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For Art's Sake: Men and Machines

PUBLISHED: 12:01 22 December 2010 | UPDATED: 18:20 20 February 2013

For Art's Sake: Men and Machines

For Art's Sake: Men and Machines

Torquay artist John Dodson celebrate man's inventiveness and the beauty of machines in paint, writes Jenny Pery

For something completely different and a contrast to the ubiquitous paintings of rolling countryside, it is worth looking at the mesmeric urban landscapes of John Dodson. Dodsons densely patterned compositions of men in their workplace celebrate the unusual beauty of machines and factory buildings, as well as the sober dignity of labour in heavy industry.


In his series of richly worked paintings, pensive foremen take breaks or stand guard in front of intricate backgrounds of smoking chimneys and banks of machine tools. In his still-life paintings, bunches of tools have the dramatic appearance of characters on a stage. Even his occasional landscapes include something man-made... a tractor, a building, a gate. Dodsons main subject matter focuses on mans inventiveness and the amazingly complex structures he is able to create.


Twenty years ago John Dodson came to live in Devon in order to spend his time painting. For the previous 30 years he had worked as an artistic and creative director in some of Londons top advertising agencies. Born in London, he was an exact contemporary at school with the painter Robert Lenkiewicz. When Lenkiewicz went to St Martins School of Art, their paths diverged and Dodson enrolled, at the age of 16, in the London School of Printing, to train as a graphic designer under the charismatic influence of tutors George Adams and Tom Eckersley, famous for his fine posters.


At school Dodson had excelled at art and had won a prize in the Sunday Pictorial newspapers National Childrens Art competition. When he opted for Graphic Design, his English teacher complained that he was prostituting his Art. Graphic design, however, offered sure employment, and he enjoyed the work, with its communal brainstorming and the excitement of working to a deadline. He was an Artistic Director at Mather and Crowther when Fay Weldon and Salman Rushdie worked there, in the days when the writers and art designers worked on separate floors, with messengers rushing between the two.


Dodson headed up numerous advertising campaigns but kept his own art going, always drawing his own storyboards and presentations. When he quit advertising, he knew that he wanted to paint, but having always worked to a brief, he had no idea what image to start with. It was his wife who kick-started his painting career by setting him his first brief: to create a pastiche of an image by Tamara de Lempicka, society painter of the Roaring Twenties. He then turned to the boys world of his imagination and began the long series of industrial landscapes on which he is still working.


An elderly visitor in a flat cap carefully studied one of Dodsons paintings and after some time announced that machinery will never work


The discipline of the advertising world has not left him, however, and for at least four days a week, from 10am-5pm, he shuts himself in his Torquay studio with Radio Four for company. He usually works on three paintings at once, taking about three months to complete each trio.
Like many graphic designers, John Dodson is an avid collector of ephemeralimagery photographs, postcards, posters and he still possesses all the Wonder Books for Boys, full of excellent photographs of motors and machinery, that he was given as a child. Although he himself had never experienced factory labour, machinery has always fascinated him and for a while he owned a couple of old cars that he worked on in his spare time.


The pioneering documentary films of John Grierson (Night Mail, The Coal Face, The Engine Shed) focusing on the everyday drama of ordinary people, were a major source of inspiration. The Futurist/Machine Age art of the painter CRW Nevinson was also an important influence.
Picking his images from many different sources, Dodsons pictures are complete inventions that are nevertheless based on accurately observed facts. He was delighted when, at his solo exhibition at the Burton Art Gallery in Bideford, an elderly visitor in a flat cap carefully studied one of his paintings and after some time announced that machinery will never work.


Dodsons paintings are subdued in colour, and he has a preference for dark greys and smoky-reds to represent the grimy industrial North. Despite the fact that he now lives happily in the clear light of South Devon, he finds the surrounding countryside a bit too green. The semi-Cubist organisation of his compositions, with their broken planes and rhythmic patterning, recall the Vorticist art of the early 20th century, and with their haunting sobriety invoke a nostalgia for former, more serious, times.


John Dodson is a member of the 21 Group of Artists, and his work can be seen in the groups regular exhibitions.

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