In a city like New York it is often by chance that you meet true artists
in the old sense: artists who don't care about critics recognition, don't push for their work to be shown,
sell only when someone begs them to. Barney Hodes is one such artist. I had
the chance to visit his studio after he kept telling me he was working on a
huge clay torso, and when I finally saw it I also understood why he kept
telling me about it. The unfinished female torso is almost six meters long,
sleeping on a Schwittersian wooden construction, and each inch of the clay
has the sign of the artist's struggle over such a giant. "Three years
ago I thought," Barney tells me, "I've never done a huge piece and
I'm not getting younger, so I made a life-size maquette of the torso, but it
didn't excite me, there was something missing", then he started telling
me about the five different models he used for this (still unfinished) piece,
and that's what struck me about Hodes. He is the most modest artist I ever
met, he talked about his models with incredible reverence and respect, and
when I was trying to find out why he wanted to make such a big figurative
piece and why make figurative sculpture in the first place, he kept switching
to the human aspects of his journey through a huge clay torso. Barney is in
love with humanity, and you can feel this humanity boiling under this huge
mass of clay: his humanity, the models' humanity, the world's inhuman
humanity. "When I started this piece I was a healthy man, three years
have passed and things are different. The challenge is that I set myself to
tell everyone about this torso, so if I don't finish it everyone will know
what a chicken I am." And there I am, looking at this sleepy volcano.
"A portrait can be deceptive;" he wrote in an article about
portraiture (1), "while it might look like a snapshot, it is actually a
compendium of moments." Now I know what he was thinking of when he wrote this. Barney made the
conscious decision to dedicate his work to figurative sculpture in the
seventies. While his colleagues mocked him as they explored the possibilities
of conceptual art, he decidedly turned the other way and worked with clay,
earth itself. "Sometimes I look back at a day of work and I think 'how
could I have been so stupid?', but then again, why should an artist be smart?
When I decide to work with the figure in clay people kept telling me it was a
bad idea. I was immediately drawn into it. It was the time when people dealt
with abstract art to keep the status, and a lot of artists jumped into
conceptualism because it had no product. Reproducing something 3D in 3D is a
kind of crazy idea in the first place!"
Barney Hodes is no fool. Going against all odds seems to be the main drive of
this energetic strange sculptor, and by inverse juxtaposition I could only
call his career an amazing piece of conceptual art.
(1) Barney Hodes,
Portraits, Linea Vol. 4 No 2, New York, 2000, p. 4.
Barney Hodes and his
sculptures in his Brooklyn Studio. Photos Stefano Pasquini.