n anticipation of Jodi Hays’ latest show at The Red Arrow Gallery, titled simply Tend, several Nashville media outlets described the artist as a staple of the local art community. It’s not the worst thing to call someone, a staple — it implies reliability, and indeed Hays’ work is reliably captivating. But her work is also continually evolving, and the conversation surrounding it seems inexhaustible and always worthy of entering into.
Of course, “staple” may also suggest some kind of core nutrient, as in the staple foods of a diet. Or it could be a reference to office supplies — to the act of holding many parts together.
It can be easy to go too far with wordplay, but half the fun of Hays’ abstract works is in their titles, so picking apart a word’s meaning isn’t far off the mark here. Take the title of the exhibition itself — to tend is to care for or to cultivate; to behave in a particular way. “I tend to have trouble figuring out what abstract art is about,” for example. And just as the best way to understand words is by grasping their context within a language’s history, understanding the painter’s mark within the history of mark-making only gives greater power to the mark.
Tend is a selection of large-scale paintings — some larger than we’ve seen from Hays before — balanced with a number of smaller works. The size of two of her largest paintings is a big deal, and it feels impossible to talk about Tend without addressing them immediately. They’re massive, like a god’s lungs, and they confidently occupy the gallery’s tallest wall. One is titled “Heaven,” and it’s a direct descendent of Hays’ previous show, the more representational God Sees Through Houses, in particular the prismatic lens or windows of that show. If anything, this is our staple: The varied stripes that make up Hays’ painterly grids are her most important iconography, like the angles of a house, the walls that hem us in, the home we keep, the blinds that obscure windows.
But if “Heaven” places us within the context of Hays’ own history of work, its sister, “Footnotes,” places us within the context of an entire history of Abstract Expressionism. It’s a monumental dance of gesture, a wide sweep of the arm, an acrobatic, brazen movement. We see Hays’ prismatic stripes floating in a cloud, and in one of the show’s boldest shapes, a black swoop of paint forms a “U,” or a bubbly heart at the painting’s center. The title seems glaringly obvious: Of course it’s about women Abstract Expressionists who were so often relegated to the footnotes of history and popular memory.
Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko — the cover boys of Abstract Expressionism — were given practically free rein to define mark-making and the use of abstraction to uncover emotional states. Women were working within this sphere — Helen Frankenthaler, most famously — but to this day, it’s the boys who tend to get all the attention. So how do you feminize the mark? Within Tend, the key could be in showing the parts, the labor, the pieces of the composite whole. Interspersed between the larger paintings are several suites of smaller paintings, which in their smallness seem to suggest they belong to a much larger story — and while they know what that larger context is, we can only imagine.
Hays’ grid softens even more with the fabric elements that compose several of her artworks. In these pieces, fabric wraps around the edge of the canvas, which Hays’ paint does not. Fabric as a historically feminine material is, once again, a tradition that Hays plays into. It’s rather impossible to avoid nostalgia when using materials that are found, like worn pajamas or patchwork quilts. Within the context of Hays’ own history, she is calling upon a small-town tradition of reusing and thrifting — in one of the works, fabric from Hays’ grandmother’s curtains peeks through. The seam of literal sewn edges is mirrored in nearby strokes of paint, emboldening the more organic shapes and calling to mind the vision of a woman poring over her craft. Several of the pieces’ names invoke this tradition as well, such as that of one of the most visually dynamic works, “Hem.” Its title suggests both an edge of clothing as well as restrictions, rules, the scaffolding that Hays plays within.
Rounded edges appear again and again in Tend, and they create an organic repetition, like natural bodies arranged in a garden. A curved stroke of paint blurs the hard edges of the canvas itself. Within the context of hard-and-fast rules, Tend is soft, supple and movement-filled — a rigid corner can become like a breast or like a flap of soft, curling fabric.
Within a painting tradition in which the rules have already been written, Hays continues to make the feminine presence elemental — a staple. She gives the feminine a necessary place at a much larger table.
Letters to the editor are welcome at any time and may be published at the editor’s discretion.
The last few paragraphs of Estes’s review taps into a larger conversation happening across the country. The author has narrowed her focus onto abstract painting, but really, every creative is asking themselves the same questions. In the face of environmental destruction, countless human rights violations, and a deeply divided public, what is the point of making art? Wouldn’t our time be better spent collectively organizing, canvassing in swing districts, or donating to the endless string of nonprofits that work tirelessly to right the wrongs of a corrupt and unjust administration? If we continue to make, shouldn’t we focus on producing calls to action? If we did, would they even be effective? Artists also have to contend with the market—how does one continue to produce knowing that financial support primarily comes from the wealthy, from collectors whom directly benefit from the exploitative financial policies which have been in place for decades?
