A measure of respect is due any artist who has the nerve to take on a revered masterpiece in the history of art, aspiring to remake it according to a conception of new conditions in the present. That's what Jim Hodges did in 2008 with a sculpture born of Albrecht Dürer's famous watercolor that shows a chunk of wet mud sprouting a clump of bristling weeds.
Arguably, Dürer's "The Great Piece of Turf" (1503) is the greatest drawing in all of Western art. Hodges' take on it, a delicate glass sculpture sealed inside a nearly 3-foot-tall bell jar, is one of 56 works in the 25-year retrospective of his career concluding its national tour at the UCLA Hammer Museum. "Jim Hodges: Give More Than You Take," jointly organized by the Dallas Museum of Art and Minneapolis' Walker Art Center, continues through Jan. 18.
The sculpture, titled "ghost," unfortunately doesn't meet the admirable aim announced in the show's generous title. The fragile glass still life is handsome, but the watercolor's technical mastery is nothing short of astounding. The sculpture mostly makes you want to see the work that inspired it.
Hodges has added delicate butterflies to the sculpture, a roadside fragment of the mundane natural world, and they make one wince. On one hand they are an appealing embrace of sentimentality in our Disney- and Hallmark-infused world, where art is usually — and often disappointingly — skeptical of tender emotions. But the insects can't escape a mawkish aura.
Butterflies were a prominent 17th century symbol for life's transient fragility, yet today the reference is coarse and degraded. Swamped beneath a mountain of gift shop kitsch, it does Dürer no favors.
For comparison see the sculptures of Jeff Koons, which perform by ratcheting up the mush to an unbearable pitch. (Clarice, do you hear the lambs screaming now?) In some respects Hodges is the anti-Koons, attempting to redeem mass culture's wallow in banality. But he falls into it too: Take the recurrent use of lower-case titles for his work, such as "ghost"; it seems less an expression of humility than merely supercilious.
The bell jar's sense of wistful remoteness — of nature trapped inside an airless Victorian prison, where it is clinically scrutinized rather than luxuriously experienced — is the sculpture's most compelling feature. Poetic melancholy and mournful loss are watchwords in Hodges' art.
Hodges was born in Spokane, Wash., in 1957, and moved to Brooklyn for art school in 1983. Initially a painter, he switched to sculpture by the end of the decade and in 1994 had his first solo gallery show.
That first decade in New York coincided with several things, notably for Hodges' work the traumatic eruption of the AIDS pandemic and the emergence of a wide variety of art that sought to upend common assumptions about identity. It also tracked the arrival of Hodges' own public acknowledgment of his homosexuality. These and other developments resound in the sculpture "Untitled (Gate)" from 1991, installed at the exhibition entry.
"Untitled (Gate)" is a door that frustrates bodily passage. A steel frame designed in a fluid, loosely Art Nouveau style is bolted to a doorway. The gate separates a viewer from a softly lighted room on the other side, a room painted heavenly blue.
The center of the door is a spider web composed of chains. Around the periphery they're bulky and brute, like equipment in a dungeon; they get progressively more delicate as the strands step in toward the center. Finally, we arrive at what are little more than wispy jewelry chains. Ornamented with charms, like a bracelet or necklace, they could easily be torn asunder.
The spider web is a conventional symbol of industriousness within life's inescapable fragility, and the chains are materials redolent of stereotypical associations with masculinity and femininity. The brute links stand as a gate-keeper, but the delicate ones in the center could allow effortless passage into the luminous blue space. Hodges, raised in a large Roman Catholic family, has made a sculpture that could be seen as a thoroughly secularized kind of "heaven's gate."
He's best known for a group of cascading curtains of delicate silk flowers, one of which is at the Hammer. The curtains also suggest permeable membranes dividing spaces.
Related works include "a line to you" (1994), a single, rope-like strand of silk flowers that descends from the ceiling to coil on the floor, and "Changing Things" (1997), composed from a sparse scattering of flowers, leaves and petals pinned to the wall in a configuration that loosely suggests a United States map. Formally, these sculptures recall earlier works by very different artists, such as the fleshy latex ropes of Eva Hesse and Jasper Johns' painted maps.
But the clearest dialogue with the flower sculptures is the work of Hodges' friend and colleague Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who died at 38 in 1996. His curtains made from strands of delicate beads and his suspended strings of light bulbs — single strands, double strands and in draperies — are partly commemorated in Hodges' floral tributes. It's as if the silk flowers have been delivered to comfort a suffering soul or solemnly left at a grave.
However genuinely touching, the work is also hampered by something that likewise occasionally impedes Gonzalez-Torres' aesthetic. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the vulgar and bellicose culture wars raged, he admirably attempted to make socially conscious, politically persuasive art without the frank, even explicit adversarial combat that Gonzalez-Torres felt only hardened opposition. But the result was sometimes merely diffident and coy — a gesture finally not unlike hippies putting flowers in the rifle barrels of the National Guard.
Take a curtain of shimmery, gilded beads hanging ceiling to floor across a doorway. The bead curtain might transform an ordinary, even kitschy element from Gonzalez-Torres' Cuban heritage into an obvious experiential symbol for passage between mundane realms. It might even be stretched to recall the ancient myth of Zeus transforming himself into a shower of gold to enter the locked chamber of his intended paramour. But the cascade also winks, making safe for general public consumption the private and submerged sexual connotation of a "golden shower."
Similarly, there is something bland about much of Hodges' art — something as flavorless and flat as his circular, mosaic mirror wall-reliefs, which look like squashed disco balls. The party is over, but the memory lingers on?
A pretty cluster of 18 glass bells hand-blown by master craftsmen hangs overhead in an untitled sculpture. The simple fact that potential ruin lurks all around is certainly true: If the bells really were to toll for thee, they would come crashing down in a rain of sharp crystal shards. However, a similar sentiment is less melodramatically, more poetically embodied in Hodges' straightforward drawing in ballpoint ink of a bucolic landscape beneath an apocalyptic sky.
"Untitled (Happy Valentine's Day)" (1996) is a dense web of quickly sketched lines showing a placid country lane by a rustic farmhouse. Only slowly does the tangle reveal a wrecked automobile, chopped tree trunk, junked washing machine and discarded bathtub amid the weeds. America the not-always beautiful.
Hodges is back in Dürer territory here — or perhaps back in the rural outskirts of childhood Spokane. Necessary fences also divide the world, separating neighbors. Ugly telephone wires cutting across the sky nonetheless throw out a lifeline for interpersonal communication. Contradictory tensions in routine daily life abound.
The concentrated drawing sticks in the memory in ways the chain-link spider webs, elaborate disco mirrors and cascading silk flowers rarely do. It's a lovely and modest little drawing, no bigger than a sketch pad page. Focused, ruminative and authentically fragile, it's as heartbreaking and moving as any of the grander, flashier works in the show.
'Jim Hodges: Give More Than You Take'
Where: UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood
When: Through Jan. 18. Closed Monday.