Jodi Hays has a long history in Nashville, and an even longer history in the South. A native of Hot Springs, Ark., Hays has lived in Nashville since 2005. She spent four years as the gallery director at Tennessee State University, where she brought in art-world heavyweights like William Pope.L, Hank Willis Thomas and Shaun Leonardo. She’s exhibited with Red Arrow Gallery and ZieherSmith, and her show at The Browsing Room inside the Downtown Presbyterian Church received a coveted ArtForum Critic’s Pick.
For The Find, her first solo show in Los Angeles, Hays is exhibiting mostly large-scale works that the artist refers to as “backless quilts” — a kind of descriptive shorthand for her unique process.
“The Find relates to reclaimed materials and the idea that materials have been taken from Goodwill or recycling bins or hand-me-downs from my family,” the artist tells the Scene from her home in East Nashville. “But The Find is also what an artist practices — a lifetime of searching for something.”
Philip Guston said that ghosts, including those of “teachers, friends, painters from history, [and] critics,” haunted his studio whenever he started painting. On good days, his unsolicited influences would walk out, one by one. The abstract painter Jodi Hays demonstrates a different approach to such visitations in her exhibition “Outskirts” (titled after Guston’s cityscape from 1969): Her phantoms are invited to stay.
Originally from rural Arkansas and now based in Nashville, Hays makes compositions that refer to the landscapes of her past and present by joining together disparate American fringe aesthetics. Many of the twelve works on view incorporate vintage materials that she salvaged from the home of her late grandmother. Queen of Arkansas (all works cited, 2019), for example, is a stitched section of a quilt stretched over a small panel. In the similarly sized Color Fast, a deconstructed beach ball has been made into a canvas. An adjacent piece, Estate, is merely a frayed segment of chair caning, revived by the artist with a swipe of light blue paint.
Hays’s artist forebears are conjured as well: In How to Fold a Flag, a wad of floral wallpaper is presented simply on a wall, à la Richard Tuttle. Nearby, on a tiny wooden shelf, Hays presents a collection of saved soap slivers, which nod to depression-era frugality—and, in a darker evocation, with their arrangement in a vertical cluster, to Guston’s Klansmen crowded in a car. Other items, such as the plastic paint bucket turned pedestal and the spray-painted cedar stump in the wall-spanning installation Afternoons, summon the assemblages of Jessica Stockholder. Across all the works on view, the real sorcery is Hays’s tempering sentimentality with a shrewd formalism—a spell for an open-ended dialogue about materials and memory.
Jodi Hays works in a studio on the third floor in an old mission church. The dark, spooky hallways are filled with old furniture (and probably ghosts), but her workspace is warm and sunny—and the rent is only fifty bucks(!) I loved Hays’s paintings, particularly the surfaces, the degree of abstraction, her choice of imagery, and her sense of color. We talked a little about her artist statement, too. Here’s my edit: Depicting construction fences, festoons, caution tape, and traffic cones that mark transitional sites, Hays’s paintings use visual metaphor to explore personal circumstance.
Jodi Hays (Nashville, Tennessee): I collect fabrics and textiles. My interest is in rural culture and handiwork, and their associations with the body. Over 20 years ago, I bought this “crazy quilt.” It was in rough shape, so the dealer practically gave it to me. In grad school I pinned it to my apartment wall. Here in Tennessee, I slung it over a sofa.
The “crazy quilt” style blends improvisational piecework and grid-based composition. This particular quilt is less improv, more grid. The ecru top dominates the overall effect, silk threads dangling loose. I have always envisioned the maker a tight-lipped Victorian New England Protestant. There is no fabric in the quilt that I associate with the American South, such as cotton in the form of gingham and seersucker. The outside border is made of pieced cigar ribbons (so my Mom says) laid together to form diagonally striped patterns on not-quite-square fabric supports. The interior pieces are jeweled tones of corduroy and silks punctuated with colorfully embroidered dogs, crosses, moons, stars, flora, wheels, and arrows.
