at the Illinois Art Gallery, through August 20

David Hodges’s You May Be Forced to Pick Cotton is 16 by 30 inches, but most of that area is taken up by a large black frame: the oil-on-panel painting at the center is only 8 3/4 inches wide by 1 1/2 inches high. In the image workers pick cotton in a field at left, while a road at right recedes into the distance. A car has stopped, and the driver stands beside it talking to a farmer. A line of hills and a sky filled with clouds form the background.

At first this picture seems benign, even pleasant. Its gentle greens and yellows are appealing, luminous, almost jewel-like. But the title–which is printed in block letters on the frame below the image–interjects an ominous note. Is the man who has stopped his car about to be forced into servitude? What about the woman sitting in the passenger seat? Are the cotton pickers forced laborers? The dark line of hills now seems like a prison wall; one’s eye is drawn to the small gap in the hills toward which the road leads.

I Asked Him to Travel With Me is even stranger. A similarly large frame encloses an image about two inches wide and less than two inches high: a man lies in bed, eyes open but staring, clutching a cat to him under the covers; in one hand is a phone receiver, held well away from his head. To the right is a table with a clock and a lamp. The tone is utterly ordinary: the man’s face is expressionless, the objects are nondescript. The mostly black-and-white image has an almost photographic look. But again the title printed beneath the image injects a discordant note. Who is the “him”–the cat, the person on the phone, someone else? Why doesn’t the man have the receiver to his ear? Where does “travel” come in? The man seems utterly paralyzed–unable to move, unable even to speak.

The relation between the title–almost always printed as a text beneath the image–and the picture is one of the most intriguing aspects of Hodges’s art, on view at the Illinois Art Gallery. That relationship shifts from work to work: the title may seem to simply render a line of dialogue spoken by a figure (No Boys: This Came Off a Cow depicts a farmer holding out a large penis to two boys); or it can seem to contradict the actions shown, interjecting an element of dread in images that seem mundane or an element of hope in images that depict something extraordinarily awful. A man nude except for a pillow over his lower body lies on a bed with a fan behind him; his body is covered with hideous boils. The text underneath, and the title, is What a Beautiful Thought I Am Thinking Concerning a Great Speckled Bird. When one looks back to the image, the boils do make a speckled pattern, and the man’s body is slightly birdlike. If some titles suggest strange potentials in the mundane, others lead the viewer away from the image’s manifest strangeness or horror. Indeed, the titles suggest the power of the imagination: to find in each thing another, sometimes opposite, possibility.

Other aspects of Hodges’s work echo these divisions. The pictures in this show are either small and rectangular or small and oval, but almost all of them are surrounded by large black areas whose proportions repeat those of the paintings. The inner edges of the rectangular frames are beveled inward as well, leading the viewer’s eye in as if through an inviting window. Yet at the same time the image’s and the frame’s like proportions give the picture an object-like quality, as if it were a piece of furniture, something to place in a home or gallery.

Similarly, the images themselves have different, even contradictory effects. Their colors–or the grays in the mostly black-and-white images–make them rich, luminous, mysterious objects; most seem to glow as if with an inner light. At the same time they are quite obviously paintings; though Hodges’s brushwork is precise, his strokes are visible throughout–not surprising in works this small. Yet the technique also suggests an imitation of photographs: the images seem records of actual scenes. This effect combined with the objects’ mundaneness creates the illusion of ordinariness against which the titles–and some images’ bizarre content–can play off. Hodges understands, as did the Surrealists and Alfred Hitchcock, that strange doings are more unsettling in the context of the everyday.

Some images’ strange doings come from the double meanings given familiar objects. Would I Rather Be Healed or Have My Sins All Forgiven depicts, in grays with a hint of tan, an adolescent boy sitting on a hospital bed in profile. He faces a man who stands before him in a white shirt and dark tie; the man’s eyes are closed. On the boy’s lap is a large TV, its rabbit ears pointing directly, phallicly, up from his crotch. The figures are stiff, awkward, and immobile; the image’s space is flat and confining. The bars at the foot of the hospital bed are mirrored by the wood strip that runs horizontally along the wall and the line of the room’s corner. This image arrests the eye’s motion with its flatness, its characters that seem frozen in almost archetypal positions of authority and confinement; contrasting with this rigid order are the title and the suggestive rabbit ears, evoking the out-of-control sexuality of puberty.

Other images impart strange powers to ordinary objects by associating them with gruesome doings. In He Had to Know if Anything Had Ever Been Broken a man reclining on a couch has cut open his leg with a scissors. A checkerboard kitchen floor visible through a doorway contributes to the strong depth illusion, and this perspective and the rich tans and greens of the color scheme are seductive. Meanwhile the image’s obviously painted surface and disturbing content tend to push the viewer back. The text under the picture differs slightly from the title on the wall label: it begins “You had to know . . . [emphasis added],” adding the ambiguous voice of a critical authority figure. The ordinary objects in this weird scene acquire a kind of guilt by association: the fan, the TV, the couch, the stove, and especially the scissors become actors in some incomprehensible drama. The picture recalls the famous phrase of French writer Lautreamont, much celebrated by the Surrealists: “Beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.”

