Artist and curator share the love at Walker

GREGORY J. SCOTT | Updated 2/13/2014

Walker director Olga Viso offers a valentine to artist Jim Hodges.

Walker Art Center director Olga Viso and Jim Hodges.
Bruce Bisping

Like all great artist-curator crushes, Jim Hodges and Walker Art Center director Olga Viso met cute.

The year: 1995. The scene: a small gallery in Santa Monica, Calif. The art world: a roiling mosh pit of post-AIDS outrage, quarrelsome identity politics and sneering dismissals of anything harmonious or pretty. Viso, then a budding assistant curator at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., stepped into the gallery, on the prowl for work capturing the distemper of the times.

Instead, she found Hodges’ “Here’s where we will stay,” a patchwork curtain of silk, chiffon and nylon scarves, rippling in a stray springtime breeze. Like most of Hodges’ work, the piece is gentle, quietly feminine. If his art were a family member, it would be your favorite grandmother: frail but unflaggingly kind, both a human receptor of sentimentality and a reminder of time passing, and often bedecked in flowers and sequins.

Viso fell hard.

“I was instantly assaulted by a flood of childhood memories,” she says today. “I could almost smell my mother’s perfume wafting from the silken mesh.”

Almost 20 years later, Viso is mounting a major survey of Hodges’ career. “Jim Hodges: Give More Than You Take” is the first comprehensive academic investigation into Hodges’ work, which is poised to enter the late-century canon. But it is also the consummation of a two-decade professional love affair between Viso and Hodges, who are yoked together in a generational intimacy. Since that day in 1995, both have seen their professional stocks rise in tandem — and their careers intersect at fated, poignant moments. “Give More Than You Take” isn’t just a show. It’s a valentine, from one BFF to another.

“The getting-to-know-you part is already taken care of,” says Hodges of being curated by a longtime friend. His personal connection with Viso, he feels, cuts through the dampening cotton of institutional protocol, the formality of working with museum teams and installation crews. “To be in her hands feels really great.”

To wit: We’re getting an intimate, sentimental take on work that is already intimate and sentimental. Hodges, 56, is a transcendentalist. He’s famous, yes, for reviving beauty and delicacy amid ’90s political rage — for probing what Viso calls the “nourishing friction” between activism and unabashed, sacred love. But his great magic is at the level of the material. Hodges manages to conjure, “Leaves of Grass”-style, a rhapsodic reverence for the everyday and the well-worn: dirty tangles of Scotch tape, chains, old men’s shirts — even his own saliva, which he’s used to make ink transfer drawings.

Hodges interacts with stuff, he says, by “responding in a respectful way.” It’s about “unleashing and unfolding a material’s content that is there sleeping, dormant.”

His big break in the early 1990s was a piece called “A Diary of Flowers.” Each day, as ritual, he executed a quick sketch of a flower on a discarded, often stained coffeehouse napkin. The project was an elegy to friends lost to AIDS.

If napkins are the opening bookend to the Walker survey, the closing bookend is a cloth equally as absorbent: the sky. What other blanket has soaked in such millennia of human daydreaming? Hodges has produced an epic, 24-foot-wide, painterly portrait of the sky, made entirely from scraps of blue jeans sewn together. Hung as a curtain opposite the exhibition’s exit, “Untitled (one day it all comes true)” is as American as contemporary art gets. It spits us out into the world with a gentle directive: Look around. Love. And give more than you take.

Jim Hodges: Give More Than You Take

When: Opens Sat., ends May 11.

After Hours preview party: 9 p.m.-midnight Fri., $30.

Where: Walker Art Center, 1750 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls. 612-375-7600 or www.walkerart.org.

Admission: 8-$12; free after 5 p.m. Thursdays.