and the symbolism of the mask would completely change.

 

Could you tell us a bit more about your time in Tokyo in the middle of a pandemic?

 

The time spent in Tokyo during the relatively mild state of emergency there was actually one of the most productive stretches for me. I think that there was something about being in the outskirts of Tokyo near the mountains where we felt relatively safe.
Eventually, we learned to accept the uncertainty and just work. New ideas flowed and formed the basis for the work that I made during the summer after returning to New York. I arrived back right before the protests started. I’m glad I could be there then. My most recent show was the culmination of that work and I think that bound within it is the complex and charged energy during that time. It’s definitely not over yet, more to come.

 

 

Your paintings blur the line between the real and imagined, the digital and the analogue, leaving us looking at some kind of in-between realm, neither here nor there. The longer you look at the objects shrouded in vibrant fabrics, full of tactility and texture, the more uncanny their invisible presence becomes. This tension between the visible and invisible, why does it intrigue you so much?

 

Yes, there is an inner tension there. I see them as integrations of a sort. I like to think of the repetitive patterns on the textiles as a kind of reductional element; both extensible and atomistic. The textile cloth and the form that it obscures, however, are not reducible, they’re complex, multivalent, and not fully knowable but it is the pattern that makes the form discernible through its distortion.
In this way, the two modes of seeing or experiencing are often at odds in our mind and in the world become bound and integrated as it were; one acting upon the other to create something new and whole. I think that’s where the uncanniness comes from when these seemingly oppositional forces find a stable, coherent, and integrated state.
The anthropomorphic aspect of your work evokes questions, it challenges our imagination. It goes beyond the logical mind, which also gives the work its poetic character. It plants a seed in our heads, and we have the reigns to fill in the gap. Living in the digital age, the truth often gets obscured or twisted, making us question our perception of reality. You play with this duality of our understanding through creating these illusions and we become unsure of what is true or false. What’s your perception of authenticity in your work? Is it important?

Indeed, how we perceive and think of authenticity has changed drastically. I sometimes think about how our notion of representing the truth or nature has evolved through a progression of different knowledge spaces. One way of seeing our current reality is a multi-layered space where the ground is like a passive or propositional space in which we try to describe or represent nature, then an active or procedural space where we modify or reproduce nature in new ways, and finally the virtual space, a new nature or new reality that can feel less and less connected to the physical.
The virtual space has made my work possible without a doubt. From a desire to see what can’t be seen, to build what can’t be built, or experience what can’t be anticipated or imagined, I turned to the virtual. Probably, the biggest clue is, why make paintings at all? I have a lot of friends that use similar tools but work entirely in the ephemeral realm of the web or VR. It may be generational in part but in my view, that’s incredibly bold and dedicated.

Could you elaborate on that?
I guess I prefer to keep one foot on the ground so to speak. I think that. for me, the need for a physical connection or endpoint is crucial. There’s always a negotiation between accessibility and fidelity, but also scales of time. Maybe a truth that can be seen everywhere instantly has a power that comes at a price? I recently started writing physical letters to friends. I was struck by how different that form of communication feels.
There’s no instantaneous feedback or gratification of 'message read' that we’ve come to expect. Instead, a letter can take weeks to arrive and because of that delay, the things that you say and how you say them are completely different. They are a different kind of truth. Perhaps paintings are like letters in that way?

 

Your work to me feels very poetic. This is even more amplified in the works with the sentences on fabric banners wrapped around the shrouded object portrayed, often derived from love poems in various languages. The words imply a meaning towards the object, and so they add on another layer, which creates tension between word and matter. How would you define the relation between the word and the image in your work?

