“I love sculpture,” Jim Hodges says. “Fundamentally, though, I am a ‘drawer.’ But I love spatial relationships and dimensionality. I’m interested in theatrical moments and choreographing experiences in space. I think as a drawer and make as a sculptor.” Over the course of three years, the artist and Walker Executive Director Olga Viso delved into Hodges’ life, artistic practice, and influences, touching on topics prevalent in his work, from love and politics to language, spirituality, and mortality. Excerpted from the exhibition catalogue Jim Hodges: Give More Than You Take, here’s a sampling from their discussions.
On First Encounters
You’ve heard me tell the story before, of the first time I saw your work Here’s where we will stay (1995) and how I was transported by that wall sculpture made of silk scarves to an intimate moment from my childhood. One of the things that struck me most about that experience was having such a private moment within the public context of a gallery.
Making that work had childhood references for me too. When I was a kid, my brothers and I would put two card tables together and drape them with sheets to construct forts in the living room. These caves of soft cotton made perfect hiding places and spaces of fantasy in which to conjure imagined scenes, where we could become pirates or cowboys and Indians. I find that memories are transmitted through materials, especially when one is engaged in slow, constant contact with them.
When I started sewing the silk scarves together, I became lost in their softness and their color, choosing shades that I might find in the changing skies. At this time, I had also been giving the paintings of Sigmar Polke a lot of consideration. Elaine Dannheisser, who had given me a basement studio space in which to work at her art foundation [in New York], had begun to more aggressively collect Polke, so I was brought into close proximity with a few of his paintings. Some of them were made of disparate fabrics that had been sewn together. I would look at the paintings and think, “Why the paint? Isn’t the fabric enough?” And at the time, for me, the fabric was enough.
I had been sewing for some time when I started making Here’s where we will stay. It was something I learned from watching my great-grandmother and my mom sew when I was a kid. My first boyfriend, Robert Valenciano, whom I met in 1986, was a designer/tailor and an incredibly inspiring, adventurous guy. His sewing also influenced me and reminded me of the potential that lay in that process. Making Here’s where we will stay was a very slow process because I did not want to use a sewing machine. I wanted to sew it by hand to extend the process and slow the experience for myself. So I sat for a long time, sewing, taking the scarves out to a bench along the Hudson River in Tribeca close to my Dannheisser Foundation studio.
It’s nice to hear you recount your visceral reaction to seeing the piece for the first time in the gallery, and how it was being animated by the wind that blew through the big doors. This animation of the materials heightened your experience and triggered your memories, which transported you, just as the making of it had transported me.
I was after a queer expression when I set out to make the piece–choosing the scarves, sewing them together, and even all the decisions that went into how the work would be constructed, installed, and titled. In all those choices, and then in the specific installation in which I utilized and exploited the natural “materials” of the space itself, it all added up to that moment when you arrived. You describe a very personal experience that erupted from you, initiated by what was present there. That moment contained the actual “art,” and it was located in you. You unfolded internally the private in the public … that’s the function and the mechanism that we think of as art, right?
Indeed. Did the scarves belong to family members, or did you collect them? They are so specific to the era of each of our childhoods.
I was on a hunt for scarves, although I did have some that came from my mom and grandmothers. I had the experience as a kid, like you, of going through my grandmother’s drawers and finding them. My mom wore scarves, and the smell of Shalimar perfume would always linger on them. I’m lost to the romance and sensuality that fuse onto these materials. Most of the scarves in the piece were found at thrift stores or flea markets; I collected hundreds of them and still have a few of my favorites. I used to wear them and give them away to friends.
But to make a sculpture out of them is something else.
I was making what I thought of as a “painting.” I had been in a slow process of what I would call now, in retrospect, “coming out,” while simultaneously finding my voice through materials and process. This simultaneous process of developing language and identity marked this period in my life. Moving from making pieces in which I had been using black and gray felt to colored fabrics was part of that process. Color itself was something that was very slow to return to my work after putting the paints away. The fabric and then the scarves brought me back to color.
You moved away from painting fairly early in your career. For your generation, painting was a weighty subject, especially in art school where your teachers must have been steeped in the Abstract Expressionist tradition.