Nancy Spero, Bomb, Dove and Victims, 1967; gouache and ink on paper, 24 by 36 in.
Art making at its core is a form of problem-solving; in “God Sees Through Houses,” Hays is trying to answer the question of why art now for herself, in the face of not only political but personal turmoil. Much like “Keeper,” the artist’s 2017 solo show at Nashville’s Red Arrow Gallery, “God Sees Through Houses” finds Hays reexamining her decades-long painting practice as a whole. It’s as if, in these exhibitions, Hays admits that she can no longer indiscriminately pull architecture, symbols, and figures from the wider world. She must wrestle with their original context and the charged associations that can accompany them. In my eyes, this marks a breakthrough for the artist.
David Hammons, Untitled, 1969; pigment on board, 36 1/4 by 25 1/8 in.
I believe the abstraction is a benefit. A work like Entry could reference multiple real-world acts, events, and conclusions. We’re given just enough information to be unsettled—to reflect on headlines we’ve read, tweets we’ve scrolled past, Facebook videos we’ve paused before their grim conclusion. All these instances speak to the precarious position of humans under surveillance, wherein people are rendered as anonymous blurs from equipment lacking enough pixels to tell the full story.
In Estes’s eyes, Hays has failed at transmitting all this to the audience; that’s fine. But instead of stopping there, Estes goes further—seemingly writing off the entire practice of abstraction in the current day. Her argument goes from micro to macro as she muses, “I cannot help but wonder if it’s possible for abstract painting…to address such specific, urgent political subject matter.”
I can’t say I fully disagree with her, but the statement is too generalized to hold much merit. Additionally, I have trouble with this criticism being directed towards Hays and the array of works in “God Sees Through Houses.” Nashville is populated with painters invested in abstraction, and yet these concerns are never brought up in consideration of their works or exhibitions. Frankly, many of their practices could benefit from this needling, from a demand to contend with the world writ large. I’d rather have an artist like Hays—one who, in Estes eyes, may fumble in her quest to merge the abstract with the political—than an artist like David Onri Anderson, whose dry depictions of apple cores and Chinese lanterns evade explicit political engagement.
I greatly appreciate Estes bringing such important, and urgent, discourse to the forefront. There’s a more nuanced argument to be had here, one that I hope Estes continues to develop and one that I will consider. As for now—I simply wish her criticism had cast a wider net.
Robert Grand is a writer and curator based in Queens, NY. His writings have appeared in Afterimage: The Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism, Artspace Magazine, and Natasha, among others. He is also the co-director and co-founder of Kimberly-Klark, an interdisciplinary project space located in Queens, NY.
July 21 – September 9, 2018
Gleaming metal ductwork, glossy white floors and ceilings, dingy cement walls, perfectly appointed lighting — Memphis’s Tops Gallery is a revelation. Screen Door, curated by Hunter Braithwaite, presents four painters: Anne Craven, EJ Hauser, Dana Frankfort, and Margeaux Ogden. Screen doors are pragmatic solutions–keeping out unwanted pests but allowing a breeze to pass. They are nostalgic for a lot of us with associative connections to home and the South: a land, a season, a breeze, an era, a housewife. One can think of painting as similarly defined by both its expansive possibilities and constraints.
Installed in the entry is Dana Frankfort’s head-sized painting, The. Modestly-scaled, the chalky cobalt surface is dolloped with a white calligraphic loop over half of the composition. A deeper, darker arc lives between the white loop and over the aforementioned blue, like a cast shadow, neither figure nor ground. Title (The) and surface (gesture, color) are perfect lovers, making a home in a world that is both object and subject, closure and opening.
When I first saw Frankfort’s painting, Written Word, I read the scrawled opaque word fragment as AMEN, and A MAN. Any mental space between place and text collapsed, as the Lorraine Motel is a block or two away from Tops Gallery, giving me I AM A MAN (Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike, 1968). Frankfort’s palette employed for Written Word creates a high-toned world revealing itself in break-your-heart, achingly variegated, iridescent scumbles and bumps. Shimmering particles are excavated in multiple sanded layers.
A former coal chute at the perimeter of the main gallery’s ceiling allows for a head-sized crescent of sunlight to fall next to Frankfort’s painting, Of. This happenstance allows for a poetic dialogue with works by Ann Craven, whose interests include seriality and time, often making paintings of moons at various state of waxing and waning. Underscoring temporality and color, Craven’s quadriptych, Bird With Pussy Willows, Hit Song on Lavender and Black, is a careful but unprecious furthering of her project. Installed with panel edges touching, like a version of a Japanese screen, brushstrokes forming color bands in the same palette interrupt two blurrily-painted images of birds. Craven’s piece most directly references a lens-based possibility to painting.
