James Dodd: Text Heavy - Art Collector

Issue 48, April - June 2009

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James Dodd’s interest in street art goes beyond mere cultural appropriation. Instead, he uses graffiti to show us a version of Australia that has been tagged, scribbled and scrawled on the surfaces of our public spaces writes Edward Colless.

We sometimes fail to notice it, but graffiti messages continuously appear around us – stencilled onto alley walls or sprayed in calligraphic glyphs on urban underpasses and warehouse walls, of course, but also etched into school desks, scribbled on toilet doors, doodled into the margins of diaries and boardroom agendas.

It’s as much the commotion of the unconscious, released through idleness or boredom or distraction as it is of consciously articulate political passion, or of anarchistic comedy and abreactive rage. And – don’t forget – it’s also the idiom of narcissistic posturing and sexual or racial insult.

In reality, graffiti is hardly an activity specific to, or even exemplified by, the street, just as it’s simplistic to reduce it to the outlaw eruptions, guerrilla pace and urgent emotionalism of youth culture. But it is as an art of the street – at least of the breaches and lulls in urban consumer signage – that graffiti has gained its current cultural accreditation. And it is as the expression of marginalised, disenfranchised but disobedient youth that it has gained prestige value as a contestation of the streetscape of commodity capitalism.

There’s no disputing that James Dodd’s art owes it credentials and its enthusiasm to this genre of street-level situationism that celebrates the idiosyncratic signatures of subjectivities roaming the less domesticated zones of the public sphere. As an artistic native of these places, he animatedly exercises both the stylistics (witty, pugnacious) and the earnest political intonations (self-congratulatory as well as rebellious) of street art. Osama bin Laden flips the finger in a silvery stencilled portrait while John Howard wags his like an accusing parent. An anonymous desert soldier in camouflage flourishes his fingers in an exuberant salute.

Dodd evidently relishes the popist glare of blunt, defamatory, in-your-face jibes. But also, from his earlier work showcased for instance in the 2002 Primavera at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art and at GRANTPIRRIE in 2003, he has been fascinated by both the physical transience and weathering of street art as well as its equally lingering obscurity and esoteric edge. Photographing tags, text murals, stickers, slogans, emblems, emoticons with an ethnological interest in regional juvenilia and graphic dialect that matches his aesthetic passion, Dodd collages these scraps into intricately verbose palimpsests that seem to channel a hysterical multitude of voices from desolate public transit zones.

Graffiti artists these days – those with felt-tip pen and aerosol can, at any rate – prefer calling their work “writing”. When Dodd transposes this often cryptic script of renegade social networking onto his gallery walls, onto his canvases or reconstructed hutches (such as his lushly defaced replica of a Darwin bus shelter, shown in the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art’s Optimism exhibition last year) he reforms the writing (the off-hand slogans, the invective) into flamboyant drawing. Dodd’s graffiti is a facsimile of these arcane if vulgar texts, but a bustling and exaggerated one, like a disorderly sort of décor, an ornamentation that carries the sentimentality of a tattoo gone past its prime (a gesture to a love long lost or to a momentary urge).

In a way too, Dodd’s art is starting to even resemble the cave walls of Lascaux; not the actual prehistoric caves whose graffiti is now sealed off from public gaze, but the brilliant duplicate that signals the inaccessibility and invisibility, even the magical obscenity, of the original.

This quarter James Dodd will be showing with Ryan Renshaw Gallery in Brisbane from 7 to 25 April 2009 and Lindberg Contemporary in Melbourne from 23 May to 17 June 2009. His work also appears in the group exhibition Cryptophilistinism, touring to Hobart’s CAST Gallery from 12 June to 5 July 2009, and 24HR Art in Darwin will present the work Sunset Dreaming from 8 May to 13 June 2009.

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