Art Review: Exuberant Melancholy: Jim Hodges at the Dallas Museum of Art

The Dallas Museum of Art’s Jim Hodges exhibition is sticky sweet. The first museum survey of the artist’s work is filled with evocative materials, delicate trifles, and shot through with an emotive exuberance that scantly obscures an undercurrent of melancholy. There are so many different kinds of work here: walls covered in shimmering, multi-colored scarves; ropes of strung flowers; colored fluorescent bulbs; huge canvases constructed of blurring blue denim; landscape photographs with individual leaves intricately cut-out and folded; and a bell jar containing a microcosm of grass rendered in finely blown glass. There are also plenty of works on paper, some covered in vigorous black, others depicting tiny inked flowers on paper napkins. Numerous mosaic-like pieces made of broken mirrors are scattered about, which catch and scatter light or obscure the reflection of the viewer. And at a moment in contemporary art when things must be shinny or shoddy – the clunky post-minimal recyclables and auction block-ready, painterly abstractions that critic Jerry Saltz has dubbed “neo-mannerism” – the work of Jim Hodges appears so sensitive, earnest, and unselfconsciously beautiful that it almost feels radical.

There’s also something manic and scattered about the show, and the portrait it draws of the artist is that of an exuberant craftsman constantly spinning out ideas, riffing on everyone from Dürer to Elíasson, but always drawing from a deep well of personal feeling. Part of this is by design. Curators Jeffery Grove (DMA) and Olga Viso (Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center) have placed partitions in the DMA’s large, barrel-vaulted gallery to carve the large, vacuous space into a number of smaller spaces that allow for intimate viewing. The partitions also frustrate chronological or thematic readings of Hodges’ career, instead urging us to encounter each work as a single moment, an opportunity to be bewitched by each of the artist’s little creations.

There are, however, a few material and thematic through lines: the image of the flower; an expressive use of color; the incorporation of webs made with chain that link, obstruct, or claim. What is primary is an effort to create a moment of intimacy between the artist and the viewer by employing familiar or everyday materials or images. In this way, each object functions as a conduit, a way of accessing or coming into contact with some hidden, elusive movement of feeling that is connected to something real. This is most theatrically realized in a gallery that contains a single blacked-out box in which you enter and confront an orifice of giant triangulated spikes illumined out of the blackness by a dim, glowing light. Each of the treacherous tips of the spikes is dabbed, we are told, with a drop of the artist’s mother’s preferred perfume and the artist’s own cologne.

All but shedding the biography of the artist save a mention of his well-known association with activism surrounding the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, we’re left with only our own imagination to enter the Freudian tangle of this phallic-orifice tomb dedicated to the intermingling of a mother and son’s scent. It’s one of many ambiguities that snare Hodges’ work, whose pieces can either read like all-too-neat metaphors (the artist’s clothes left on the floor and linked to the gallery wall with a chain-web) or overly flourished in way that suggests a kind of sensual indulgence, like Dale Chihuly’s cavity-inducing glass eye candy. Missing from this retrospective are pieces like Hodge’s oversized split boulders that he exhibited in 2012 at Gladstone Gallery, which clogged the gallery, playing off each other with an interplay of glassy colors, or the animated disco ball sculpture from that same show, which repeatedly dropped from the ceiling into a vat of water. I was left wanting for a theatricality in this DMA show that didn’t feel forced, or a sense of play that wasn’t so humorless. That’s the danger of Hodges’s brand of stripped-bear emotionalism, it can feel infatuated, or even worse, as in the case of his gold-leafed dressing partition in this exhibit, as intellectually bland as palatable interior design.

It is somehow not surprising to discover that Dallas is a hot bed of Jim Hodges collectors. The work is so pretty, accessible, flattering, and safe. But Hodges’ show flashes of grit. The strongest room in the exhibition is dedicated to tangential dabbling, work that falls outside of the loose categories that organize the rest of the retrospective. Here we find flowers drawn on napkins next to a Pussy Riot-like ski mask hanging up high in a corner of the room like a Malevich square. There’s a small room built in the corner of the gallery that glows with an ominous light. The entrance is guarded by a web-chain partition made up of successively smaller links, beginning with thick steel loops, and ending with delicate chain you might wrap around a lover’s neck. Behind a dangling rope of flowers, a truly unexpected site: two pastoral landscape paintings made in the style of a Thomas Hart Benton. Look closely and you see this rural scene is strewn with trash and dilapidated farm accoutrement. It’s a deceivingly snarling painting, mixing nostalgia and admonition. It is as if when Hodges is most literal he finally finds what he has been grasping for all along: a kind of suffering or violence that gives birth to seductive beauty.

Image at top: Changing Things (detail), 1997