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Jim Hodges: Welcome
April 9-June 14, 1998

Jim Hodges
In Blue, 1996
silk, cotton, and thread
144 x 84 inches
From the collection of Tima Petra and Kenneth Wong, CA
photo: Joshua White

The search for a place in which happiness may be found is always a metaphor for the search to recover a memory of happiness. (1)

Physical and emotional places, time past and time spent, memory and remembering coalesce in Jim Hodges's poignant works. Hodges mines the ordinary materials of our domestic lives, creating objects that signify desire, longing, nostalgia, memory, and time. Souvenirs of our lived experience, Hodges's works conjure memories, sustain narratives of place, or mark a moment in time. According to literary theoretician Susan Stewart, "The souvenir involves the displacement of attention into the past. The souvenir is not simply an object appearing out of context, an object from the past incongruously surviving in the present; rather, its function is to envelop the present within the past. Souvenirs are magical objects because of this transformation." (2)

Jim Hodges's silk flower cascades and wall sculptures, delicate silver chain-link webs, mirror pieces, photographs of suburban homes like homey snapshots, and other works are firmly grounded in the real moments of our lives. Yet they are also gentle couriers for contemplation, enchanted objects that function in Stewart's realm of the souvenir, storing memories and signaling messages about lives past and lives being lived. The title of this exhibition, Welcome, is poetic yet accessible-the keystone of Hodges's work. It suggests his desire to welcome us all to our own experience of material (often the stuff of our daily lives, such as fabric or paper napkins), its cultural meanings, and the personal, intimate meanings it may embody. In Hodges's words, his works are "an attempt to talk about the bigness of things, the wonder and the greatness of all of life." (3)

Ordinary materials such as paper napkins, silk flowers, or mirrors become extraordinary through Hodges's transformations. Hodges's work is a diary of his experience, a record keeping for which material is the vehicle of remembrance. And as diaries, his works sustain memory and therefore specific moments in time. Diary of Flowers is one of the principal works from which all others materialize. Literally a collection of doodles on small paper napkins, Diary of Flowers grows out of an ordinary and personal act. Most of us doodle, perhaps while we talk on the phone or daydream in meetings. By grouping together the napkins on which he has doodled, Hodges activates a narrative we may "read" in his intimate gestures. Because Hodges may recall when and where he made each mark, and the marks may remind us of our own daydreams, the doodles' idiosyncratic fingerprints in Diary of Flowers mark time and record memory.

Hodges's respect for material's multiple meanings reflects his loving memories of growing up in suburban Spokane, Washington. For instance, Hodges often works on the flower cascades with family members and thereby forms a community of shared and lived experience, enriching his own art-making life and in doing so, enriching the lives of those who work with him. Similarly, Hodges's collaborative installation at the Kemper Museum, Untitled (Mark), draws from childhood memories and his desire to gather others into his artistic process. Hodges worked with schoolchildren of all ages to mark their heights on a gallery wall with their choice of colored pencil. The children then signed their names, thus making their "mark" on the wall both in their signature and in their height. The signatures and marks, a kind of doodling, not only indicate each child's body, but also mark a moment in time-"this is how tall I was in April 1998; this is how I signed my name; and this was the color that represented me at that moment." Untitled (Mark) suggests the emotional and physical accessibility of Hodges's materials and artistic practice.

Throughout Hodges's body of work, moving from one material to another is organic-one material may suggest the viability of another. He has been working with chains since 1989-longer than any other material in this exhibition. Prior to the chain pieces, Hodges had been making "drawings" of roses with Scotch tape and tar paper. His shift to chain developed from serious thought about his and other people's reactions to the tape and tar paper roses. Hodges began to view the works as too fragile and so chain emerged as a viable material as he realized its metaphorical, conceptual, and physical largesse. The silver chain represented strength while the tape began to represent weakness. Hodges's attention to how material functions in both nature and culture strengthened the chain's material richness. He had traveled to Ireland and noted the lasting artistic practices of lace and metalwork he saw there; he had spent time in Seattle with his brother and remembered beautiful spider webs; and finally, he had gone to a concert in which an enormous rope spider web was part of the stage set. These collected memories are stored in the chain webs. Chain spider webs also began to, in his words, "make sense." They were beautiful and natural-spider webs in nature are clearly sculptural and architectural-and, like the web at the concert, they pop up in unexpected places.

