“Certain acts dazzle us and light up blurred surfaces if our eyes are keen enough to see them in a flash, for the beauty of a living thing can be grasped only fleetingly. To pursue it during its changes leads us inevitably to the moment when it ceases, for it cannot last a lifetime. And to analyze it, that is, to pursue it in a time with the sight and imagination, is to view it in its decline, for after the thrilling moment in which it reveals itself it diminishes with intensity.” —Jean Genet, Miracle of the Rose (1946)
When I first encountered the work of Jim Hodges in 1995, in a small art space in Los Angeles, it was a visceral experience, characterized by heightened awareness and nostalgia. It was spring, and the sun that day was especially bright. My eyes adjusted as I passed through the front door, which had been left propped open to invite a casual wind. Upon entering, I was transfixed by a translucent blanket of fabric billowing above the floor–a patchwork grid of sheer silk scarves in a plenitude of colors tacked on the wall. I was instantly assaulted by a flood of childhood memories, transported to carefree afternoons when I would come home from grade school and frolic blithely around the house, rifling through my mother’s bedroom drawers, pulling out a seemingly endless array of scarves, tying them together, and wrapping my hair in front of the mirror. Now, standing before Hodges’s piece, I could almost smell my mother’s perfume wafting from the silken mesh. Each of the graphic patterns in this unlikely quilt evoked its own specific recollections of childhood and its promises. I felt an inexorable familiarity and identification with these materials, as well as a palpable sensation of rupture and loss. Hodges’s wall sculpture, aptly titled Here’s where we will stay (1995), did invoke a feeling in me that time had been arrested. There was a slowing down, a delay in my perception that is difficult to describe and, perhaps, was more akin to the experience of reading a moving piece of poetry, watching fireworks, or having a deep connection with music. All the elements were present that I associate with these kinds of transitory events: anticipation, discovery, elation, lament, euphoria, and, ultimately, catharsis.
Taking stock of temporal, fleeting moments of everyday life and experience, Hodges approaches art making from a decidedly humanist perspective. Inspired by nature and the potency of memory, his practice is guided by a keen sensitivity to materials and a process that mines quotidian forms and objects for their emotive potential. His art is also shaped by a strong political conscience and a personal ethic devoted to freedom and social justice. The result is a mesmerizingly diverse body of work that has both eluded and confounded art critics since the 1990s for its refreshing authenticity, its embrace of notions such as beauty, generosity, and craft, and its slippery resistance to polemic. Indeed, throughout his career, Hodges has been less concerned than many of his peers with engaging in art historical theory or in debates around institutional and cultural critique. He was never consumed by the legacies of painting or the histories of Conceptual art and Minimalism that shaped the trajectories of many artists of his generation. His art, by contrast, finds more meaningful reference in the history of American literature, from Walt Whitman to William Carlos Williams and T. S. Eliot, than it does in the history of art. Indeed, some of the most insightful writing on the artist to date has been penned by literary authors, most notably Colm Tóibín and Lynne Tillman. These individuals come closest to capturing Hodges’s singular practice.
It is thus not surprising that the terms employed by literary critics to describe an author’s methods and style–narrative, character, metaphor, allegory, elegy, allusion, and metonymy–seem more apt in framing a deeper, more critical understanding of both Hodges’s art, in all its nuances, and its reception. Traditional corollaries around the interpretation of art—with their focus on artistic biography and creative process, critical theory and philosophy, a work’s place within the history of art, and the sociopolitical context of its making–are useful, but they are limited in their ability to convincingly articulate the significance of a practice that is layered, poetic, and equivocal. Hodges’s own use of language in his titles serves to introduce and suggest potential meanings as he seeks to foreground the dualities of our existence and to manifest the threshold spaces in between. Titles such as Here’s where we will stay, here it comes, and On We Go all reinforce the notion of slowing down, of stopping and discovering, or of passing through disjunctive moments that lead to deeper consciousness and heightened awareness.