I received my MFA degree in painting from Pratt Institute [in Brooklyn], and my favorite teacher there, Phoebe Helman, was an old-school New York abstract painter—a “no bullshit” kind of a person. She was tough, and I got the most from her when I was at Pratt. Painting was all I knew then, really. Although I was slowly beginning to think about making objects, I was mostly thrashing about while in art school, lost in the hugeness of painting. The medium ended up being too complicated for me. There were too many variables, too much history, and too many choices. It was overwhelming. I also felt I was underserving the medium. I could mimic stylistically a number of art historical references in painting, but I was not able to find a way to my “self” through the material. At the height of my struggle, I got important advice from my friend and teacher from undergrad studies [at Gonzaga University in Spokane] Scott Patnode, who told me: “Do what makes you happy.”
Drawing was always a favorite thing to do, so I put the paints away and picked up the most basic materials I knew: charcoal and paper. That simple choice was a definitive moment for me. Scott’s instruction to look for my pleasure was an important fundamental direction. This turn initiated what I now call my “practice” and started me on my way.
Could you speak more about how pleasure factors into your practice?
In this moment I just described, I began to pay attention to pleasure as an indicator and instructive function of my body; I tried to be sensitive to my gut as a way to zero in on things, on materials, and how they could be brought together and manipulated. It was the very beginning of identifying a personal symbolic iconography and inventing methods for making. It was a rich period of questioning and growth in which I sought to understand my personal relationship to the history of art and its authority, which I had, up until then, simply taken for granted, with a kind of submissive acceptance coming out of my education.
In the basement of the Dannheisser Foundation, I began to take it all apart. I literally utilized a kind of destructive and reductive method to get into things I was interested in or that caught my eye. I came to realize that I’m a destroyer as much as I’m a maker. I find the disassembly (or the taking apart or breaking) of something as important in my practice as constructing things. It’s been almost my default mode, to destroy. I have a soft, destructive nature.
What was the next liberation?
I think I’ve always strived for freedom in my life, at least for as long as I can
remember. Perhaps it is a reaction to feeling repressed and isolated as a kid. I was
a very introverted child, living my life primarily inside a fantasy that I maintained,
or used, to make being here bearable. It sounds far more dramatic than it probably
was, but I was a seriously interior guy who projected a friendly, easy façade.
Liberation came to me slowly, and perhaps the liberation from painting to drawing
led to further liberations. Breaking free of the notion of some outside authority
was the major breakthrough and the start of a mature practice, which has consisted
of letting myself do whatever, not saying “no” to myself. “YES!” was what
art said to me.
Much of what you say resonates with me as someone who also grew up Catholic, indoctrinated in ritual, in tradition, in particular values and beliefs defined by limits.
I think that so much of my liberation has been slow because I was the good Catholic boy, an altar boy who thought he wanted to be a priest when he was in grade school. I was twenty-seven years old when I said, “I am no longer identifying or presenting myself as a straight man.”
I have been through a process of shedding skins, breaking through boundaries—imposed, self-imposed, learned, whatever—and the funny thing is, there’s always another wall that I go crashing into, another layer of crap to shed, another blossom that reveals more complexity and challenges. Thankfully this process doesn’t stop.
On Language and Translation
Would you describe yourself as a sculptor?
I love sculpture. I think of things sculpturally in regard to spaces and contexts. Fundamentally, though, I am a “drawer.” But I love spatial relationships and dimensionality. I’m interested in theatrical moments and choreographing experiences in space. I think as a drawer and make as a sculptor. Or maybe I have that reversed?
In scanning the critical writing on your work, I’m struck by the dearth of significant art historical texts. Poets and literary authors seem to come closer to grasping the essence of your practice. Do you think of it as a poetic or literary practice?
