How nerve-racking, how mentally draining it must be to be the kind of contemporary artist who has no favored medium, no particular skill set, only a penchant for slight, poetic gestures, an elegiac sensibility, and a tendency to receive one’s best ideas “fully realized as a complete, succinct concept,” while looking at the sky from behind the wheel of a car in upstate New York.
Jim Hodges is that kind of contemporary artist to a T. One can imagine his anxiety (“When will the next such idea come? What if it doesn’t come fully formed and I actually have to work through something? What should be my next move?”) as one walks through his show at the Institute of Contemporary Art.
It is the anxiety of the sweating host of a dinner party one can’t leave soon enough. The gathered company is strenuously eclectic — there is a delicate, frayed young soul sitting to one’s left, a cynical, calculating charmer to one’s right, and a patronizing bore directly opposite. But the conversation is stillborn. The evening leads nowhere.
The words quoted in the first paragraph are Hodges’s. They come from his account of the genesis of a huge but lackluster mural that hangs at the end of the ICA show. Made last year from collaged denim, it is called “Untitled (one day it all comes true).” The title, like so much else in the show, is a tease. The intention, presumably, is to signal something portentous and possibly mournful. But I take it as a reference to Hodges’s incredulity at his own advancement as an artist.
Hodges was born in Spokane, Wash., in 1957. He came to New York in the 1980s and studied painting at the Pratt Institute. He lived through the worst of the AIDS crisis, and was one of a generation of artists — many of them gay like himself, and intimately scarred by suffering and death — who responded by cultivating an aesthetic, influenced by minimalism and conceptualism, that was poetically restrained, valedictory, and preoccupied with the idea of “the overlooked.”
Some of these artists — they were and still are legion — are very good. They endow banal subject matter with a kind of spiritual adhesiveness, roping it into wondrous new forms, occasionally injecting it with a cool shot of ruthless intelligence.
But the aesthetic — call it the Mournful Mundane, the Indeterminate Elegiac, or Catharsis in the Corner — is by now a kind of official taste. It is sought out by sighing, self-satisfied collectors, and nurtured by institutional support so entrenched it is beginning to resemble, well, a lack of imagination.
Hodges, who also showed at the ICA in 1998, before its move to the waterfront, works in every conceivable medium. This show, “Give More Than You Take,” comes to Boston after stops in Dallas and Minneapolis. It features drawing, collage, sculpture, photography, installation, assemblage, murals, blown glass, glass mosaics, stained glass, colored light, fabric, and more.
The earliest work in the show (“Good Luck,” 1987) is a commercially produced ski mask that Hodges unpicked, stretched out, and pinned high up in the corner of a room. Thus skied and splayed, it anticipates a motif — the overlooked spider web — and a method — modest rearrangements of found things — that Hodges has returned to repeatedly.
But no matter the medium, no matter the method, no matter its scale or the accessories used to gussy it up (23.5- and 24-carat gold leaf, silk flowers, Shalimar perfume, and so on), Hodges’s every effort falls short. The effect is like watching a compilation of attempts from the free-throw line that spin and ricochet against the backboard, jigger around the hoop, and basically do everything but swoosh through the basket.
“Deformed,” from 1989, is characteristic. It’s a small, tattered Bonwit Teller shopping bag that Hodges has cut open and pinned to the wall, so that its new shape resembles a crucifix. Purple pansies decorate the bag. With help from the wall label, the work can be neatly parsed: Pansies historically signify homosexuality; Bonwit Teller was the store whose window displays were for a time designed by Andy Warhol, a gay (and Catholic) artist whose influence on Hodges is hard to miss.
In this and other works, the allusions mount impressively enough. But they are like sparks from a lighter that is out of fluid. Nothing actually ignites.
The first room in the show is darkened and adorned with several works from a series called “Movements.” Circular canvases covered in mosaics of mirrors, they are cut off at the edges of the wall or ceiling. Easily the best things in the show, they cast beautiful patterned reflections. They promise something transporting which, sadly, never eventuates.
Nearby is an earlier mirror work, “No Dust.” Hodges made it by gluing a mirror onto canvas, turning it face-down, then pounding it with a hammer. “In one decisive moment,” explains the wall label, “Hodges began to distance himself from his persona as an artist obsessed with beauty, memory, and nostalgia.”
What a good line. You almost feel like you might be at the beginning of an interesting story. But of course, it’s entirely specious. Even if mirrors do suggest “beauty, memory, and nostalgia” (I would have guessed narcissism, but I suppose it’s all connected), the rest of the show makes it abundantly clear that Hodges in no way distanced himself from these preoccupations. The setup is artificial, the payoff risible. And unfortunately, the whole show is rife with these blind stabs at art, tendentiously explained.
An installation halfway through the show, “the dark gate,” invites us to walk through saloon-style swing doors into a timber room with a window framed by threatening steel spikes. The spikes, if you can believe it, have been doused in perfume — “the Shalimar perfume [Hodges’s] mother always wore and a scent he himself was wearing at the time of her death.”
What a confusing nightmare, with its allusions to the Wild West, violent entrapment, and morbid maternal aromas. What are we to make of it?
Don’t ask. “The lone bulb at the center of the work,” drones the wall label, “is positioned, philosophically, at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum from Hodges’s previous sculptures using light.”
If I confess that I noticed neither the contending perfumes nor the light bulb, let alone the bulb’s philosophical positioning “at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum” (huh?) “from Hodges’s previous sculptures using light,” do I thereby disqualify myself as an attentive art critic?
Mea culpa. My nose was blocked.
Great claims are made for the “startling originality” of certain works, but elsewhere a premium seems to be placed on Hodges’s allusions to other, better-known artists. Admittedly, this kind of piggybacking of prestige is endemic in contemporary art. But when do Hodges’s moves count as homages stamped with originality, and when are they lame knockoffs?
It’s very hard to tell. The “startling originality” of “You,” one of a series of curtains of artificial flowers Hodges has made, seems to me a nifty allusion to the shiny bead curtains of his late friend, the artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres. His “As close as I can get,” made from Pantone color chips and adhesive tape, looks like a reference to similar works by Gerhard Richter and Ellsworth Kelly.
His “He and I,” a colored pencil wall drawing, in which two large intersecting circles are scaled to match the respective heights of Hodges and his lover, suggest the colored pencil wall drawings of Sol LeWitt. His “Landscape” — 15 handmade shirts nesting inside one another — calls to mind the empty clothes of Charles LeDray.
The camouflage fabric in “all in the field” (Hodges “has worn camouflage pants consistently for years,” we’re assured) allude most obviously to the camouflage paintings of Andy Warhol. And the broken-mirror works reprise the broken mirrors of the Italian Arte Povera artist, Michelangelo Pistoletto.
Some of these affinities are no doubt accidental. But it’s strange how today’s artists, blessed with the freedom to do whatever they please in any medium, are so often reduced to cherry-picking from their favorite artists.
In the end, isn’t there something mildly annoying about art that is so obsessed with slight gestures and poetic fragility, and about artists who appoint themselves with the task of drawing our attention to the “overlooked”? It all congeals so quickly into smugness — a silent assertion of the artist’s spiritual superiority.
I happen to think most of us have a nose for banality already, and our own ways of recouping it. What’s dispiriting is to see these precious, private movements of the mind so lamely claimed for art.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.