Dana Frankfort, Of, 2018, 18” x 18”, oil on panel. Photo courtesy of Jodi Hays.
EJ Hauser’s marks are sketchy, jerky answers to Ogden’s restraint. If Ogden is blocking our access to any referent, Hauser opens wide the door to reference with cartoon-like figures and chunky feet. Erratic paint strokes read like choppy contrails, like in the Wizard of Oz when the witch skywrites “Surrender Dorothy” on her broom. Hauser’s mark (self-described as having a “mosaic-like” and “vibrating quality”) is a Microsoft Paint-referenced dream, allowing for a bold, screen-sized, “gestured” moment outside of Modernism. Flat(ish) ground of color is overlaid with a continuous deliberation of tracks, generally read as creaturely (feet, figure, eyes, parts), that are not yet seated on the flat plane. Landscape/man (blue) and landscape/man (purple) are twins, or at least close cousins, and are important for the show. They allow for a stepping into current painting practices that greet references as a welcomed guest but also deny the permanent seat for a single, spatial reality.
Screens can supply unsatisfying feeds of news, headlines, gossip, happenings, weather. However, lenses can also provide a means for seeing. Screen Door is the best of painting, showing works that open up vistas and block old habits. Screen Door is flat planes of color, scribbles over texture, and funny-little-man figures. It is as intimate and as stimulating as a dinner party. Comprised of four women, gender never entered my mind related to the show and its strength. Ain’t that a woman.
'God Sees Through Houses' at Lipscomb’s Hutcheson Gallery
Last month, Lipscomb’s Hutcheson Gallery debuted its new space in the university’s Beaman Library with a solo exhibition by Nashville artist and curator Jodi Hays. “God Sees Through Houses” presents paintings that bridge abstraction and representation to explore the ideological and emotional impact of Homeland Security’s "zero tolerance" immigration policy on the realities of home, family, fear, power and surveillance.
Hays, whose work often explores how neighborhoods and communities are divided by fences, walls and other boundaries writes in a statement about the show: “Many of us have the privilege and power to see, leveraging lenses, barriers, windows. Painting has become an alternate form of measurement, one in which this power of sight (and oversight) can be used to advocate ... to observe and create a world in which we can believe and hope.”
Hays also manages a studio and pop-up gallery, Dadu, and teaches in the MFA program at Watkins College of Art.
The exhibition is up through Oct. 18. The new location of the Hutcheson Gallery is in the Beaman Library at 1 University Park Drive. Its hours are 7 a.m.-midnight Tuesday-Thursday, 7 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m.-midnight Sunday. Admission is free.
We’d love to hear more about your art. What do you do you do and why and what do you hope others will take away from your work?
Landscape is a consistent prompt for my work. My core iconography rests on the grid and all its history and associative connections with landscape–fences, gates, borders and walls. When a friend of a friend was shot at dusk across the street from my napping family, our porch camera captured it, allowing us (and police) to view the video feed after the incident. My life and studio concerns coalesced into a body of work on neighborhood, police, surveillance and photography with fences and boundaries as stepping off points. Painting is an alternate measurement.
How can artists connect with other artists?
I once heard Zadie Smith tell Ann Pachet that the only talent there is in writing is the honed ability to be alone for long periods of time in order to get the work done. I can relate to the need for vast amounts of solitude, but I also know that our lives are built around and meaningful because of community. Get to know other artists, invite them to trade studio visits, read about your peers, go to their exhibitions, know and support your people.
Do you have any events or exhibitions coming up? Where would one go to see more of your work? How can people support you and your artwork?
I have a few exhibitions across the country coming up, and my gallery out of Nashville, TN, The Red Arrow Gallery often goes to Art Dallas. In addition, Flat File Art (Montclair, NJ) and Show and Tell (Charleston, SC) show the work.
I have a solo show coming up at Covenant College in Tennessee January 2019, and am included in a group show of “southern” artists at James Madison University’s Duke Hall Gallery (John Ros, Curator) the same month. People show go to shows, get to know artists and purchase art work–what a way to contribute to a healthy world of empathy!
In the final chapter of the Neighbors mini-series “Matt Got Shot,” we visit Jodi Hays, the woman whose security camera captured the footage of Matt’s terrifying assault. Jodi is an abstract artist—captivated by the image of the moment Matt was shot in front of her house, she made several works out of it. Then she showed it to Matt. What happens when trauma is re-interpreted and shared in a broader context?
