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.
Erica Ciccarone: Your work often uses grids, adhering to them, subverting them, playing with them as limits, and a lot of your work has a kind of architecture to it that I really love. Why are you drawn to grids and urban landscapes?
Jodi Hays: Landscape had been a consistent touchstone in my work—sometimes overtly, sometimes not—perhaps related to having almost literally grown up in a National Park. Living in cities for my adult life, I began to collect images of construction sites that I could then isolate to speak to disparate issues of time, upheaval, restraint, abandon, and progress. The grid’s history is richly connected to land through surveying. I also like to push against the use of the grid as a tool of perspective.
EC: I suspect people might call you a “painter’s painter” (which has always struck me as a silly label). But the way you build and take away context in your paintings strikes me as way of commenting on the medium. Do you think there’s any truth to that?
JH: When I chose to paint, part of that choice was for painting’s ability to comment on itself and to leverage the overlap of painting’s properties with the preoccupations on my practice—artifice, time, landscape references, grids, and structure. I see my work couched in a moment in which there is less doubt, less angst, and more hope.
EC: Let’s talk about your new series, The Devil’s Neighbor. Your paintings and series always have really intentional and beautiful titles. Where does that title come from?
JH: The new work The Devil’s Neighbor is also called Winter Papers because they happened on my dining room table in the winter, perhaps tapping into an intimacy of scale and thought. They’re informed by using the stripe—a device of pattern and a lead character in my iconography—as a standard or element of the grid. The paintbrush has its own width or measure, setting up a logic on the paper. With these small works, I was seeing what happens when the stripe or grid sags or sways. I began to think about the grid as relative to a “devil”—this metaphorical or actual standard of bad or evil. The guy who lives next door to the devil is his neighbor, not conditioned with a label, but complicit nonetheless because of proximity, like lines parallel on a page.
I was interested in extending painting metatags through our current heavy and intense political climate. Last summer saw the migrations across Europe, police/public conflict, and the South Carolina flag controversy. The work is formal, but informed by processing—or perhaps remembering—events happening both on local and global levels.
In the end, it made sense that all of that would surface into the work. The work is not about migrants or the public’s relationship to police, but the works are dependent on a grid system (laws, leaders, police) and then the system bending, yielding and being interrupted (protests, revolts, moves). The work is still the work, and formal, yet I can sense some of the gray and darkness was informed by the world around me.
Titles are a toehold, a way to create a snag in the fabric of the work, for both me and the viewer. I keep titles on my iPhone in a note now but used to keep notebooks of lists. At one point I had a cigar box full of post-its. They are culled from my reading, soundbites, anything, but have to function on two levels: to comment on the medium of painting—a wide girth—and be rooted in personal directive. [cont.]