Isle of Detritus: Jason Dodge’s Poignant Flotsam and Jetsam

Three lenses jut from each of four old-school red/green/blue projectors aligned across the floor of the gallery — howitzers of dead light


As I meandered around and around Jason Dodge’s latest…show?…installation?…environment?… 3-D poem?…notions and emotions ebbed and flowed. The cast-off objects Dodge has scattered throughout Casey Kaplan gallery impart a pervasive melancholy, flotsam and jetsam evoking the strandline between beach and sea. At some point my unconscious summoned Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead, a symphonic poem from 1908 that begins with slow bass rumbles reminiscent of gentle waves or steady oar strokes. Rachmaninoff — described by Igor Stravinsky as “six feet two inches of Russian gloom” — had been inspired to write his elegiac opus after seeing a black-and-white print of a painting by the Swiss symbolist Arnold Böcklin. There is nothing in Dodge’s show as blatantly dramatic as Böcklin’s white-shrouded figure standing watch over a coffin in a rowboat as it approaches a small island surrounded by darkly reflective waters. But the mood Dodge achieves and his off-kilter colors do recall the twilit blues, sunset umbers, and crepuscular greens Böcklin used in the five Isle of the Dead variations he painted between 1880 and 1886. (The monochrome prints from the paintings offered masses of voluptuous grays and midnight blacks highlighted with sepulchral whites; they were so popular in turn-of-the-century Germany that Vladimir Nabokov wrote in his novel Despair that they could be “found in every Berlin home.”)

Dodge, who was born in 1969, in Newtown, Pennsylvania, has lived and worked in Berlin since 2003. He is of that wing of sculptors who, over the past century or so, have eschewed creating objects (think of Giacometti clawing at clay as he searched out his attenuated figures, or Richard Serra fabricating space-torqueing steel slabs) to instead transform the workaday into singular revelations. Where a contemporary artist such as B. Wurtz might repurpose plastic shopping bags into compelling (and often funny) sculptures that reveal unexpected beauty in our throwaway culture, Dodge aims at a broader aura, a target that, by definition, can never be hit.

In his current show, clusters of dead bees have been distributed throughout the four sections of the gallery. A loose-knit, off-white blouse lies atop a washed-out blue bathroom scale, which registers zero weight. Brightly colored electrical wires, cut to uselessness, lie like an ersatz bouquet upon the forlorn garment. More wires are jumbled inside a wicker basket, part of a tableau on the floor that also includes foam-rubber padding mottled in muted colors and a cardboard box containing, among other detritus, a wood-handled knife, dull rock crystals, and yellow aviator shades. There are a few bills and coins squirreled away in a defunct cash register nearby, but what to make of the red thumbtacks, blue batteries, and wishbones also reposing in the segmented drawer? What to make, for that matter, of the show’s lowercase title: “hand in hand with the handless”? (There are no titles or material listings for the assemblages on display.) Cheap metal-tube chairs have been set throughout the space, but you wouldn’t want to sit on any of them because they are generally missing a leg, and the remaining feet rest on nondescript drinking glasses, while the chairs’ backs and armrests are twisted into crippled tangles. In a lyrical variation, heavy claw-footed wooden legs, perhaps from an antique table, lie about, one wrapped in bulging plastic like a Brobdingnagian drumstick. Eventually the show starts to glow with something stronger than melancholy. A determination to persevere arises. Dodge’s chairs are nothing if not resolved to just go on, to persist, to exalt in their prosaic levitation.

At various points in the gallery Dodge has applied a few quick brushstrokes of glossy paint on the matte walls, leaving something like a high-tide line. A group of heavy-gauge clear plastic pipes, somewhat soiled and lashed together with a salmon-hued strap, stand upright on the floor. At roughly head level, an angled section of pipe protrudes like a snorkel left high and dry by the receding deluge of Dodge’s imagination. These tubes are roughly five or six inches in diameter, a size similar to that of the three lenses that jut from each of four old-school red/green/blue projectors aligned across the floor in a side gallery — howitzers of dead light. The housings are open to expose circuit boards, cables, fuses, and other electronic entrails. Wires dangle and power cords are absent, ending the machines’ mission of casting glowing images onto walls. And yet, with their big dark eyes keeping their own counsel, they seem as determined as the mangled chairs to press on — blind optimists as it were. Even the sightless, Dodge’s derelict projectors imply, can help us see.

Such perceptive agglomerations can drift into your consciousness after the fact, like a half-forgotten melody. When, a week later, I watched the World Cup final and saw, along with maybe a billion other folks, a Croatian defender accidentally touch the ball with his hand — a transgression that cost his team dearly — I thought of the title of Dodge’s show, and of those abject legs scattered across the gallery’s concrete floor. Although they seem the antithesis of the explosive grace inherent to world-class soccer players, Dodge’s battered limbs achieve a nimble animation, conjuring agile conceptual and aesthetic leaps across the gallery. One mangled chair supports mysterious bulges wrapped in a saffron sheet cinched with dead computer cables; another, beneath a salmon-colored drape, rises on its glass toes like a tri-legged ballerina en pointe.

When protesters ran onto the pitch during the World Cup, I thought, “C’mon, can’t I enjoy this great game without a friggin’ demonstration?” But of course, the game was being played in Russia, the sinkhole of our current politics. And when I heard later that the demonstrators were members of the Russian dissident rock group Pussy Riot, I thought, “What guts they have! Unbelievable!” They were dressed as police officers, and after they were sentenced to fifteen days in jail (would it have been much worse if the world had not been watching?), they released a statement inspired by the dissident poet Dmitri Aleksandrovich Prigov, which read, in part:

The heavenly policeman, according to Prigov, talks on the two-way with the God Himself. The earthly policeman gets ready to disperse rallies. The heavenly policeman gently touches a flower in a field and enjoys Russian football team victories, while the earthly policeman feels indifferent to Oleg Sentsov’s hunger strike. The heavenly policeman rises as an example of the nationhood, the earthly policeman hurts everyone.

The ambience Dodge achieves by reanimating mundane objects can send the mind wandering through exactly those poetical realms between heaven and earth, territory once traversed by the poet-painter William Blake. In fact, since 2012, through his “Fivehundred places” project, Dodge has published a wide range of poets, stating, “I try to deal with the space of the book and the pages in a way that poems are on them as things in a space, even sometimes shifting the orientation of the page as to not interfere with line breaks as they are written.” This might also be a brief for one of his exhibitions, where congregations of objects find the precise places where they can best relate and interact. And just as elements of his show came into my mind while I watched a soccer match, the righteous audacity of protestors seeking to convey their message by any means available brought to mind the goal Dodge seeks for each chapbook he publishes: “With a single printing of 500 copies, each book will find itself in one of 500 places.”

This is similar to the ripples the prints of Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead sent out into the world. The painter said that he had wanted to create “a dream picture: It must produce such a stillness that one would be awed by a knock on the door.” He certainly hit that nerve, with the public and with other artists. Sometime after Rachmaninoff finished his musical homage to one of those reproductions, he finally saw one of Böcklin’s actual paintings. Upon reflection, he stated, “If I had seen first the original, I, probably, would have not written my Isle of the Dead. I like it in black and white.” In an age of bullying speed and overstimulation, Dodge is a master at getting us to stand still for a bit, to look about and maybe find meaning and beauty among abject objects.

‘Jason Dodge: hand in hand with the handless’
Casey Kaplan
121 West 27th Street
Through July 27

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 20, 2018