Hodges achieves this result through a subtlety of means and a modesty of gesture. His art involves quite simple acts: assembly, disassembly, folding, unfolding, repositioning, recontextualizing, and establishing striking juxtaposition. These gestures effectively “freeze,” diagram, extend, or expose complex human feelings associated with and/or embedded in objects and materials. Whether the artist is creating a monumental outdoor sculpture using stone and steel or making a piece of delicate visual poetry like that shimmering scrim of fabric fluttering on the wall, his alchemy profoundly transforms rather ordinary materials and temporal artifacts of culture into extraordinary objects of reflection and contemplation. In his hands, they become poetic ruminations on life and the fragile nature of our existence. As Tillman notes, Hodges’s work “revels in and unearths the significance of pastness, of what’s gone, lost, what’s left, discarded literally, or stuck in memory; then, through a work, he claims it–for now.”
As I would come to learn many years after my first encounter with Here’s where we will stay, scarves conjured similar childhood associations for the artist. The work was a paean to his mother and his great-grandmother, who taught him to sew and cultivated in him a certain sensitivity to space, to the slow and methodical nature of process in craft, and to materials—a sensibility that has distinguished his practice from the beginning. Since the late 1980s, Hodges has transformed an array of commonplace materials and objects–napkins, silk flowers, mirrors, shopping bags, chains, decals, sheet music, lightbulbs, boulders, and words–to make a diverse, expansive body of work that is not easily classifiable. He considers himself both a draftsman and a maker of objects, and these two modalities are perhaps best described, as the artist has done, as forms of record-making and notation.
Some of Hodges’s earliest works of the late 1980s and early 1990s consist of “un-monumental” objects that are, for him, monuments of a different order: poignant markers of time that address varying issues of identity, its masking and unmasking, and a growing sense of tragedy and loss. At the same time, their loose assembly and configuration in space allow them to retain the
immediacy of a sketch or line drawing. In Good Luck (1987), for example, he unraveled the threads from the edges of a ski mask and then stretched and pinned it across the corner of a room to reconfigure its inherent facial features. Similarly, in Deformed (1989), he cut open a floral-print Bonwit Teller shopping bag and flattened it to reveal its design structure and composition. In Arranged (1996), he curled over the pages of a book to project a two-dimensional arrangement of flowers (on the printed page) into a three-dimensional standing object. In an ongoing series from the early 1990s, he extended these gestures into more literal “drawings” in space by linking metal chains into intricate networks of cobwebs, which he arrayed in clusters on walls or draped in doorways, closets, and passageways. At times he would commingle these man-made webs with personal effects, including his shoes and jeans, as in what’s left (1992), conjuring an array of possible narratives through their simple juxtaposition. Tillman describes how what’s left inspires a need in her to figure out the story: “I could write a short story. I want to know: where’s the body? who wore those jeans? A person, a man, must have hurriedly undressed–for sex, for a shower, he was late, had to change fast, for a party, a tryst, or a funeral. No, he committed suicide–but this happened a while ago, because the web is elaborate, woven over time…. It’s like the brain, whose cells renew and whose neurons generate startling and complex links and relationships.”
In A Diary of Flowers, a series from the early 1990s that brought the artist his first critical acclaim, Hodges’s adoption of literary forms, such as elegy and metaphor, found even greater expression. These works were born of straightforward, ritualistic acts of drawing each day on coffeehouse napkins. Over time, the artist’s accumulated “doodles” would be assembled into cloudlike clusters or groupings, ranging from 8 to 576, which served as elegiac markers, memorializing friends and other individuals, many of whom were lost during the height of the AIDS crisis. In a related series of “saliva drawings,” Hodges transferred small ballpoint-pen drawings of flowers onto other sheets of paper using his saliva. This bodily act of transfer and agency was a response to cultural attitudes about AIDS and its transmission in the early years of the pandemic. And though the artist generally resists such narrow, identity-oriented readings of his art, preferring to emphasize its broader communicative potential, Hodges’s works of this period were no doubt informed by these stark realities, which he transcribed through subtle, evocative gestures of mourning and memorial.
Transcribing aspects of life experience and giving sculptural or graphic form to shared human emotions became central to Hodges’s art throughout the 1990s. In He and I (1998), he captured the poetry of a powerful romantic union by rendering two large intersecting circles of lines on a wall; each was drawn in a different color selected by the person in question. Metaphor continued to be another potent tool as his expressions took more direct sculptural form. In Landscape (1998), he nested successive sizes of fifteen men’s and boys’ shirts, one into the other, and laid the assembled “body” with its arms extended on a simple wooden table. A self-portrait of sorts, the handmade object conjures myriad associations related to time, daily acts of ritual, aging and maturing, familial legacy, and generational continuity.
