PRINT February 1989


IN DAVID HODGES’ MINIATURE oil paintings the magic of 1920s new objective realism comes alive again. As if imbued with the latent excitement of a film scene from that era, these extremely minute images seem to capture a frozen moment in a dramatic encounter, or in an encounter of strange anonymity. Hodges’ scenes, “shot” at close range, and distilled to their essentials, throw the viewer into a narrative without a graspable plot or accessible characters. They tell only what the viewer wants them to tell. One looks at them, and then something begins to transpire.

This necessitates our predisposition toward them. In a world in which our senses have been overwhelmed by the large and obvious, Hodges attempts to revive our optical perception by forcing us to focus on the suggestive powers of the small. Consequently the complexity emerges slowly, and according to the principles of approach and withdrawal. The broad black wooden frames and the rectangles of black paint in which these images are contained give these tiny tableaux the fictive space of peep-boxes, enticing us to come closer, to stare like voyeurs through the peephole. As Hodges has said of his own work, “You feel like going and looking into the small thing; you are looking into something, yet you are not supposed to be there.”1 Piquing our curiosity becomes methodology—but curiosity about what? Are we looking for short, intimate confessions or extraordinary revelations? Isn’t it we who “add on” all the hidden possibilities these images suggest? Accordingly, isn’t there nothing to in these pictures that elicit our voyeurism except our own projections? It seems that the 28-year-old Hodges, who studied philosophy as an undergraduate but became a self-taught painter, wants to draw which our own desires simultaneously relay, mediate, and run interference between seeing and what is seen.

For like Georges Braque, Hodges seems to believe less in things themselves than in what occurs between them, in the indecipherability of the obvious. In the stylized artificiality of his monochrome reality—in each gesture, in each eye blink of these slightly typological figures—everything is allusion; every gesture has more than one meaning, every perspective is out of kilter, every evidence of light is almost imperceptibly dramatized, with the shadows demonstrating the duality of the objects. No matter how long we look at these pictures, nothing becomes concrete—neither as immediate experience nor as the remembrance of something already seen. Despite Hodges’ use of a traditional vocabulary of images, these scenes shirk causal explanations. In the first confrontation with them they release emotions. Comprehension can only come afterward. This process confirms, however, that what reason dictates that our eyes perceive cannot be the only reality.

We may want to understand these captured moments as fragments or filaments of an unrevealed web of understanding, yet even together they do not suggest one comprehensive interpretation. They echo what Robert Bresson said of film: “Each shot is like a word, which means nothing by itself, or rather means so many things that in effect it is meaningless.”2 Thus Hodges’ paintings point to the complexity of every experience of reality in a world relentlessly plural. This also explains the power with which these small paintings function. For Hodges is not interested in raising the claim of peinture, conquering an esthetic frontier. Technical virtuosity and composition are secondary to the exactly calculated ambitions of these eerie picture dramas, for Hodges’ apparently anecdotal painting represents first and foremost an art of ideas that brushes aside the issues of expression in favor of creating an ultimately inscrutable story. This not only “cools” the voyeurism of the viewer, but at the same time makes him or her an accomplice in the tale. Hodges takes the tension implicit in the viewer’s expectation of a concrete action and transforms it—rather than suspends it—in the precise uncertainty of these abrupt scenes. Beneath the frozen surface of the visible, the erotic implications of gestures, attitudes, and forms congeal, suggesting a layer of concealed emotion, and producing a psychically charged magic that does not depend on recourse to the surreal.

This is one part of what distinguishes Hodges’ work from its most obvious formal inspirations: German realist painting of the ’20s and American social realism of the ’30s and ’40s. It’s true that within a number of these tiny paintings—some as small as a half inch by 3 inches—we find evocative echoes of the magical realist Christian Schad, whose work Hodges admires: delicate yet excessive rendering of anatomy charged with a latent eroticism. At the same time, we find in many others the articulation of a vast physical landscape, and the subjects treated within these landscapes become almost social icons in their nostalgic familiarity: mother, father, and son in the tight quarters of a car, traveling down an open highway, for example, in We don’t ever want you to lose your gift of tongues, 1988, or three figures moving through a rural Midwestern-seeming landscape while two Thomas Hart Benton–esque tornado clouds spiral in the background in He told me that it would always sound like a train at first, also 1988. Yet Hodges’ paintings do not bear the stamp of Schad’s cool pathos, nor is their emphasis on the social significance of either the isolated individual or the communal experience. Historical forces and folly are implicit, not explicit, in Hodges’ paintings; these works resonate instead with a memory in which the private and the collective have merged. Thus Hodges uses the viewer’s pleasure in the already known—and the pleasure he or she has known in other paintings—but toward another end. He calls upon the viewer to differentiate. His long referential titles—as well as his shorter ones, such as I am Baptised, 1987, or Foot Washing, 1988—printed below the images as quotations set up yet another tension: that between the latent eroticism of the imagery and the religious connotation of these “captions.” Born and raised in a Christian fundamentalist family, Hodges simultaneously deploys and denies the religious notion of image sanctified by text, and vice versa. An ephemeral, elliptical correlation secures visual perception to rational interpretation in these works. At the same time, it secures an uncanny distance between the two. This relationship sets into motion yet another game, another kind of allusion that points to an obscured melancholy beneath, and that reifies the dynamic of consciousness itself as it seeks to retrieve the irretrievable: the singularity of perception, of memory, of experience.

Ingrid Rein is a writer who lives in Munich. She contributes regularly to Artforum.

Translated from the German by Charles V. Miller.



1. Conversation with the artist, November 1988.
2. Quoted in Susan Sontag, “Spiritual style in films of Robert Bresson,” Against Interpretation 1966, reprint ed. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1986, p. 185.