In regard to what has been written about my work, or even how to approach writing about art, I might ask: What is to be accomplished through writing? Is what’s written meant to act as a stand-in for experience? Is the burden of the writer to feel that he or she must in some way illustrate or re-create a particular reality, re-create or invent a verbal equivalent? I’m not a writer, and I don’t envy the person who has the challenge of writing about art. Writing, like any creative form, is a challenge, and it fails or succeeds at the hand of the artist. Writing about art is like singing about a book or dancing a poem; sometimes translations overlap and forms meld. Written language is the most specific and detailed, and therefore I think it poses the greatest amount of challenges when it comes to talking about visual art—especially with work such as mine, which innately resists being pinned down, or won’t stand still, or lacks even the body to insert the pin through. That’s a problem. If one has to invent the body to insert the pin, so that it can be held down, then that’s where things start falling apart. It’s the problem with interpretation and translation from one form to another, when in fact the form of the original is set and specific. Translating it changes it and can leave it behind.
Our discussion around the limits of language and the transmission of equivalent content in alternate forms makes me think about a piece you made in the years following the tragedy of September 11, 2001. It began with words—a simple written phrase, “don’t be afraid.” First a drawing, then a bumper sticker, the work ultimately evolved into a major public project that brought more than one hundred international voices together. It was presented as a wall mural at the Worcester Art Museum [in Massachusetts] in 2004 and wrapped the façade of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden on the National Mall in Washington, DC, in 2005–2006. In many ways, this project was born of an amazing act of translation and communication. Your approach, which was a simple invitation to participate, seems to have unmoored that delimiting “pin” you just described.
I made a small drawing titled “don’t be afraid,” as a kind of personal reminder. It was the year 2000, and I had recently moved with my partner at the time [Craig Ducote] from Brooklyn to the San Francisco Bay area to take part in an artist residency program at Capp Street Project. The move disrupted my rhythm and set me off into a whirl of insecurity, in which I found myself displaced and struggling to stay connected and committed to my practice. Upon their rendering, the words “don’t be afraid” became a kind of mantra for me that I incorporated into my routine. I’m a creature of habit and ritual, so this action was not anything new for me. I’m also a creature of emotional sensitivity and insecurity, and mantras are something that I have utilized for a long time but never directly in a piece of art. Once the expression was made physical, I found other opportunities in which it could become manifest.
In 2004 I was invited by Susan Stoops, a curator at the Worcester Art Museum, to respond to a large wall in the museum rotunda. It was during the years of the George W. Bush administration, and a hyperpropagandized period in America in which the government was instilling a huge amount of fear in its citizens. It was a dangerous and traumatic moment, when the official message of the US government was that to be safe one had to be on alert, implying that somehow we were not “safe” at all. I felt that the destruction of the World Trade Center had been utilized in the most monstrous and aggressive way to make us all victims of government, in which our own political leaders were behaving like terrorists. When pondering the huge blank wall of the museum rotunda at this moment, I asked myself, “What would I like to say to everyone walking into the museum, especially every small child?” The phrase “don’t be afraid” seemed the most direct and efficient way of expressing and offering some comfort and support. I then asked myself, “How can I reach every individual? How could I ‘speak in tongues’”?
I realized I needed a “world translator,” so it occurred to me that my neighbors in New York City, the United Nations, might be willing to help. I wrote a letter of invitation to all the UN delegates at the time and asked each person to write, in his or her own hand, the words “don’t be afraid.” The invitation revealed my intent, which was for each individual piece of handwriting to unfold in a field of unique “voices.” Each hand would offer its own individual gesture, touch, and intonation of feeling and, together, they would create a global chorus of voices conveying a collective message of love. I received numerous responses to my invitation, and over time more than one hundred translations in over seventy languages arrived. Most countries were very enthusiastic about participating, save for one; the only country to formally refuse to participate was the United States. I twice appealed to the US delegate and both times I was refused. I was shocked at first by this reaction, but then understood. What other kind of response would one receive from a government in which the official message is to be afraid? Thankfully, Great Britain and Australia replied to the invitation and therefore English is “spoken” in the piece.
