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.
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.
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.
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.
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' 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.
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.
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.