Even as the scale and construction methods of his works became more ambitious throughout the 2000s, the subtlety of gesture that has always distinguished his art never diminished. To make Untitled (Love) (2000–2001), he took apart and then recollaged a musical score. Picturing That Day (2002) also uses sheet music, but here the large-scale collage creates a synesthetic association between sound and color. Through such gesture-laden processes, Hodges loads complex human nuance and content into spare, poetic objects that he has imbued with mystery and metaphor. In Untitled (It’s already happened) (2004) and Just this (the end) (2010), for example, he evokes the seasonal effects of nature through the most modest of means. In these two photographic prints of trees, the paper is cut and alternatively loosened from the front, in the former, and from behind, in the latter, to suggest the cascading effect of falling leaves and their ultimate disintegration.
A modest wall sculpture rendered fully in glass, a view from in here (2003), depicts a tree branch with a fragile bird’s nest. As one ponders the hovering form, which protrudes directly from the wall in three dimensions, one focuses first on the craft and mastery involved in making this delicate glass object with its painstakingly articulated leaves and twigs. The saccharine tones of the greens and pinks that adorn the branch and the blue of the tiny robin’s egg located at the nest’s center are surprising. Hodges’s sentimental image of childhood innocence, redolent with familiar platitudes and “cuteness,” is, however, quickly shattered by the sight of the ominous legs of a black widow spider looming at the base of the nest. Here Hodges has given quite literal form to an array of childhood fears and monsters, and to the potent dualities that his works often foreground: beauty and ugliness, fragility and permanence, elegance and kitsch.
The subtle gestures that Hodges enacts privilege human intimacy and the natural world, and often seek to find what is epic in the most mundane. In Untitled (2011), now sited on the campus of the Walker Art Center, he transformed four massive granite boulders into striking contemporary objects by applying a sheen of molten, colored stainless steel to their surfaces, literally fusing metal and rock through a complex process of casting and inlaying. Displaced from a forest in western Massachusetts, the boulders had been deposited there by ancient glacial movements. By placing them in a circle, with their finish-fetish metal surfaces in high-key colors facing in, Hodges orchestrated a dynamic interplay of reflection and light. The arrangement also suggests ancient monuments such as Stonehenge and other markers of civilization that attest to humanity’s persistence and insistence. The boulders carry another, personal, meaning for the artist related to his 2011 travels in India, where he observed the ritualistic uses of color in Hindu rites and meditation. One is afforded a secular version of this experience by standing in the center of Hodges’s boulder circle, amid the intense cacophony of hues afforded by the natural light. In this regard, the boulders operate in a similar fashion to James Turrell’s sky spaces, which reference Buddhist as well as American Quaker ritual traditions and are situated in nature and subject to the contingencies of light and time’s passage.
Hodges’s monoliths harness both epic, timeless themes and a contemporary sensibility, and in this way the artist does not resist the range of human emotion and sentiment that his materials and his gestures upon them might elicit. Indeed, he makes use of all the attendant personal and cultural meanings that materials may possess or that viewers may bring from their own contexts and histories. Throughout his career he has worked with all manner of objects associated with sentimentality and craft, including scarves, silk flowers, and love songs, and taken on loaded subjects such as beauty, romance, and mortality. This approach may seem surprising in the context of contemporary art, particularly the art world of the 1980s and 1990s, when many artists were fixated on questions of identity, multiculturalism, and appropriation. This was a time in which art making privileged social and political commentary over aesthetic, poetic, and formal concerns.