 

On one hand, the text serves an entirely graphic/spatial role. The characters are yet another pattern that can serve to define space through their distortion and a matrix for color but of course, there is meaning and poetry there too. In the work where I’ve used text in that way, I often used scripts other than Latin alphabets as a way to explore a range between the familiar and the foreign, between semantic and graphic/spatial meaning, and all the places in between.
For me, the use of Russian Cyrillic or Chinese Han characters allowed me to enjoy their formal beauty without being able to read them easily. That experience would of course be inverted for people on the other side. I incorporated texts by poets in their native scripts, which I was fond of through the translation of work by people like Anna Akhmatova and Li Qingzhao.
I also included my own writing from time to time. The text banners also had a historical origin. Looking at cloth banners of late 19th early 20th-century political campaigns and protests was inspiring. They were hand-painted like all signage then. I loved the typefaces used on abolitionist and suffrage banners among others. There was something about how the messages could become distorted, often unreadable by the draping or windblown fabric. There is still a lot there that I want to explore. Writing is an important part of my practice too, publishing not so much, so this use of text has found a way for that to come through I guess.

 

I’ve read that your work process is very technical. A process of morphing and undergoing a process of gradual transformation – adding layer upon layer. You use forward-thinking 3D digital technology, and, at the same time, you look at history and use very ancient Japanese hand-craftsmanship, like traditional woodblock printing or Katazome, a technique of making intricate patterns with stencils. This merging of the digital and the analogue is very intriguing to me. In a way, you marry two different worlds and paces. How important is it for you to preserve history and traditions, ancient craftsmanship, and at the same time pushing new digital techniques?

 

You know, you might be surprised to hear that I was initially very resistant to incorporating new technologies into my process. I think when I was younger, I had a kind of Marxist-like intuition in which I felt there was a danger in ceding control to technologies that I didn’t fully understand or have control over. Losing control of the means of production and all that... I still believe that in a way but now see it as a balance.
Even in traditional media such as paint, relatively simple innovations like synthetic pigments and factory-made paint tubes were in part what enabled the impressionists to do what they did. A generation later and many painters no longer knew how to make their own paint and became reliant on a manufacturer whose interests might not be aligned.
Nowadays, we are all at the mercy of software and programming gatekeepers. That played a big part in my desire to learn how to code. I don’t write code as much as I used to, but having that fluency is important to me.
If it’s just a matter of convenience I often try to do without technology. Making good work can be a complex undertaking, but the process or tools used need not be complicated. Again, with historical processes, I guess I see it as an evolutionary process where the origin is never completely lost. Make new friends but keep the old?

 

Contemporary works created with ancient, cultural techniques make us conscious of the malleability of the arts. Cultural appropriation is a very pressing notion in our current debate. What are your views on this? As you incorporate these ancient Japanese techniques in your paintings, do you feel the need to justify yourself in using these techniques? Is it important for you to look at your work critically, to have a dialogue regarding ethical questions?

There’s a lot to talk about there. The idea of appropriation can sometimes feel like a stumbling block because, in my view, there often seems to be a conflation between actual appropriation and something far more troubling. What we might call functional appropriation, or the constant flow of ideas, forms, and processes from one cultural context to another, is arguably how all culture comes to be and flourishes, but that’s not what we mean when we say cultural appropriation, is it?
Instead, it’s a type of cultural insensitivity that can cause a great deal of pain. On top of the insensitivity, there’s usually a claim of power which implies an idealized directionality of cultural flow, but how that hierarchy is defined or maintained gets murky quickly, so it's not as easy as we might like.

Exactly, it has to do with a certain hierarchy that has been imposed from Western cultures to non-Western ones. What else do you have to say about this?

Artists are like sponges, they absorb their surroundings effortlessly and that’s certainly been the case for me in Japan. The tools and techniques such as Katazome and Katagami stencil painting, which have informed my process, have been indispensable in developing the way I make paintings. Rather than a wholesale lifting and application of a historical process, it’s more like a process of filtration or a way of seeing. Parts of an old technique can illuminate a new way forward, where they become instrumental in developing new tools, rather.
I also believe that we make use of the resources we are afforded and within the constraints of our environment. If I hadn't been in Japan, I would have found a different way forward with different tools most likely.
There are different ways of seeing culture. You can see it as a 'what,' but I tend to see it as a 'how' as well. There are artifacts, but what makes them sacred or valuable is nothing intrinsic to them but everything else that surrounds them; the tradition, the ritual, the context, etc. In truth, it’s the irreducible interplay between the 'what' and the 'how,' between the artifact and the ritual that forms a reciprocal and hopefully sustainable pattern across time.
So, when thinking about appropriation, it helps to keep those aspects of culture in mind. Functional appropriation can be a positive force in sustaining that cultural pattern because it establishes precedent and extension. Maybe there’s a fear that too much can cause displacement, but I think it’s probably more complicated than that. Global economic and political forces are also factors. It’s all connected as usual.