In early quarantine, grateful to be safe and healthy, I answered the collective call to stay home and to make use of the long days. Organizing the studio, I folded stacks of fabrics, lacework, crocheted doilies, towels, letter jackets, and quilts. My working and living spaces benefited from this anxious process.
In May, I became curious about the quilt’s structure, seams, and batting. I carefully separated the quilt top from the paper-bag-tinted backing. The corroded threads disintegrated with the slightest force, revealing my favorite feature: floral linen edging, two inches wide around a cruddy and stunning linen-colored flannel batting with printed pink stripes.
Sometimes paintings are discovered. Object becomes material. Rosie Lee Tompkins said of her patchworks, “I hope they spread a lot of love.” In the slow days of unease, the quilt was a giver. I feel the love.
The palpable despondency at the abject failure of our nation’s pledge and our flag’s promise of freedom and justice are echoed more quietly in Jodi Hays, South of Hope (2020). The rectangles of diagrammatic cut canvas and linen painted in blues resemble an upside-down flag with the texture of denim. Hays is a native Arkansan like me, and South of Hope confronts women’s roles in traditional crafting and rural culture though the use of textile and the look of quilted jeans. In a rhyme of color with Marlos E'van’s Backwards Ideology (2020) on the same wall, the curators and artists make visible that America has yet to address wrong-sided legacies of our past. Backwards Ideology starkly repeats the letters n.u.g. again and again over 25 square feet of acrylic on canvas until the supremacy of guns is inescapable and overwhelming. Both artists also signal the doubling of troubles during the time of the pandemic. Hays’ approximately, forever (2020) takes the formal abstraction of collage to its logical end. The grid is both a useful organizing tool and a system of oppression. By the 20th century, the tyrannical hegemony of linear perspective and its symbolic form had to be undone by makers and historians in concert: the initial power of naturalism as the special rhetoric of artisans, the non-elite, became obsolete or was forgotten. When you realize that the system has been constructed so that you cannot win the game, no matter how hard you try, you must cheat-lie-steal and then smash the chessboard. If you don’t have the power, you must strive to change the collective memory. Change.
Nashville-based artist Jodi Hays usually moves among several paintings in her studio practice, a habit that may be responsible for echoes across her body of work. Yet each painting stands on its own as bold and intense, a carefully wrought yet experimental playing with composition and form. I’ve long been drawn to Hays’ paintings, which are rendered with palette knives, tape, and other exacting tools. I sometimes read them as abstract cityscapes, full of sharp angles, architectural forms, and geometrical shapes. She envisions herself as part of the lineage of painting and is moved to investigate restraint and abandon by slipping between abstraction and representation. She implies fences and walls as metaphors for the limits of physical and psychological spaces.
But there is also something very human in this work that speaks to our relationships with our immediate environments. The screen-like stripes and overlaid grids act as borders, actual and metaphorical, in modern life. Hays’ paintings have an internal logic that I could study for years. This speaks to her striking instinct for composition that’s magnified by her disciplined practice, but also to her sharp, critical mind.
Last year, Hays opened a pop-up gallery in her backyard studio called DADU (short for Detached Accessory Dwelling Unit, the city code name for structures on one’s property). I visited the unit in between DADU exhibitions to talk to Hays about her new series called The Devil’s Neighbor.
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.
2020 January Resident Interview: Jodi Hays
MHM: Much of your practice has been beautifully documented and catalogued throughout your career. In what ways does this creative record illuminate throughlines within your work?
JH: I have always relied heavily on daily practice, most consistently through sketchbooks. They have been a familiar container for over 25 years. The interest in artist books came for a few reasons; to honor the book form (as reading is another important part of my research), and in some cases, like Keeper (collaborators David King and writer Joe Nolan) I hoped to have a desirable, affordable component to my solo show of paintings.
Most recent books (on my site) are like recipe books, a context for my abstraction. I have divided these up into categories that have been consistent prompts: fragments, build, heaven, text. I made them as poetic (and affordable) extensions of and illuminations on my practice.