Hodges’s strategies, subjects, and materials, in fact, have their origins in feminist art practice of the 1970s and in the works of artists such as Lynda Benglis, Hannah Wilke, and Louise Bourgeois. In terms of the work produced by other artists active in the late 1980s and 1990s, one might think of Jeff Koons’s kitschy porcelain interpretations of banal genre scenes from the history of painting, Haim Steinbach’s appliance-covered shelves, Mike Kelley’s hand-stitched agglomerations of childhood toys and stuffed animals, and Robert Gober’s early dollhouses and fantastical wallpaper tableaux. These last artists developed diverse sculptural practices distinguished by mining and recontextualizing everyday materials and objects; their works are imbued with the social and political ethos of their time, emanate from a fascination with material culture, and seek to transcribe the personal into the political. Hodges, on the other hand, unlike his peers, does not appropriate cultural kitsch or quotidian objects as a form of critique. He does not demonize the commodification of culture or cultural excess as Steinbach and Koons do, nor does he delve into the uncanny, abject qualities of these objects in the manner of Kelley and Gober, who alternatively ponder the darker sides of the human psyche. Hodges is perhaps more aligned with certain female sculptors of his generation, including Roni Horn, Katharina Fritsch, and Kiki Smith, whose works manifest a greater connection to nature and express the poetry and politics of the human body in more literary veins.
Addressing broad themes of love, loss, and connections we all share, Hodges was among a small number of artists, including Smith, Horn, and Gober, whose works of the 1990s marked a decided shift in the contemporary artistic landscape and proposed a more quiet and poetic mode of expression in which form and content, beauty and politics, might at once find potent balance and nourishing friction. Perhaps more than any of his colleagues, Hodges takes his cues first and foremost from his chosen materials and harnesses the full range of emotional associations and resonances they carry in a manner that holds poetry and sentiment on a par with social and political content.
Among Hodges’s closest friends and colleagues during his early artistic development was the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Before his untimely death in 1996, Gonzalez-Torres likewise embraced themes of beauty, generosity, and participation at a time when such subjects were highly contested and politicized in the US art world, particularly as it was shaped by the tragedy of the AIDS crisis, artistic censorship, and political extremism. Hodges’s series A Diary of Flowers was created concurrently with Gonzalez-Torres’s elegiac lightbulb strands and Gober’s pierced waxen male torsos. Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco, an artist fascinated by the poetics of the commonplace, also deserves to be mentioned in this context, as do many younger artists who would emerge later in the 1990s, including Olafur Eliasson, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Douglas Gordon. And yet, among the many artists who have contributed significantly to the dialogue
around beauty, none have tackled the notion as forthrightly as Hodges, harnessing all its delights and discomforts with such audacity and integrity.
As I have struggled to find the appropriate language to describe the depths and potentialities of Hodges’s art, as well as to capture its more transcendent and transcendental qualities, I have come to realize that what the work offers beyond poetry, literary expression, and beauty is devotion to what Susan Griffin has referred to as the “eros of everyday life.” In her compendium of essays on ecology, gender, and society, first published in 1995, Griffin eloquently traced what she perceived to be an emergent shift in Western thought in the face of growing global ecological disaster. In her view, society was navigating a crisis of survival and meaning by seeking greater “communion” between science and nature and slowly migrating toward the eros embedded in daily and practical life.
As she argues:
If human consciousness can be rejoined not only with the human body but
with the body of earth, what seems incipient in the reunion is the recovery
of meaning within existence that will infuse every kind of meeting between
self and the universe, even in the most daily acts, with an eros, a palpable
love, that is also sacred.
It is in this return to nature and intimacy, which privileges the mundane aspects of life and positions the “experience of knowledge as intimacy rather than power,” that a “just society” may be found. Griffin’s writings, which have been an inspiration to Hodges through the years, seem relevant to developing a deeper understanding of an artistic practice that is rooted in modesty, intimacy, and integrity–one that seeks to find the epic in the most mundane as well as the quotidian in the epic.
Hodges’s art, at its core, is about our humanity. It is work about a body moving through life, through experiences, marking life’s moments with simple acts of devotion and eros–a palpable love–that help us see familiar things in the world differently. Although Hodges would not describe himself as a poet or a philosopher, aspects of both are manifest in his art. As he reveals in the conversation that follows, his art emanates from a complex personal history and an ongoing quest of liberation and undoing. While the work may sometimes be about beauty, sometimes it is not. Sometimes it is dark. Sometimes it is about loss. Sometimes it is about pain and death. Eros and Thanatos. Sometimes it is ecstatic and euphoric. And, at other times, it is base, honest, and raw.