Late in his career and at the height of abstract expressionism, painter Philip Guston made a radical shift from abstraction to representational works. The often-cartoonish paintings were deeply personal, expressing angst and struggle––but also, strangely, hope. “So when the 1960s came along,” Guston told the New York Post in 1977, “I was feeling split, schizophrenic. The war, what was happening to America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything—and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue?”
In 2017, the sentiment might translate to this: As both the executive and legislative branches of our government move to limit civil liberties and environmental protections and each week brings a new invitation to a protest or sit-in, how does the socially engaged artist justify the often-solitary nature of making work? Guston’s question—“What kind of man am I?”—is analogous to the more current language of recognizing privilege, which I talk to artists about all the time.
or painter Jodi Hays, there was a point where she started making work about how she saw the world. This included the boundaries of urban landscape: nets, construction barriers, fences––hard angles brought to bear in paintings that slip between representation and abstraction. After the 2016 election, she began using red ink. Its contexts––editing, alarm signals, blood––and the color’s political party association, speak to feelings of separation and a desire for revision.
ays’s new work uses that monochromatic palette of diluted red ink for paintings on paper and canvas that are hyper-local. Inspired by walks in her East Nashville neighborhood, Hays considered how her work in the studio could reflect and give back to her immediate community, thus bridging a gap between her backyard studio and the streets and alleys that connect her to others, regardless of their income, social status, or political leanings.
The series was exhibited at Red Arrow Gallery in November. Titles have always been important to Hays. She long kept scraps of paper scrawled with them in a cigar box, now translated to a note on her smartphone. She wants titles to act as entry points for viewers, a way to open a door and nudge us toward a conversation, even if it’s just internal. She titled the Red Arrow show Keeper. It’s inspired to a large extent by two community members who, until recently, Hays hadn’t met.
For years, she’s called them “sister walkers.” The two elderly women walk around the neighborhood, one slightly ahead, the other close behind, her hands on the small of her back. Hays began photographing them when she was out on the porch and on walks with her kids. They became like animated elements of urban landscape. “I am my brother’s keeper” is the inherent message in the show’s title, and the sister walkers become symbolic keepers of both each other and Hays’s sense of place. At the same time, walking has a rich history in Nashville because of the Civil Rights movement, when walking and marching were a form of resistance.
Other symbols unfurl in the paintings. Trellises, porches, fences, gates, and signs––like the letters ERS from the blazing-red Hunters Custom Automotive sign on E. Trinity Lane––make the neighborhood recognizable to those who live nearby, but the regular markings of a neighborhood will be familiar to all. In a small way, Hays also addresses the economic disparity that makes art accessible to some but not all: She sold $15 prints at the opening, along with a gorgeous $30 artist book published by the local independent publisher Extended Play. And she eventually did meet the sister walkers to give them a painting and invite them to Keeper. They came, probably more curious than anything, and recognized the specific way they walk and interact with their neighborhood.
To get back to Guston, Hays has sold me on the idea that it’s possible to think of painting as resistance. Making art during uncertain times is an act of faith, of hope that we can do better and that we can influence the arc of justice, in however small a way. In a conversation I had with Hays for BURNAWAY last year, she said, “ . . . making your small mark in the midst of a larger world fraught with decay or cynicism––that’s hopeful.” So is making a daily commitment to being a good neighbor, and trying again if we fail.
Jodi Hays is a Nashville painter whose work is in the permanent collections of the J. Crew Company, Tennessee State Museum, and Nashville International Airport, among others. She’s had residencies with The National Parks of America, The Cooper Union School of Art, and Vermont Studio Center, and she is the former assistant director at the Cambridge Art Association (Massachusetts). In 2005, Hays relocated from Boston to East Nashville, where she helped establish the COOP Gallery. She was a professor and curator at Tennessee State University before opening Dadu, a pop-up gallery. She currently lives in East Nashville with her husband, Felix, three children (Gus, Eames, and Cleo), and polydactyl cat, Lefty. Her upcoming exhibit, Keeper, will show November 11 through December 3 at The Red Arrow Gallery.
Nashville painter Jodi Hays works in the tradition of abstraction, blending contrasting hues, stripes, grids and geometric shapes that evoke cityscapes and architectural forms. Her complex canvases are in essence an exploration of place, particularly the constructed environments we’ve shaped and that shape us, individually and communally.
In “Keeper,” her latest exhibition at Red Arrow Gallery, she traverses a red-washed borderland between abstraction and representation, tracing the physical topography of her East Nashville neighborhood and reflecting on the psychological, social and economic realities that bind or divide it.
