The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
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Jessica Jackson Hutchins has been exhibiting her work steadily since she graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago a decade ago. But in recent years, her visibility has increased exponentially—in significant exhibitions including The Mood Back Home (Momenta Art), An Expanded Field of Possibilities (Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum), Dirt on Delight (Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia), and Shape of Things to Come: New Sculpture (the Saatchi Gallery). These titles indicate what enthusiastic followers of this Portland, Oregon-based artist already know: that she operates in the often stigmatized arena of ceramic sculpture with intelligence and zeal. Her orchestrated assemblages tease out notions of function and display, as when she nestles awkward glazed vessels on worn readymade armchairs, couches, and tables, or props them up on lumpen or lean plinths of her own devising. The human body is referenced repeatedly, in all of its dumb charm and joyful habits.
Hutchins is consistently able to transform data from daily life into shapes and images that can yield an intimate urgency. Her understanding of collage aesthetics infuses her abstract objects in varying scales, intimate drawings, ambitious prints, and hand-wrought films. Over a few coffees on the Lower East Side, we discussed her two recent, concurrent solo shows in New York and her Obama-pasted couch in the Whitney Biennial. Hutchins was cautiously optimistic that we’d be able to address issues of influence and audience so early in the morning.
Stuart Horodner You’ve just had two spaces simultaneously showing your work in New York and you had a piece in the Whitney Biennial. What’s the difference between making the work and showing the work? What do you get out of seeing it in the world?
Jessica Jackson Hutchins Showing the work finishes it for me. There’s a certain understanding I get from showing it. I always feel like I know something more after it’s shown. Even if it’s at an art fair and there is no discernible feedback, it still feels different to me after. Maybe before that it’s like the sound of one hand clapping.
SH You learn something in the letting go of it?
JJH I suppose. It’s no longer mine. I don’t have to do the work of understanding it, taking care of it. There are other observers changing the observed. This was especially true this time, because all kinds of factors around this work made it a little more fraught. Having the two solo shows and then the Whitney meant there were more people to deal with and a lot of energy focused around the work. It was a little challenging to make two separate but equal shows; I wanted to use the opportunity of having different venues to expand different qualities. My piece at the Whitney was a pretty political move. The Derek Eller show was more narrative, thus the title Kitchen Table Allegory. The show at Small A Projects had a more distilled quality. I also wanted there to be more of a bodily presence.
When I was first figuring out my work, I articulated to myself very clearly why I was doing it and what the ethical implications were. The ethics of it all was really important to me in the ’90s.
SH What do you mean by the ethics of it?
JJH This was a long time ago, but I was reading philosophers like Emmanuel Levinas and Maurice Blanchot, who framed an imperative that expression be absolutely ethical. It was difficult to even survive after reading that stuff, frankly. Levinas’s whole thing is the impossible relationship with the Other, whom we can never “know,” because to know is to “murder.” In the early work, the self is put into question by this relationship; at the end, it is “taken hostage.” In his ethics, the self’s sovereignty and autonomy is always at risk. I basically read it to mean that articulation almost inevitably confines and oppresses the Other by its demands. This understanding made my consideration of the viewer, and how I wanted to engage a viewer so difficult and strained. It solidified an isolation I already felt. Young artists are always trying to justify what they do, and this is such an unfortunate imperative. It’s so ridiculous that it is considered selfish to be an artist, to devote your life to the production of meaning. Although I’ve let go of a lot of the urgency of these ideas, they inform how I work and how I present my work.
SH How so?
JJH I’m really careful about the imagery I cull from. I was never comfortable with the way any old found imagery was just bantered around; so many signifiers! Plus, it takes up so much mental space. I want to offer a little more space and rigor, and that is the more ethical invitation. Also, I obscure any sense of craft so that my own skill is not a subject. But at the same time, I think the look of the worn or worked is another way of showing respect; it says that some effort was offered up. I guess it is a little paradoxical. You know, I think the book I made with Tom Fisher, Convivium, really addresses this.
In terms of physical spaces, I knew that the couch was going to the Whitney immediately. I was at the library with my daughter and some other five-year-olds when they called to tell me I was in the show, and a minute later I decided to use the couch. I literally never thought about it again. Because it is both current and historical in an undeniable way and that’s what the Biennial wants to be. And it’s tough; it can hold its own. That place can pull the guts out of a piece so completely, and it’s nobody’s fault. I’ve seen it happen, and I didn’t even worry about it.