MHM: What are you reading right now? Could you describe any particular passages or themes that resonate with your current time in studio?
JH: I have been reading CD Wright’s poetry this winter. She is also a native of Arkansas. Steal Away and One with Others. I feel understood.
Ninth Street Women, reading with a few women artists for a book club.
In the fall I picked up White Girls by Hilton Als and read the essay on Flannery O’Connor called The Lonesome Place. I am still ruminating on how this essay begins to get at the frayed edges of a southern identity or habit, and the role of the writer/observer.
Others in rotation now: Spying on the South, Water Dancer, and stacks of books of poetry that are overdue but I’m glad our library no longer has fines.
MHM: Are there specific qualities that appeal to you in selecting materials? (i.e. textiles, found objects, texture and color, etc.) How do you collect or choose the fabrics you use in your paintings?
JH: Palette might be part of it, history and association with women (patterns, wallpaper, interiors, domesticity). Formally, the fabric work came from an interest in inserting a sewn mark into a canvas (2016/17). Then I began to play with more overt suggestions to the architecture of a painting. The fabric I was using for Tend (2019) was related to windows and architecture elements of painting (curtains) and/or pattern/stripes.
MHM: You quote Bell Hooks, “that we may know in fragments,” in reference to your practice of collecting aesthetic and poetic moments. Can you expand on the role of this practice in your work and how you frame these moments?
JH: That quote comes from her book on Teaching to Transgress. This quote resonates the same way we find truth in poetry. Mariyln Robinson says poetry is “an imaginary garden with real toads”. Sometimes I think my whole practice through seeing fragments, pieces of stories (hence the “recipe” books). It also connect with my love of painting, allowing the mark (or fragment) to be the main character
MHM: How do you choose your color palette for a particular painting or body of work?
JH: When I was taught to paint it was very traditional, with a prescriptive palette that is laid out, by value related to color. Though this education is a great tool and taught me how to see, in many ways, my color choices now are less precious. Sometimes my palette is very process-driven, dictated by needing to throw a wrench in a work that feels too decorative. Sometimes conceptual, like in 2017 for Keeper, using red ink as a starting point for its associative qualities to ideas of alarm and the printing process. Sometimes I wonder if I am synesthesiac.
MHM: You note that the works in your latest show “Outskirts,” at Browsing Room Gallery, are decidedly smaller than those exhibited in “Tend” at Red Arrow Gallery. How do you find your process and aesthetics change between these two dynamic scales?
JH: Many of the works for Outskirts were in the studio, in the same process of “Tend” and even before. I consider work done once I have titled it, so the work in Outskirts is mostly 2019. After making large-scale works I found a smaller scale, and specifically, an 8x6 panel was a challenge and through it, I was able to develop a conversation between works (painted and otherwise) that was not happening before that scale choice. That and the large paintings are wonderfully exhausting.
MHM: You list highly physical influences like “weathered board” and “rural awnings” in reference to your compositions and mark-making. Do you think that the language of digital sketching apparatuses, like the iPhone markup feature, has also made its way into your aesthetic vocabulary?
JH: YES! I actually use mark-up a lot for editing and making moves in the work in a low-stakes way. I talk a bit about the use of digital sketching and how it has played into my daily works on paper and began to inform my use of the grid (and the grid in the actual landscape, like buildings). I think about ways around the feathered trademark of the exhausted Ab Ex mark and how, in digital (free apps or iPad drawing situations that I have used) your mark or line is very rounded, thumblike, scalloped “end.” This thinking informed Tend, how a mark can be inexhaustible (and thinking about a female presence in these marks and institutions).
MHM: You mentioned a few of your inspirations. For example: “Guston is a consistent (though distant) voice in my head for his negotiation of a “camp” (abstraction versus figuration). Can you talk more about the abstraction versus figuration theories and what this means to you?
JH: Guston was interested in being part of his contemporary moment and it led him into a kind of figuration. This, at a time when his peers (in NY) felt he was not advancing the project of “pure” formal abstract painting.
