Artist Jim Hodges is a hard man to pin down. His sculpture of shiny steel boulders on the Walker Art Center’s lawn looks sturdy enough to last a few hundred years, but during his art-school days Hodges trashed whatever he made as a way of acknowledging the fragile transience of life.
Fortunately, Hodges eventually overcame this destructive impulse, and 25 years later we have the Walker Art Center’s Jim Hodges: Give More Than You Take, the most comprehensive retrospective of the man’s work ever assembled. Co-curated by Walker director Olga Viso, the exhibit features more than 80 works from a quarter-century of toil by one of America’s most important and prolific contemporary artists.
Putting it all in one gallery isn’t going to get you any closer to finding a suitable label or category for Hodges’s work, however. Some of it is wildly colorful, some plain black and white. Some pieces are tiny, some are the size of a billboard. He’s a painter, sculptor, photographer, and conceptual artist—often all at once—and he will use whatever materials suit him for the project at hand: glass, wood, metal, mirrors, napkins, scarves, scotch tape, fabric, denim, light bulbs, his own spit, etc. The only thing many of the individual pieces in this exhibit have in common is that the placard says they were made by a guy named “Jim Hodges.” There the similarities end.
In one room is his series of black-and-white drawings of the moon; in another, a wall covered with colorful, ethereally arranges scarves; in another a curtain of silk flowers; in another, a series of ceramic bells hanging from the ceiling; in another, a rose made of tar paper and scotch tape. The medium doesn’t seem to matter much to Hodges; he seems capable of making art out of anything. One piece, called A Diary of Flowers (When We Met), is literally a bunch of napkin doodles—72 of them, to be precise.
And yet, when you walk through Give More Than You Take, one impression that’s impossible to escape is a sense for how much time and effort Hodges puts into his work. He does not make it look easy; indeed, much of it looks very hard. One piece from 2004, Untitled (it’s already happened) is a nine-by-six-foot photograph of some trees, to which Hodges has applied an Xacto knife to carve out hundreds, perhaps even thousands of leaves, creating an amazing three-dimensional hybrid masterpiece that hovers somewhere between photography, sculpture, and painting. Up close, you can see the hours Hodges put into carving each little leaf; and frankly, it looks agonizing—like trying to mow your lawn with a pair of nail clippers.
Hodges himself happened to be present during the press preview, and I asked him about the obvious labor-intensiveness of these pieces. “I do whatever my art demands of me,” he explained matter-of-factly—meaning he’ll do whatever it takes to get the results he wants. Like, for instance, gluing thousands of shards of glass into a giant disc so that he can shine a light on it and bounce the shadows along a wall. Or stitch together an acre’s worth of denim to create something that looks like the sun bursting out from behind a patch of clouds. Or sew together hundreds of silk flowers to create a huge, translucent curtain.
Several recurring themes do resonate: the primacy of nature, the process of transformation, the interplay of light and shadow. Hodges is also famous for his cobwebs, which represent all kinds of things for him—fragility, entrapment, death, natural beauty, camouflage—and so there are webs both large and small all over the place. The largest and coolest is a thing called “Gate,” which is an iron gate with a spider web made of chains that guards a room suffused with an eerie blue light. You have to see it—it’s the sort of weird, beautiful, thoughtful creation that makes Hodges such an interesting artist.
According to Olga Viso, one of the fascinating things about Hodges is how he embeds “tension and friction” into his work to create “polarities”—beauty/rage, ugliness/love, violence/tenderness—that pulse and vibrate, giving his work a unique energy. Indeed, every piece in this exhibit has layers and depths that reward exploration and contemplation. To get the most out of Jim Hodges: Give More Than You Take, prepare to spend some time in the gallery, though. It took the artist 25 years to create this body of work, so you’re going to need to spend a few extra minutes of your time in order to fully appreciate it.
Trust me: You won’t be sorry.
Jim Hodges: Give More Than You Can Take continues at the Walker Art Center through May 11.