DALLAS — It’s rare that I walk into an art museum or gallery exhibition and am unequivocally blown away, but occasionally you can catch lightning in a bottle. That was the case with the Jim Hodges exhibition Give More Than You Take, currently on view at the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA). The large retrospective of this remarkable yet undercelebrated American artist includes over 80 pieces spanning two and a half decades and encapsulating a variety of different media, including works on paper, light installations, floral and fiber pieces, and works involving shattered mirrors and mosaic. The Hodges show has breadth and diversity without becoming disjointed. It has a gravitas that’s undeniable, saturated with emotion and dealing with issues of identity, man’s relationship to nature, love, grief, and the ephemerality of life.
Born in Spokane, Washington, in 1957, Hodges was exposed to the natural world early, and the cycles of landscape he was raised in have left an indelible mark on his psyche. In 1980, Hodges earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts from Fort Wright College (now Heritage University) in the small town of Toppenish, Washington. Following that, he took up residence in an environment that could not have been more different: New York City. Hodges moved to Brooklyn and received his Master of Fine Arts in 1986 at the Pratt Institute, deciding to stay there permanently afterwards. The dichotomy between his land of origin and his chosen home is clearly on view in the DMA exhibition, which was organized by the museum’s senior curator of contemporary art, Jeffery Grove, in collaboration with the Walker Art Center and its executive director, Olga Viso.
Give More Than You Take is installed in the cavernous Barrel Vault and Quad Galleries of the DMA. The hollow spaces with soaring ceilings and echoing chambers create an interesting tension between the organic, delicate nature of Hodges’s work and the stark contemporary aesthetic of the galleries. When you enter the exhibition, one of the first things you see is a large black, glass disc mounted high on the wall. This untitled piece from 2011 is a mosaic circle that anchors the room. Its reflective quality catches the light, glimmering in a mysterious and disconcerting way. Rather than the sun or the moon, Hodges has given us a black hole.
This black hole looks down upon diverse works in the gallery, including “Ghost,” a large bell jar installed on a central plinth. Inside the jar is a small diorama of butterflies made of silk and blown glass, as well as flowers and dirt. Nature is contained and crystalized, perhaps in an attempt to preserve life in all its fragility. Also in the room are intricately cut paper works, a pile of Hodges’s clothing being overtaken by a delicate metal spider web (one of the artist’s recurring themes), and several mirror pieces in varying stages of destruction — some mounted in shards on the wall, some shattered, some tiled in grid-like patterns. All of them distort the reflection of the self.
Elsewhere in the installation, visitors encounter several watercolors and charcoals from Hodges’s earlier practice, which are reminiscent of William Blake’s prints from the late 1700s; they’re immediately contrasted with pixelated collage work that recalls Gerhard Richter’s color-chart paintings. These pieces not only illustrate Hodges’s practice, but also highlight his attention to the history of art, entering into conversation with previous aesthetics.
This juxtaposition is further articulated in “Another Turn” (1999), an installation piece in which four light boards are mounted to the gallery’s white wall; a wide array of shapes, colors, and wattages make up the piece. At first glance, they seem to be devoid of nature, with their glowing intensity and jumble of extension cords and wires dangling to the floor. There’s a surprise, however, in the green glow of the board second to the left: the filament of several bulbs features intricate rosebuds and flowers — nature’s infiltration into man’s attempt to advance through technology and order.
The curatorial decision to place all of these objects in conversation with one another creates a tension that inspires contemplation in the viewer. There’s not a great deal of curatorial handholding in the exhibition — no massive blocks of wall text. The restraint and care in the included information provide just enough background to give the viewer a foundation to stand on, yet also allow for interpretation.
One of the Quad Galleries is dominated by a floor-to-ceiling tapestry made entirely out of denim scraps that depicts a swirl of clouds, luminously backlit and shot through with rays of sun. The work, “Untitled (One Day It All Comes True)” (2013), touches on notions of the sublime as explored by such artists as German painter Caspar David Friedrich and Frederic Church, along with his fellow Hudson River School painters, who negotiated man’s position in the natural world through their art. Concurrently, it explores the relationship Hodges had with his mother and their history of sewing together, as well as mining the Americanness ensconced in the material of denim. The tapestry is the only work immediately visible in the room; however, as you turn to leave, you notice the same metal spiderwebs from a previous gallery occupying a corner. These spiderwebs again seem to comment on the transitory quality of life — even their location has a transitional quality, an in-betweenness that’s subtle but memorable.
There are a few pieces in the exhibition that lack the magnetism of some of these larger works, but as a whole, the strength of the curation and artwork create a comprehensive and stunning display of an artist’s oeuvre that deserves more attention. Give More Than You Take is exquisitely painful — countless pieces will break your heart with their beauty and fragility. Hodges delves into the murky landscape of transcendental existentialism, refracting ideas of life and loss through his own experiences, environments, and emotions.
Jim Hodges: Give More Than You Take continues at the Dallas Museum of Art (1717 North Harwood, Dallas) through January 12.
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