I found abstraction accidentally after I had followed the “pace car” of painting for almost 10 years, through graduate school when I made mostly representational work. I went to art school in the 1990s, which means my professors were mostly men who came up in the 60s/70s. I had one female painting professor and she was “in” the Drawing department. That was my way around “the system” then, find a woman. Though I appreciate my education, I am skeptical of those division lines, and learn a lot from my younger painter friends who have less baggage about it.
I am interested, too, in following the project of painting but not on anyone else’s terms, though history and relevance are important. I spent all of 2019 reading female, non-binary, intersectional, POC writers (Eileen Myles, Hilton Als, Maggie Nelson)---they have great insight into “a way around” a declarative, divisive power that dictates.
MHM: Cat Acree describes two of your large paintings as “God’s lungs.” Given that religion and spirituality are often deeply embedded within southern and rural culture, I wonder how themes of the divine, practices of religion, or spiritual mythologies play into your work?
JH: In a recent panel at Watkins College of Art, a discussion ensued on what Flannery O’Connor called “the Christ-haunted” place I live. I think very much about interiors/exteriors and boundaries in my work, which is probably partially about a life long negotiation of this place, this geography, this complicated space. Sometimes I will leverage this in titles (Heaven, Devotion). If anything, religion points to how complicated, beautiful, terrible we are. Painting can do that same thing.
MHM: With a wealth of experience in Southern creative communities, what are some ways in which you’ve seen the cultural dialogue in and about visual art adapt to contemporary needs? How do you see these needs being met?
JH: This is complicated. I was a founding member of Coop Gallery here in Nashville. One of our prompts, 10 years ago, was to counter a non-critical, often decorative and less-than-considered mass of work that we were seeing at the Arcade, where our “art crawl” started. I was a way to present to viewers “yes, and…” So much has changed, Wedgewood Houston has countered in great ways with commercial galleries and artist-run spaces. Of course, geography and real estate seem to be the “winner” often, and much of what makes the city a home for creatives (affordable studios, affordable pop-up spaces) seems to be going away. Tri-Star arts has served artists in that we are connecting outside our own cities, and that lets the pressure off our immediate spheres. They are also pushing for an army of collectors, which I love. And often I am afraid I am near-sighted, that I can’t see what is actually happening anymore because I love Nashville so much and have been here for 15 years. I ask new people a lot why they are here. That helps with my perspective.
MHM: What is your perfect Sunday?
JH: Early to rise
Water, weather permitting
Friends and Dinner
Reading in bed
MHM: What’s next for you, in the studio and out in the world?
JH: My show ends at the Browsing Room at the end of February. I have a few larger works in the studio and no show in the books (yet). My work is included in a traveling show around Tennessee, first Martin, then Memphis, then Knoxville called Voluntarily Indirect curated by Clay Palmer. Then, hose off my garage studio floors and keep working.
Review, Nashville Scene
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.
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.
See full interview. My studio is in my backyard, so I was able to manifest an uptick in production. My time, though not by any stretch “free,” was immersive, my practice seasoned and I enjoyed some unexpectedly large gains with materials, paper, and fabric.
Jodi Hays' art is an exercise in balance and juxtaposition, the influence of her vibrant abstract paintings shifting between natural landscapes and built environments and her approach alternating between discipline and spontaneity. Filled with vivid pops of color and incorporating grids and iconography, Jodi's work draws inspiration from her upbringing near a national park, her adult years in bigger cities like Boston and Nashville, and an assortment of literature, images, sound bites and titles that move her.
"For years, my work has been a negotiation of restraint and abandon," she says. "Painting is an investment in constraint in a similar way that architecture bends and works within our complex landscapes and cultural matrix."
Using brushes, palette knives and tape, often scraping paint to reveal the layers underneath, Jodi creates textured works that play with shape and space. Her East Nashville studio is filled with arresting canvases of all sizes in various states of completion, and her art is included in collections of the J. Crew Company in New York, Gordon College in Massachusetts, the Nashville International Airport and the Tennessee State Museum.