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Jim Hodges’ Buoyant Monoliths | The Walker’s Newest Outdoor Commission

On one of my frequent visits to Jim Hodges’ studio last year to work on the Walker’s 2014 survey exhibition, Jim Hodges: sometimes beauty, a drawing pinned to the wall drew my attention—the first sketch for a monumental work that’s coming to the Walker this spring.

It was a small depiction of a boulder onto which the artist had adhered a piece of shiny pink foil. The metal swatch followed the contours of one of the faces of the rock, highlighting its dimensions, catching and casting light and throwing shadows across the surface. Jim had just returned from his first trip to India and the studio was redolent with ideas—drawings and folded paper constructions were displayed on tables and walls around the space.

I asked about the drawing, a standout among Jim’s studio experiments, and he told me about his idea for a major new outdoor sculpture: a grouping of massive boulders arranged in a circle on a field. Each piece was to be faced with a layer of high-polished stainless steel in a different color—pink, blue, gold and lavender—evoking the rich hues he saw throughout his travels in India, which have also been prevalent in work throughout his career. He envisioned this group of boulders situated in a natural landscape and positioned so that visitors could walk around and between them, activating the interplay of natural light with their movements and participating in the subtle cacophonies of color and reflections created.

At the time I was keen to bring a new outdoor sculpture to the Walker in anticipation of the upcoming anniversary of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden in 2013. My focus was on the green space, which we have been enlivening every summer with programs like Rock the Garden and Open Field. These colorful monoliths seemed ideal for our campus as a companion to James Turrell’s Sky Pesher, 2005, a sky-viewing chamber commissioned for the Walker expansion. Could we bring this mammoth new work to the Walker, I asked—and that’s when our journey began.

Seeking, Shaping, and Shipping Stone

Over the next few months, the artist visited the Walker several times to study the campus. We considered an array of possible sites for the yet-to-be-realized works—on the green space, in the Garden, and along Hennepin Avenue—and quickly determined that the ideal site would be on the sloping hill outside of the Cargill Lounge.
On one visit, Jim traveled to Northern Minnesota to hunt for boulders, but the texture and shape of stone he found wasn’t quite what he had envisioned from that initial drawing. He also explored in New England, looking for rocks that had acquired the patina of time. He preferred stones with smooth, rounded surfaces, but also ones that had marks of character and contours shaped by their glacial migrations to North America. He finally found them in Massachusetts, four massive boulders, each weighing between eight and 13 tons and thousands of years old. After being safely delivered to Polich Tallix, a foundry in upstate New York, Jim spent the next several months working with assistants and a team of master technicians to achieve the seamless effect of melded steel and rock that characterize Untitled.

The shiny skins’ flawless contiguity with the boulders’ surfaces is the result of a complex process. In simple terms, body putty was applied to each boulder to create a smooth exterior; then, after a mold was made from that, the stainless steel was cast. The rock surface was chipped away to accept the stainless steel veneers, arriving at a perfect fit between skin and stone. The thin steel sheets, which were painted with clear-coat mixed with a dye typically used on motorcycles, were adhered, with pins and epoxy, to each boulder. As detail photos show, the texture of the rock is often visible as it connects with the rock.

Another key consideration of construction was how the boulders and seamed steel would weather Minnesota’s harsh winters. Walker registrar Joe King traveled to New York to view the work and discuss this matter with conservators and fabricators. Concerned about how frozen moisture might affect natural fissures in the stone, King also met with the artist. Between pinning and sealing some cracks, and allowing for natural deterioration of others—“letting rocks be rocks,” as King says—such concerns were allayed.
Then came shipping. Each boulder was outfitted with custom-manufactured lifting frames made from steel I-beams and designed to lift the stones without damaging the polished steel surfaces. Three trucks—one semi-trailer for the two smaller stones, and separate flatbeds for the other two—brought the pieces to Minnesota earlier this year. They’ll be installed in April.

We are grateful to the Prospect Creek Foundation for making a significant contribution at a crucial moment last summer to ensure that this stunning new work would enter the Walker’s collection. Additional support from a commissioning fund at the Walker established by the Frederick R. Weisman Collection of Art also made this acquisition possible.

“Extraordinarily Present”

But given the size and weight of the boulders, there’s much more to be done before then. The four pieces, each more than six feet tall and collectively weighing some 90,000 pounds, can’t simply be tried out in different locations, so Walker staff created scale maquettes of the pieces from wood, paper, and Mylar. In November, Jim and I, along with Walker curators and crew, tested the works in various sites on the campus.

Arriving at a site just down the hill from the entrance to Turrell’sSkyspace chamber, we then asked Cameron Zebrun, Walker director of Program Services, to work with a structural engineer on developing footings to prevent each piece from sinking into the ground. Hidden beneath each work will be a concrete and rebar pad topped with a sheet of lead, leaving gravity to hold the works in place.

The artist sees the placement of the pieces—their relation to the hillside and to each other—as pivotal. “The stones are so powerful, and I have such respect for them as materials,” he said during a Walker visit late last year. “They are amazing, beautiful things. They’re extraordinarily present, physical things. They feel like they’re alive.”
The boulders of Untitled, which debuted indoors in November 2011 at Barbara Gladstone Gallery in New York, do seem to defy their materiality. This is, indeed, part of their magic. As you walk amid the sculptures and they are animated by light, they at once seem massive and monumental yet light and buoyant, almost weightless. These qualities typify other outdoor public works Hodges has created in recent years, including look and see (2005), first created for the New York Public Art Fund and now permanently sited at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo. The design for the piece was inspired by the patterns of camouflage, a recurring motif in Hodges’ art associated with identity, both its masking and exposure. Rendered in cutout forms of polished and painted steel, look and see changes character, as the Walker’s boulders no doubt will, through the seasons and as light, weather, and atmospheric conditions shift throughout the days and months.

This is one of the most striking aspects of experiencing the boulders in person. They are constantly shifting in appearance, form, density, and texture despite their mass. While this monumental work may seem like a departure from Hodges’ recognized practice, it shares the same subtleties and often transitory qualities that even the smallest and most fragile of Hodges’ paper, fabric, light, and mirror pieces of the last several decades possess. This includes the Walker’s own 1992 drawing Untitled, which was created through the simple act of transferring individually penned drawings from one piece of paper to another through the aid of the artist’s saliva, and Diary of Flowers (In Love) (1996), which was also recently acquired by the Walker. The diary, comprised of drawings made on paper napkins pinned to the wall, is Jim’s meditation on the passage of time and the fragility of the human experience. The last in a series of works from the 1990s, this piece was among several completed on the day his friend and colleague Felix Gonzalez-Torres succumbed to AIDS.

Hodges’ ruminations on life, love, and loss are echoed here in an ambitious new work that at once fuses past and present, both reveals and conceals, and mirrors nature and time, just as it is activated by human experience. These works defy not only their own materiality but also our expectations around how we experience them as viewers. In them are embodied dualities between lightness and mass, fragility and permanence, intimacy and monumentality, that are the substance of Hodges’ art.

By Olga Viso At The Walker Art Center