The subsequent realization of the project in Washington—within view of
the US Capitol and across the street from the Federal Aviation Administration—was especially potent. As deputy director of the Hirshhorn at the time, I recall
getting a call from an FAA administrator, who was immensely grateful to have
your project visible from the FAA conference room. The silent chorus of international
voices became a mantra of sorts for him and numerous staff, contractors,
and government officials who regularly utilized the space during the many
months the mural was installed on the museum’s façade. Who knows what plans
and policies were shaped (or altered) by the presence and generosity of your
As often happens when making work, one rarely knows where it will end up or who the audience will ultimately be—or if there will even be an audience for that matter. The fact that you brought the work to the National Mall provided the opportunity for the work to “respond” in a direct way to the very government that provoked its inception. It is a high point of my working life to have had this piece installed in Washington during the time when the Bush administration was causing so much horror and instilling fear in the American populace. That all of our combined efforts—yours, mine, the UN collaborators—ultimately resulted in this work’s visible placement and presence on the Mall and that it may have led to the potential positive effects you suggest … what could be better?
After you traveled to India for the first time, in early 2011, you shared how affirming it was to be in a place where many of your own perspectives—in terms of how you look at the world, the lens through which you see and experience life, and make art—were echoed.
I felt so supported there, as if I had been in India all my life. I came to realize that I have been involved with and engaged in a kind of sensitivity, in a kind of attention to my world that felt parallel to what I experienced in India. Being there allowed me to reconnect with my thoughts and my practice, from which I had become detached. In New York I didn’t have that place of remove, that ability to step back from myself, that I had in India. There, I was thrown into the midst of a complex reality that I had never experienced, and my ways of thinking were being questioned. I liked this complexity and these questions that the place relentlessly raised.
What, specifically, was called into question?
The mirror that India held up to me demanded me to reevaluate so many
things, starting from very simple things like crossing the street to more complicated
issues, such as my relationship to currency and money and power. Deeper still
were reflections on permanence and impermanence, creation, death and life, and
undamental beliefs and spirituality. There is this spectrum of experience there,
from the mundane to the very heavy.
fWhat happened when you returned?
If you think of a fan that opens up and moves from one fold to another in
three dimensions, this is what India offered. And then it expands again, to reveal
even more dimensions. Throw all that into a fun-house mirror and then you’re
getting an idea of how India, as memory, resonates in me. Because everything
there is more complicated than you think. You believe you have grasped it but
then, all of a sudden, it all just crumbles, and you find yourself coming to from
a daydream next to a cow or a goat that’s foraging through garbage lining the
street, that’s being shared with children playing and digging around in it, just
steps from the spot where their mother is stirring a pot of something cooking.
This all takes place within feet of a very busy, dusty street with cars, bicycles,
and tuctucs buzzing by.
What I found in India was an immediacy that I have always been attracted
to—a place where beauty is revealed in a kind of degradation … in proximity to
degradation. Beauty is not isolated or contained. Its function and visibility are reliant
on a context there that is really “full.” What’s dictated to me from India is the
removal of judgment and hierarchy. Good/bad, right/wrong, and life/death—all of
these things start dissolving.
After six weeks of traveling there, I returned to New York and remained in the
dream of India for some time. Travel is like that. If you don’t resist, you become a
place, and that place is with you when you return home.
As I listen to you describe your experience there, I can’t help visualizing your
artworks. The way you describe the fan as it folds and unfolds and opens up again
in surprising ways conjures for me specific drawings that you have made. I can
see it all so clearly. On the surface, things appear one way and then another, filled
with myriad layers and nuances.
I thought about Vincent van Gogh a lot when I was in India. I thought he
would have been in absolute heaven there, in a place where color is so profoundly
celebrated. I was especially drawn to the flags that fly in temples. I asked a driver
as we traveled through Rajasthan, “What do those colored flags mean over the
temples?” His response was, “God loves color!” “Of course,” I thought. He explained
how different aspects of God, and different gods, were expressed through
different colors. How red, for instance, was the color of Hanuman, the monkey
god, and that when people petitioned a god for help, they would fly a colored flag
in thanks to the god for prayers answered.
Has the use of color in your work been a source of empowerment?
I don’t know that it is that specific. I don’t think so. Growing up a Catholic kid
out in Spokane, I do remember the symbolic use of purple, for instance, and its
association with Easter. I recall the power of black and white and growing up with
certain ideas of blue and pink in that irritating binary in which we were reared.