 

What's your final verdict on this?

 

If you’re an artist and you are in doubt, ask yourself how well you know the culture and how invested you are in it. For me, Japan, in all likelihood, is where our children will grow up and while they may only be half Japanese genetically, culturally they will probably be more Japanese than American. So for me, the answer is pretty clear.
As an aside on critical thinking, it can be an incredibly useful tool but it's important to keep in mind that it is but one way of seeing, not 'the' way of seeing. It can help us to see how something is built but it may not always reveal why or how something works. Making the implicit explicit can be a destructive act at times.

 

How has your process been when getting to paint these shrouded subjects? What did you paint before and how did it develop towards where you are today?

Early on my interests seemed to shift back and forth between architectural spaces and clothing or 'apparel.' I’ve been watching The Crown so I have Winston Churchill on my mind I guess. I like his quote: "We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us." I think the same goes for our clothing and fashion. I’ve always had an interest in how these things relate to the human body and our experience.
After art school, I moved to New York and began working on paintings of underwater swimming pool scenes. I was struggling with them when a friend who had been working on video games suggested 3D modeling the pools before painting them. At first, I thought that it sounded like way too much work but with his encouragement I did.
I immediately realized how powerful it was to be able to have that virtual space as an intermediary between concept and physical painting. It allowed for possibilities that I couldn’t have anticipated. Since then, the tools I’ve used to create my work have continued to parallel those used for video game development. Eventually, I began using real-time physics simulation, character modeling and animation. Lately, I’ve been designing and making the patterns for all the clothing in my recent paintings and I love it. Thematically though, the human body and human experience, especially in relation to technology, remains central.

 

Your work is clearly influenced by living and working in both the United States as in Japan. As both countries are so different, how is the contrast between living and working in Tokyo compared to New York?

 

It makes for a highly dynamic experience going back and forth between Tokyo and New York precisely because they are such different places. It kind of drives a certain part of me; spending enough time in one makes me long for the other. Sometimes I feel like there are similar energy levels between the two places but the quality of the energy is so completely different. I love both for very different reasons.
For the time being, my studio in Japan is much smaller than in New York so I work differently but my ideas flow differently as well. A striking difference is also how I see color. The colors in Japan are totally different for me. The trains actually work in Tokyo which is very nice, but then sometimes I can strangely find myself longing for the dysfunction, chaos, and decay of NYC. We love to complain about our subway but love it too.
There is beauty in both, inefficiency in both places. I think the simplest way to describe it is through intentionality, where the diversity in NYC tends to stumble its way to being a great city while a more homogenous Tokyo takes a more measured pace. I love both.

 

Do you think it’s important to view yourself in the realm of art history? Is the baggage from history, the way the old masters painted, important for your perception of the painting process?

 

Yes and no. On one hand, there’s no limit to what can be learned by looking at the past. During the summer when the Met opened for the first time after Covid, my wife and I were walking through the galleries and I found myself totally floored. Maybe it was because it had been so long since I had been able to go to a museum but looking at portraits by John Singer Sargent and then Assyrian stone relief sculpture, there was a moment when all of human visual culture telescoped out and I could see it all in this beautifully brief 40,000-year glimpse.
I turned to my wife and said “People and Animals, that’s what we do.” because that’s what I was making in my studio at that moment too. So, at that moment I really did feel part of something both epically grand and so simple. That said there are also times that I feel like an alien, operating on an entirely different timeline and there is incredible freedom in that too.

 

Lastly, any dream residencies or fellowships you would like to pursue in the future?

 

Moonbase! But until then I’ve been dying to get the NSF Antarctic Artists & Writers Program.

 

Words

Lara Bongard

 

Photos

Satoko Nakagawa and Jason Wyche