In her exhibition “God Sees Through Houses,” on view from August 27 through October 18, Nashville-based painter Jodi Hays displayed a new body of work at Lipscomb University’s recently relocated Hutcheson Gallery. Comprised of framed drawings and large- and small-scale oil paintings, the work was created during the crisis of family separations at the US-Mexico border created by American Homeland Security’s “zero tolerance” border-crossing policy earlier this summer. Painting, Hays suggests, provides another way to examine the power of sight and surveillance.
Lipscomb recently relocated their primary exhibition space from the open-air lobby of the art building to a private sanctuary nestled inside the Beaman Library. The new space is far more inviting and contemplative. As you enter, the large glass doors close softly behind you, and you find yourself in a quiet oasis that beckons you to sit down and stay a while. The old space felt mostly transitory, like a corridor you needed to get in and out of, rather than a place to linger. Another great thing about the new space—at least for my fellow night owls—is that it’s open until midnight, keeping the same hours as the library.
In “God Sees Through Houses,” one painting in particular immediately and forcefully drew the viewer’s attention. Entry, the clear linchpin of the show, is a monumental quadriptych that speaks to a recurring distinction in the work on view: division and inclusion. In the painting, the figure of a child stands on the porch of a home while the viewer has the perspective of standing inside, looking out. Thick, assertive brush strokes emanate outward; tension pulses in an eternally paused moment. Is the child locked out, or walking inside? The washed-out scene feels like a memory, the grayscale eliciting a sense of grim reverie.
Here, Hays’s hand is deliberate, purposeful, unapologetic. The visual effect of it all is overwhelming, in the best way possible. The four panels connect and don’t. Things are misaligned. Your eyes dart around the canvas, disoriented with wonder. Fluorescent bursts of orange and cobalt act as visual anchors. I took a seat on the bench in front of it and spent a while just looking. It is easy to get lost in the child’s expression: hollow eyes, ghostly stance, mouth agape, in awe or experiencing some other emotion you can’t quite pinpoint. It is a heartbreaking face, no matter how you spin it. The painting exudes innocence and the most basic form of needing, and we are ultimately helpless in the matter.
Hays’s work has long been rooted in landscape. She almost always incorporates imagery of the built environment: gates, architecture, construction sites. In previous work, a deliberate distance is maintained, a sense of the public as personal. We saw entire houses or community spaces, buildings and signs. In this new work, things move in. She takes us right up to the doorstep, to the window pane. We’ve gotten closer to home.
In several works, vertical lines dominate the foreground, suggesting the illusion of peering through windows and blinds. It’s uncertain whether or not we are on the inside or the outside. Perspective vacillates. One of the framed drawings is a copy of a Wendell Berry poem entitled “The Peace of Wild Things.” It reads:
When despair for the world grows in me
And I wake in the night at the least sound
In fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
Rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds .
I come into the peace of wild things
Who do not tax their lives with forethought
Of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
Waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
The poem speaks to a theme in the work: seeking refuge in the natural environment as an escape from world-weariness. But I question if escaping—looking elsewhere—is what viewers actually want out of a work of art.
Don’t get me wrong: I have no expectations for a gallery at a private Christian university to display artwork that ruffles feathers. I also know, after following her artistic career for nearly a decade now, what to generally expect from Hays’s work. I appreciate that she is trying to shed some light on a severely disturbing US policy, as opposed to saying nothing at all, and the work on display is gorgeous and expertly executed. I am not sure, however, that I would have noticed any sociopolitical themes in these paintings if I hadn’t read her statement.
I cannot help but wonder if it is possible for abstract painting—specifically Hays’s airy style of geometric abstraction— to address such specific, urgent political subject matter. My concern with the role of abstract painting in contemporary culture—where we need incisive social and political dialogue more than ever—wades around in the muck of this question. In the end, can completely abstract painting make an impactful statement about anything other than the sensual, emotional, or psychological experience of color and form? I’m not sure it can address specific political topics with anything other than a whispering nuance, offending no one, shaking none to their core.
Art that claims to offer political critique yet unsettles no one can be dangerous; it is ultimately passive and pacifying. Artists may feel pressure, particularly today, to attach a sociopolitical motive to their work to be considered “relevant” or “serious.” This, too, is dangerous. If an artist claims to make work about policies or systems that are devastating human lives and tearing families apart, it should be done with fervency and gravitas, not subtlety.
Hays’s exhibition is a beautiful extension of her larger body of work, and Entry is painting I could look at for years. Even if Hays’s work doesn’t exactly achieve its stated political ambitions, I’m reminded of a line from Nietzsche: “We have art in order to not die from the truth.”