by Tim Gilmore, 1/22/2017
A light breeze sifts through the soft percussion of rain outside the rolled up metal bay doors on the old industrial cave. A freight train rumbles the tracks at slight angles to the warehouse. The sculptor leans back in a chair behind a large drafting table, stone faced, and smokes a cigarette.
Dolf James is the architect of many of the strangest and most mysterious places in the city. Sometimes these places are lost inside others, or frozen at the single metamorphic moment they exist before flying apart or crashing, or almost inaccessibly afloat off some odd angle of a lost room. Someone should map Dolf James’s Jacksonville.
This cement-block and masonry industrial building, where matchbooks were manufactured in the 1920s, is exactly the kind of studio Dolf had always wanted.
Across a series of burnished interlocking metal rectangles and key shapes, he looks up from the inclined angle of his face, and says, “It was wide open, empty and spooky, and it was a place you couldn’t hurt.”
In 2011, Dolf had outgrown his storefront studio at Park and King Streets, and developer Mac Easton showed him the space where he’d soon forge enormous aluminum systems of chaotic poise and solid “constructs” of interrelated frames.
He’s a different sculptor than he was when he opened the first studio in the main warehouse complex of CoRK Arts District, “Corner of Rosselle and King” Streets, the creative home now to dozens of artists.
Not only do people inhabit places, but places work and reside in people. The haunting works both ways. Dolf’s Rosselle Street studio dictated through him a new art. Here, fused interlocked points allow metal cubes to float off walls. Chairs merge at angles in the air with building supports and solid black boxes. From the beams in the ceiling, wooden cubes and columns billow out from each other in frozen pyrocumulus.
Dolf believes that artists are creating even when they don’t know it, and he believes the place where an artist creates influences and enters the work. So perhaps he began working on his oddly lyrical geometries of chaos when he was six or seven years old.
That’s when his parents moved into the first completed house in a new subdivision outside Washington, D.C. When construction work was halted, the streets of unfinished houses introduced themselves to the imaginative first grader as a ghost town playground. He wandered these changing geometric forms, at times had them all to himself.
Other boys played with Erector Sets, those toy metal construction systems fitted with pulleys, gears, and electric motors that came in wooden boxes. Dolf leans back in his chair and smiles, the benign god of his own clockwork universe, and says, “The neighborhood was my Erector Set.”
On a foggy January morning, Dolf approaches the varnished and earth-pigmented wood panels he calls “Resolution,” having resolved some conundrum in his head overnight. His creativity often works this way, without his own conscious presence.
The resolution in these two-dimensional pieces works back and forth, he says, “between structure and chaos, decay and rebirth, status quo and rebellion. It’s about these relationships. One term means nothing and can’t exist without the other.”
His other “constructs” and larger metal sculptures, when not untitled, bear names like “Cusp,” “Trap,” and “Embrace,” thought processes frozen in variations. The Cusp sculptures might be explosions of doors, windows, and wall frames suspended in snapshot and balanced.
Dolf’s geometries find a delicate equipoise mid-Big Bang. They’re as gentle as they are strong.
“Cusp,” Dolf says, “is where I’d like to be all the time. It’s the wave that’s coming in and it’s just about to crash, but it stays, it hangs right there.”
Some of his balanced explosions resemble parking-lot sodium-arc lights bent and mangled together. In the two-dimensional “Resolution” series, streets of caged windows and lonely rooms blur amidst a metamorphosis that will never complete itself.
Outside those lost rooms stand constellations of door keys. He hadn’t originally seen these shapes as keys, Dolf says, but came to understand them as such. Whatever doors they would once have unlocked, they lean into and off each other now in chaotic assemblages that shouldn’t have the equilibrium they do. But even in randomness dwells miracle and pattern inhabits disorder. A small child who discovers he’s wandering through mazes of unfinished frames will, if he’s lucky, never find his way out of them.