MEDFORD, Mass. — Let’s start with “Emergency Weapons” (2002–17). This collection of pointy, gooey, hastily assembled objects originated out of a drill that artist Harry Dodge invented: Your government has been taken over by an angry mob that is particularly hostile to people like you. It’s past the point of taking to the streets to protest. The streets are now full of people who feel fully empowered to seek out and destroy people like you. You can hear them, they are coming down your street, and now trying to break down your front door. Look around you: What are your options for protecting yourself and your loved ones?
Entering the exhibition Works of Love with these weapons — an inadequate effort at self-defense in response to the passage of the 2001 Patriot Act, and myriad political events since — works well as a starting point for making sense of what Dodge is up to. Dodge is up to a lot, but these small-scale, holdable pieces tell a big piece of the story immediately: everything is implicated. Politics and Play Doh™ are interconnected.
And in fact, the use of Play Doh™ — and play in general — is key to the work presented here at the Tufts University Art Gallery. There is Play Doh™ and there are masks; Dodge wears a smiling cardboard box on his head in “Big Bang (Song of the Cosmic Hobo)” (2016). And in “Mysterious Fires (2016),” Cay Castagnetto sticks fingers in the ears of a rubber mask and wiggles them around to make it look trippy and ridiculous while saying very serious things. These details, and the inescapable fact that “Fuck Me/Who’s Sorry Now,” “In This Hole/Honey Bucket,” and “Sickly Abstractions/Original Concrete” (all 2015) look like cousins of SpongeBob SquarePants™, are all key here.
Play is of the essence in this work because it’s a discovery tool. How do you find the edges of sense except through play?
Though there is explicit theory embedded in much of Dodge’s work, overall, the work is consistently playful enough to be enjoyed without having to bone up on your Donna Haraway or quantum mechanics.
Love is equally a tool for discovery.
“Martin Luther King,” says Dodge in “Love Streams” (2015), “says we should [all] be lovestruck by one another. Do you believe in love?”
Assuming you do, Dodge’s work implies that you’ll eventually have to rethink love formally in order to reconcile technology and humanity.
The sculptural forms, drawings, and stenciled works — despite sometimes having hypermodern colors or surfaces — are ultimately more industrial-feeling than ‘high tech.’ But they, in their variety and juxtapositions, open up a discussion of marriages (the unlikely kind, not the kind that industries are built on), between matter of all kinds, and flesh of all kinds, and thoughts of all kinds, and sounds and smells of all kinds — and you, if you are lovestruck enough. Can you be lovestruck by data? Can you be lovestruck by charcoal? Because in many ways, that is the nature of the question being posed.
There is a whiff of utopia here, but it’s unclear whether it is sarcastic or sincere. Luckily, there’s an out to the dilemma which involves going back to your earliest childhood days when you had no trouble being friends with a wall or a chair or a dog or a neighbor.
In that vein, objects from Dodge’s internal landscape comfortably speak their minds, opening up dialogues about subjects ranging from assholes to determinism.
A conversation between two ice creams (dropped on the ground) sum up the show’s main subtheme in “Form is Also Flow” (2018). “I always feel that I’ve just been born into an endlessly new world,” says dropped melted cone to dropped melted popsicle.
If “Pure Shit Hotdog Cake” (2017) could answer, it would surely say, “you and me both buddy, you and me both.”
Dodge is a complicated artist to make sense of. And in particular, he is especially difficult to make sense of for those rooted in an East Coast mentality. The esthetics, themes, and approaches feel decidedly West Coast — to be blunt, a little more psychedelically influenced than their East Coast equivalents — but the tensions and resolutions are, in the end, fairly universal.
These drippy, angular objects, drawings, and videos all imply that if there is an effective weapon against politically enabled mobs or the virtual gone awry, it won’t target them defensively but rather engage them as a fully dispersed lover.
Works of Love: Harry Dodge continues at the Tisch Family Gallery at the Tufts University Art Gallery (40 Talbot Ave, Medford, Mass.) through April 14.