I knew from an early age that I wanted to pursue art. I mostly saw art in books (my Mom is a retired art teacher) and always had a project going from our supplies. I am from Arkansas, a state that hosted fruitful nature play and reading time as a kid.
Rebecca Solnit said, “Landscape’s most crucial condition is considered to be space, but it’s deepest theme is time.” My interests for years have been rooted in landscape and our relationship to our shared built environment. Painting is such a compelling medium for it’s relationship to both time and land. After all, hue is pigment from the earth.
The title “Keeper” comes from a small painting I made in 2016 of the same name. I began to think of painter as “Keeper,” one who chooses and selects how to process her world through a studio practice, keeping some prompts and editing out others.
What questions about place most intrigue you?
Maybe Herman Melville wrote is best in Moby Dick, “It’s not down in any map, true places never are.” There is potential for a place to conjure memory and thought, to prompt feeling and connection, to be worth memorializing, protesting, revering, anthologizing and recovering through an equally compelling discipline of painting. Landscape can channel a productive nostalgia, if tempered right.
You used a lot of red ink in this body of work. Why?
I am no stranger to color, but also have gone through periods of grisaille and monochrome palette choices. The red ink originated from daily paintings I made on paper with a color that communicated signal and alarm. I began using red ink after the 2016 election for all its reductive and associative contexts; writing and editing, broadsides, alarm signals and blood.
In your artist’s statement, what do you mean by the ‘agency of painting’?
Though I am firmly committed for the rest of my life to making paintings, I am also interested in the potential for the act of art-making or the art object itself to reach into our lives and send us towards hope and determination. Can painting leverage that agency, that voice, that power? If each one of us loved one thing so dearly that we would spend hours towards that excellence, that could change the world. This is high-minded, yes, but we have so much to do in the world and better get to work.
Eyes Like Enemies: New work by Mark Brosseau and Brian Edmonds
Curator's Statement (Jodi Hays for Dadu)
Rilke wrote: 'These trees are magnificent, but even more magnificent is the sublime and moving space between them, as though with their growth it too increased. -Gaston Bachelard, Poetics of Space
This exhibition brings together two painters whose work adds to the discourse on abstraction and the nature of painting. I have enjoyed thinking about their work in this context, at the Packing Plant, in a small room of east Side Project Space, sharing doors with neighbors and winding around an art-filled cabin. Their works force us to look inward, recalling memories of Crayola paint and Pong. These painters allow for an interiority to form between the work and the viewer, creating a triangulation of work/memory/viewer. Sight is not the only way to enter paintings; considerations of space, history and memory give the viewer a broader experience to bring to seeing/experiencing the work.
Alan Greenspan said (2008) of his misunderstanding of capitalism, “I discovered a flaw in the model that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works.” Paintings by Brosseau and Edmonds occupy a place in abstraction that leans on titles, references discovery and relies on research that can belie an only-visual read. Edmond’s titles, for this show, are pulled from those that construct a narrative of darkness and interiority (Erasure, God Night, Attic Black). Brosseau’s paintings rely on language/titles speaking to spaces riddled with ambiguity (Toxic, Camouflaged, Disparate). Within the logic of making a painting, these two have found a system, flaws and all.
Recorded January 2017, Ellen Dempsey and Amelia Briggs sat down with me in my studio to discuss the Nashville art scene, Red Arrow gallery, academia, the growing pains of an "it" city and much more.
The Artist’s Alphabet, now on view at Ground Floor Gallery, may be gallery’s best exhibit to date. Curated by Jodi Hays, the juried exhibition shows 10 mid-career artists that have established their own rules within their practice. In her curatorial statement, Hays references artist Charline Von Heyl: "I have an alphabet of tricks, an alphabet of colors." Hays, who is an accomplished painter in her own right, proves to be a capable curator with a great ability to choose works that relate to one another subliminally.
In such an intimate show, it’s difficult to name a stand-out, but two sculptures byJeremy Jones really impressed me. "The Baby Bubble Bounce" is a glazed stoneware baby head that's been turned into a Fisher-Price Corn Popper. The top of the head is like a viewing area for stargazing, populated with two humanoid faces and one dachshund head. Then there’s "Totem," a four-headed totem pole that’s set on wheels, like a child’s toy. In the context of Jones’ other work — and hell, even out of context — the sculptures balance something playful with something ominous. My guess is that his alphabet is made up of things as strange and wonderful as the 1971 animated film The Point!
- Briena Harmening
- Charmaine Ortiz
- "Stopping Soon," Desiré Hough