The contradictory aspects of each work create a rich experience for the viewer, who sees each as a series of unresolved questions rather than as answers. Comparison with the other artist in the show, Mark Forth, also an Illinois native, helps illuminate Hodges’s strengths.

Most of Forth’s paintings are full-size, but like Hodges he paints relatively nondescript characters in spare, ordinary rooms; many are nude or seminude, and often they’re asleep. Time II, one of Forth’s more effective pictures, shows a sleeper surrounded by clocks each of which tells a different time. As Barry Blinderman points out in his helpful essay in the well-illustrated catalog, this reminds us of the artificiality of time when compared with the “nonlinear, transcendent realm of dream and imagination.” Forth’s sleepers and somnambulists, his spare, eerie settings, the strange yellow light that often streams in from no visible source, the dramas he creates out of ordinary objects give his works an emotional charge and suggest a close relation to Hodges’s art. But unlike Hodges’s, Forth’s painting lacks ambiguity and resonance: the colors seem flat and the figures one-dimensional, and even more so the longer one looks. The complexity of Forth’s images stems largely from their content.

The way that Hodges’s images alternate between being windows, photos, paintings, and physical objects suggests an ever-changing vision of reality: an object can be what it seems but it can also be something else. Similarly, the shifting relationship between Hodges’s titles and images assumes that language has multiple functions. Blinderman writes that Hodges “grew up in a household deeply immersed in the Pentecostal faith.” Speaking in tongues was part of his boyhood experience. “It’s about accepting the normalcy of nonsensical language,” Hodges has said. “You believe that the person may not understand what he or she is saying, but has the faith to know it means something.”

Oh for a Thousand Tongues is painted on a small plastiform oval set in a much larger oval frame. Two men face each other amid cornstalks taller than they are; one has husked an ear of corn, the only one clearly visible. The wish for “a thousand tongues”–a thousand languages–is compared to the discovery of a single ear of corn. The miracle of plant growth–the maturing of crops, much celebrated in ancient religions–is associated with language. The original Bible story about speaking in tongues, in Acts, is also a story about Christian proselytizing, just as sowing and reaping are biblically associated with righteousness. The image here is particularly colorful, lush with sensual plants stretching into the distance; yet its concave surface, repeated in the frame, asserts its objectness. The corn ear can also be seen, particularly in the context of the other Hodges works on display, as phallic, though here the image is less sexual than evocative of fertility. The oval object thus becomes also a kind of talisman.

Most of Hodges’s works of the last few years are painted on similar ovals and placed in large oval settings of black velvet, recalling 18th-century miniature portraits. Several works play off that tradition, but with unpleasant twists. In Don’t Expect to Catch Anything Tonight we see a man in coat and tie with a fishing rod who has hooked himself in the forehead. I Saw You at the Saw Mill shows a woman sitting on a bed with one arm sawed off: here the idea of ordinary objects and settings turned malevolent meets the reality of the industrial accident.

The show’s largest piece has two oval panels, larger than Hodges’s others, placed on either side of a wall shelf on which sits a glass of water. Embossed on the glass is the title, My Teeth Are Still Not Healed; in the water are what appear to be actual teeth attached to a gum and an oval portrait of a radio announcer. The left oval shows a boy kneeling on a hay bale; wires run from his mouth to the front of a truck–apparently a rural form of tooth pulling. The right oval shows a similar scene at night, probably after the teeth have been pulled: the wires are no longer visible. The oval pictures are exquisite: in the one on the left, long rows of crops recede diagonally into the background, their texture almost palpable.

The presence of the teeth is visually jarring, and perhaps for that reason not wholly successful, but the impulse to include them is consistent with Hodges’s best work. They not only suggest an ordinary scene gone awry but take the viewer out of the image’s representation of “reality.” As one’s eyes move from the oval–this painting, this imitation photo–to the actual teeth that (one is led to believe) were extracted in that image, the boundary between imagery and actuality is breached, and the viewer suddenly knows that much more is going on in Hodges’s work than the modernists’ concern with image and language or some obsession with mutilation. The viewer of a Hodges work finds that her sense of image, of language, and of their relation to the world is constantly shifting; the mutilated bodies–also representing a transformation of sorts–tell us how much is at stake in these shifts. Truly powerful experiences, like speaking in tongues, put one’s very existence on the line; to have our known language replaced by unknown ones is akin to having one’s physical being altered. The teeth in the gallery call the meaning of each image into question. Hodges’s mutilated bodies are in part metaphors for the great transformative powers of religion, and of art.