Epics of the everyday: Pamela Dodds at Suite 215
A contemporary filmmaker has about 30 images per second with which to tell her story. A painter has only what she can fit into the canvas. Therefore, most paintings are not narratives per se. Even when mythological, historic, or pop cultural figures are recognizable in painting, the meaning of the painting is more than just the story of the depicted characters. They point both towards specific persons and archetypes, emotions, and common experiences. Mary in a pieta can be both a revered biblical figure and a living embodiment of grief. A portrait of St. Anthony infested by demons is both hagiography for a particular holy hermit and a general representation of Christian resistance to temptation.
Pamela Dodds’ exhibit Something I Want to Tell You, now hanging at Suite 215, features narrative paintings. The scenes and figures on any one canvas are not obviously related to the scene sand figures on any other. Her canvases are large. Promotional materials for the exhibit describe her paintings as “life-sized.” They range from 54×72” to 70×94”. However, it doesn’t feel like Dodds is cheating, using an expansive space to cram in as many storytelling details as possible. With one exception, she does not even use her big canvases to give grandeur to intense emotion or bold bodily exertions. Rather, scale is used to magnify the importance of everyday interactions. Many of the encounters she depicts involve relationships complicated by racial, gender, and age differences. The scenarios Dodds paints sometimes involve as few as two individuals. Even in such small-scale interactions, she is able to represent important dynamics of modern life.
In “Dusk,” a young black man stares ahead while walking on a nighttime sidewalk. Behind him, a blonde woman is illuminated by a streetlamp. Walking away from the man, she turns her head with worry, and clutches her purse. The man’s mouth is flat, his eyes locked stridently ahead, pointing away from the woman. By fixing his eyes forward, he also invites the audience to make eye contact—to see him not as a threat, but as scared and frustrated, as someone making a conspicuous display of not looking at the woman who fears him. She doesn’t need to clutch her purse, he tells us; and she is not the first person to shrink from his presence. The neighborhood they walk through is residential. There are houses, trees, and spiky black iron fences. Given that they are walking in the same community at nightfall, the man and the woman are probably neighbors. But they do not know or trust each other. The woman fears the man; the man fears the quick and terrible violence the woman’s fear might call down on him.
Dodds does not need a high-strung emotion like fear to make a poignant image. “Neighbors” also addresses the breakdown of American neighborly affection. The painting depicts two women on the porches of their respective suburban homes. One tends her hanging garden; the other sits on lawn furniture and reads the newspaper. (And it is a newspaper. “Neighbors” was painted in 1997, a few years before the bulk of periodical readership began moving online. The painting is one of the earliest in in Something I Want to Tell You. Most were made between 2006 and 2007.) The reader’s back is turned to her neighbor; but she has turned her head to watch the gardener for a moment. Most likely, she is only looking in response to unexpected sounds, or to a glimpse of motion in the corner of her eye. A gust of wind or hopping squirrel would have elicited the same response. She does not wave, shout a greeting, or rise from her chair and take a leisurely visit next door. The gardener does not even know she has been seen. Like so many suburbs, the community of these two women is defined not by bonds of affinity, but geography and tax jurisdiction.
Another oblivious neighbor appears in “Morning Coffee,” mowing his lawn. He is visible through an open door in the kitchen which is this painting’s foreground. In here, two coiled stovetops glow orange. A barefoot woman clasps a man’s left arm. Her open, grimacing mouth pleads. The man’s right arm is raised, the palm open. He will slap the woman, or swat the air as if to sweep away the whole scene, her included. Two untouched mugs sit on the table.
Yet there is also tenderness in Dodds’ paintings. In “Bath,” a woman holds a nude elderly man’s arm as he cautiously lowers himself into a tub. The woman appears to be his daughter, or another family member. In a mirror to the woman’s right, a nurse in scrubs can be seen watching cautiously from the bathroom doorway. Under the nurse’s supervision, the woman is learning to take care of the vulnerable old man. The spaciousness of the bathroom implies it is not in a hospital or nursing home. The woman is helping the old man live in his own home.
Dodds plays special attention to children, especially those just beginning puberty. In “Reflections,” a son’s image is mirrored in several emptied bottles. He is reflected while draping a blanket over his unconscious father. In “Showing,” a girl stares at her exposed midriff in her bedroom mirror. A picture of her and a taller boy hangs on her wall. Over her bed, a poster of birds perched on branches looks tellingly like a genealogical tree.
Though her paintings repeatedly depict populations who are vulnerable because of their age, gender, or race, Dodds’ overriding concern is not necessarily ageism, sexism, or racism. She does directly and forcefully address these topics, but does so in the service of a more general interest in vulnerability. Even comfortable suburbanites are made harmed by alienation, loneliness, and social distrust. Privilege can insulate us from many harms, but we all remain mortal.
Something I Want to Tell You–Big Paintings by Pamela Dodds is currently hanging at 78th St. Studios’ Suite 215 gallery. Currently, it is scheduled to remain up through May 15. Viewers can also take a digital tour on the artist’s website.
Special thanks to Pamela Dodds and Carrie Paveglio.