These are things I thought about when I was first starting to make art: thinking
about the conventions of color, embracing some of those conventions, and also
playing with them, challenging them in myself, and denying them too.
But I also knew that there is a tradition that is older than my understanding
of things. Before there was language to describe what we see, we experienced it.
Slowly, from experience, we began to name things. “Blue,” for example, takes on
something that I believe is so very old in us.
When I was in India, I was struck by the flexibility and expansiveness of imagination
there. To this day, Hindus are still inventing gods. There’s still the possibility
for a new god to be found somewhere. That, in and of itself, was wonderful for
me to observe and experience. It has helped me in my own life, in my daily life, to
recognize God in all of it, and not just in the nice parts.
This may be a dangerous question, but you have introduced the notion of
God several times in our conversation. Is God, or the manifestation of a god, or
however anyone defines God, important to you? Is God manifest in your work?
As a topic for conversation, I think it’s interesting. My relationship to the idea
of God has been an ongoing evolution. At times, it has felt natural and a part of
what I am engaged in, but I don’t engage it specifically as a subject in my work. I
have, for a number of years, wondered about creativity, about ideas and philosophy,
and what it means to “name” things and where ideas come from. I do have
a natural faith and a belief that art is a powerful energy for social change, having
potential for creating an opportunity for radical social change. And I attribute
this awesome power to a functioning system and expression of human inventiveness
that is always restless and longing for something beyond itself … this, for
me, comes close to spiritual ideas that I could associate with my fluid concept of
“god.” But I am not attracted to formal dogmatic systems that prescribe definitions
and impose rules for belief in or worship of something I think of as boundlessly
unknowable and beyond actually understanding; so in this way, because the
ideas generate imaginative thought, it, the notion of god itself, becomes creative
and mirrors an art process, completing a circle.
My hesitation in sharing these
thoughts is a complicated response and repulsion to “religion” and so I have a
hard time locating the context to cast these ideas. I suppose I think of the experience
that I call “art” as a condition I associate with the “divine.”
As a little kid, as an altar boy, I was attracted to the rituals of the Mass, the entire
theater and drama of the Catholic ceremonies, and to all the mythologies and
stories. I was raised in that and found myself there naturally. It sparked my imagination
and allowed me a place to deposit my ideas and fantasies, and it gave rise
to my earliest erotic thoughts. And my ideas developed from there.
I think that I
have always had some relationship to God, either as a concept or as something
out there or something in here. What I found exciting in India was being in a place
where it was very natural to comment on God in a way that felt free of judgment …
simply and in a matter-of-fact way. Here I tend to keep these thoughts to myself
and I don’t feel the availability of a context that would encourage such dialogue,
though clearly there are the thoughts.
It’s a natural part of people’s consciousness and day-to-day existence in India?
So much so. Everywhere. I think there have been times when I have looked
for what I might call a spiritual entry point into my art making … or I have looked for a spiritual solution to a difficult personal problem. Or I’ve looked for some
kind of spiritual something, or philosophy in my life as a way to keep me moving
or as a place to rest. So I think it’s always been a part of my practice, though, like
the tide, ebbing and flowing. I certainly don’t single out spiritual aspects of my dimensional
practice nor do I ever want to limit what I do to single concepts or defining
attributes … I don’t want to “conclude.”
The fragile proximities between life and death, beauty and degradation, that
you experienced in India have always been potent themes in your art. In a view
from in here they take surprisingly literal form in the presence of the black
The presence of literal (or symbolic) death is something that has always
been part of my work, although perhaps not as overt, or maybe as literary, as
it is here, with the depiction of the bird’s nest and the spider. That was an important
gesture for me because I am effectively “naming it.” Naming it is what
was important to me in this particular piece, although I am never usually that
transparent. In my practice I move close to articulation and then far away from
it. I move from what could be blindness to precision and back to blindness again.
Was it liberating for you to name death so specifically in this instance?