The silver chain web pieces evolved into thresholds of silk flowers, which in turn evolved into cascades of silk flowers such as In Blue, which seems to float in space. In our culture, flowers suggest nature's generosity, yet they are also associated with sorrow and joy, loss and gain. At gravesites they are metonyms for mourning and love, yet are symbols of life and lives lived; given as a present they are celebratory. Historical depictions of flowers, such as those found in 17th-century Dutch flower painting, represented horticultural sophistication and material wealth. As theoretician Norman Bryson notes, " The simultaneous perfection of so many flowers from different seasons banishes the dimension of time and breaks the bond between man and the cycles of nature. Which is exactly the point: what is being explored is the power of technique (first of horticulture, then of painting) to outstrip the limitations of the natural world." (4) Similarly, Hodges's silk flowers transcend time's passing. They will never wilt or die. Hodges understands how material simultaneously has meaning and produces meaning. Through pieces such as In Blue or Every Day, Hodges suggests that various cultural and historical interpretations of flowers (or any material he chooses) intersect with the personal meanings we may attach to or discover in his works.

Like those 17th-century Dutch painters, Hodges erases the boundaries of linear time and space. In Blue provides a gossamer membrane between two invisible places which may be emotional places or simply the passing of one day to another. Like a photograph of a loved one, In Blue constitutes a presence and an absence; it physically exists, and yet may stand in for the absent loved one. The longed-for reunion with the loved one-the remembered experience-is at the heart of these objects. In Blue's nostalgic beauty may resonate with our culture's overwhelming losses to AIDS. Thus the presence and absence of the body that the flowers may represent constitutes a solemn grace and a quiet rapport with those still here and with those who have left us. Yet, like all of Hodges's work, the flower cascade's tender beauty is permeable, thus encouraging multiple interpretations and personal stories. As Susan Stewart notes, "The acute sensation of the object-its perception by hand taking precedence over its perception by eye-promises, and yet does not keep the promise of, reunion." (5)

The various materials that Hodges uses jell into intermingled ideas of material-domestic, ubiquitous, and nostalgic. Pulled from his memories and experiences, the series of photographs titled Our Simple Selves suggests a nostalgia and respect for middle-class America that we find in all of Hodges's work. Walking around his hometown of Spokane, Hodges noticed the ways in which people adorned their houses to personalize them. Through this simple yet important signal of personal identity within suburban America we define ourselves not only for ourselves, but for neighbors and passers-by. Our Simple Selves (Blue) encourages the viewer to find narrative and artistry in something as common in middle-class America as homes, and to realize the significance behind such a seemingly simple act as painting one's house. Hodges's photographic method-the effect is that of the domestic, documentary family snapshot rather than the artfully rendered photograph-furthers his emotional claim in the territory of common and homey material. By photographing these houses, this way, Hodges again suggests how meaning is constituted in everyday life.

Hodges's latest material is the mirror, perhaps the material most laden with cultural symbols. Why choose it over any other material he finds in his daily landscape? According to Hodges it is a direct way to explore the rich associations we make with another everyday material. For Hodges "mirrors offer more questions than answers," and learning to live with the questions rather than knowing the answers is one of life's lessons. Working without cynicism or hidden agendas, Jim Hodges activates layers of meaning within his works. Meaning exists on the surface of the objects because Hodges accepts the already-existing ideas we attach to material. Yet in making the objects, Hodges embeds in them the personal ideas and memories we bring to the materials we come into contact with every day. By handling ordinary material as the scripting of a lifelong diary, Hodges creates mementos that are elegiac tributes to the lives we live.

Dana Self
Curator

 

Notes

1.  Barry Curtis and Claire Pajaczkowska, "'Getting there:' travel, time and narrative," in Travellers' Tales: Narratives of home and displacement, ed. George Robertson, Melinda Mash, Lisa Tickner, Jon Bird, Barry Curtis and Tim Putnam (London, England: Routledge, 1994) p. 199.

2. Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993) p. 151.

3. This quotation and all others by the artist throughout this essay are from a telephone conversation with Dana Self.


4. Norman Bryson, Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990) p. 105.

5. Stewart, p. 139.

As an artist in residence, Jim Hodges worked with schoolchildren to create a work of art that will be part of his exhibition at the Kemper Museum.