I think the literal inclusion—the naming and the depiction of implied death
in the form of the black widow—was important for me at that time. But it is not
just death that is present there. There’s also disappearance and emptiness that
point to other conclusions or suggest other possibilities. There’s a whole other
thing going on in the outside part of the work. Death is just hanging out while the
blank, empty openness of the work expands …
But “death” is not immediately apparent. I remember the first time I saw a
view from in here and the shock of discovering the spider looming below. I was
transported to childhood again. I felt confused and vulnerable. You could have
named the sculpture Death, but you didn’t. The work’s title, a view from in here, allows
for a range of possible meanings. With your titles, you often set up circumstances
that allow multiple points of entry.
I have, in the past, loved titling things. I think titles are part of the work. I
don’t always hit them right, but sometimes I get a title that feels like it is the right entry point or the right jumping-off point, or even the right ending. I know
that titles, and the language of a wall text or a label, are part of the route people
will take in approaching a work—to see, to understand, to know, and to enter
a work. And with sculpture, titles are one more way of rendering; they add one
more dimension, hopefully.
This last year, I’ve entered into a postnaming period. I am not sure how long
it’s going to last, but titles seem suspicious to me recently. I am reevaluating my
relationship and commitment to them.
Your titles are often invitations; they offer “a view from in here” or invite
one “this way in,” for example.
Yes, they have been that. I guess it’s been important to me to recognize the
partnering that goes on in the experience of art. It is an engagement between
things, between people and something. At times I’ve wanted to celebrate that
engagement with the language that I chose. And other times I’ve simply wanted
to elicit a particular mood or an ambience. Words can be applied as one might
put on a scent, such as perfume. Some scents are so wonderful and others are
sickening … titles can be the same.
The titles add dimension, create a mood; would you say they heighten the
Not always. Sometimes they just fall flat. Language is also a record of things
as they are. Titles are records of thoughts, records of what I am thinking about
over time. Works that are failures still hold a record of importance. So even
something that no one would ever want to look at, or that I may never want to
show people, is still an essential thing.
So you title even those works that you consider unsuccessful?
If I keep something, then I’m committing to it, and if survival is success,
then nothing that is kept is unsuccessful.
Do the titles ever come first? Or do they come in the making or even follow?
They come about in all those ways. There is no one path. I’m open to the
potential of the possibilities of how things arise in me. Language is associative,
as in our conversation. One thing leads to another. Often a title, such as ghost,
was there from the beginning. The title suggested something I knew I needed to
make. The word had an impact on the way the work ultimately manifested itself,
and what it became. As a word, “ghost” has complex slipperiness and ambiguity
and cartoony cultural implications that I like. It also holds aspects of the possible
and impossible. I like it when my work takes me to an edge of my perception
or to an edge of my understanding of something. A work usually leaves me far
behind, as it comes to completion. It becomes “itself,” and an estrangement
begins to take over what was, in the beginning, a relationship.
I know you think of yourself as a maker of objects, but I’ve always had a relationship
with your work that is much more experiential.
I would like to believe this is true. I am interested in experience, fully.
Throughout our conversations, you have spoken repeatedly about what your
works “dictate.” What are they dictating to you now?
I am a dedicated servant to art, a devoted servant. I will do what art wants.
That is part of what art asks of me: to be engaged physically with an experience.
This is what I wish to continue to develop. In this way, the work becomes that
which you experience too. There is something that is going on, right now, in my
work. I am at this new place for myself.
Can you put words on it?
I’d rather make it and show you when it gets here.
“I’m a destroyer as much as I’m a maker. I find the disassembly (or the taking apart or breaking) of something as important in my practice as constructing things. It’s been almost my default mode, to destroy. I have a soft, destructive nature.”
“I am a ‘drawer.’ But I love spatial relationships and dimensionality. I’m interested in theatrical moments and choreographing experiences in space.”
“I am a dedicated servant to art, a devoted servant. I will do what art wants.
That is part of what art asks of me: to be engaged physically with an experience.”
“Words can be applied as one might put on a scent, such as perfume. Some scents are so wonderful and others are sickening. [Artwork] titles can be the same.”
“I am interested in experience, fully.”