SH The couch is covered in newspaper clippings dealing with Obama and has several ceramic vessels resting on its cushions. You made a decision to alter the piece when it was placed in the same room as Nina Berman’s photographs of disfigured Iraq war veterans and their families. You removed a few of the vessels which I assume felt too close to severed limbs?
JJH Yeah, that’s right. I needed to restore a little ambiguity to it.
SH What prompted your use of the Barack Obama newspaper images to cover the couch?
JJH That was seminal. I was just paying attention to the language and imagery all the time before and after Obama’s election, kind of like I did in my Darryl Strawberry piece. In 1996, after Darryl Strawberry broke his toe just before the World Series, I made a big toe for him. In the case of Obama, emotions were fever-pitched—there was hope for transformation and a sense of pride in our country, which was a new occurrence for many of my generation. A brand-new era. It seemed like a good idea right away to cover that particular couch with Obama stuff. I got a subscription to the New York Times for that purpose, which also felt like a good thing to do when so many newspapers were folding.
SH I’ve been thinking about Allan Kaprow’s concept of artlike art and lifelike art in relation to you:
Artlike art holds that art is separate from life and everything else, whereas lifelike art holds that art is connected to life and everything else. In other words, there is art at the service of art and art at the service of life. The maker of artlike art tends to be a specialist; the maker of lifelike art, a generalist.
JJH Well, I’m certainly more interested in making art that is connected to life. Art about art can be so definable and limited. I don’t think much should be made of the divisions, though; it can get too “us and them.” As an artist, I don’t think you can ever afford to be too general. The danger is to not really mean much at all or to fall into being overly sentimental. It’s always got to be really specific.
SH You make sculpture, drawings, prints, and films, and you show them in galleries and museums, which Kaprow ultimately eschewed. I’m interested in the idea that you come out of painting. I was thinking about Mary Heilmann, a painter who comes out of ceramics. When you look at Mary Heilmann paintings, there’s a quality in the way she applies material that feels like clay slip and glazed color.
JJH I don’t really come out of painting, though.
SH You don’t?
JJH Well, I graduated from a painting and drawing department. And I studied painting a lot but I never actually made many paintings. The drawings I used for my grad-school application were really ink washy; pretty cool, really. I’d like to show them to you sometime.
SH Whom did you work with at the Art Institute of Chicago?
JJH Susanne Doremus. Gaylen Gerber was a really important teacher to me. I was coming out of all kinds of crazy personal stuff and I plastered the walls with little drawings that were so raw. I just used whatever materials I had lying around: nail polish, bits of papers. They were a little desperate. I made a couple of paintings but was never down with it. I was embarrassed to hold a paintbrush; it felt so heroic. I was much more comfortable being on the floor with newspaper. All this deconstructing the myth of the artist stuff was in my head. Even when I tried to make paintings, I would make little lithos and then print them thousands of times on the canvas. I used to have a couple of those—they’re kind of pretty—I think I gave them to my brother. One day during my first month of school I made something really guttural; it was tear-stained papier mâché, and Gaylen really encouraged me to go in that direction. It gave me the confidence to make things that were very raw. I made limbs and body parts for people who were suffering. I made arms for junkies I knew out of wire and papier mâché, where the negative space was really important. Wires are like drawing in space. I made a tongue for Syd Barrett, whose music I was extremely influenced by. I was thinking that all he needed was to be rescued from the garbled utterance of his life. He needed to be able to articulate clearly, because he was so crazy in the basement of his mind. I made that toe for Strawberry. I made a heart for Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. Hands for Townes van Zandt. It’s funny, just this year I pulled those things out of storage and thought they were the most beautiful things I had ever seen. I made the legs of Orange Bowl, which is in Derek’s show, trying to recapture that vibe, though they’re much more muscular. Those early ones were more fragile.
SH I love how the prompts for these works are so clearly driven by other creative practitioners, but out of their lack.
JJH I guess I was trying to get at what was important for me about what art can do.
SH So you provide some sustenance or sympathetic magic. Your work seems to examine various contingencies, objects subject to unique forces. Unforeseen or unpredictable situations, like what happens in the kiln, or the wear and tear of furniture.
JJH Oh my gosh, I made hundreds of drawings called Webs of Contingencies. They were all about contingency and cause, which was something I thought about a lot in graduate school. Now I don’t have to think about it anymore; it’s just in the work. That’s what’s so great about getting older as an artist.
SH There’s something so referentially human about these pieces; vulnerable objects held in place, nestled into chairs, awkwardly propped up. Implied rituals or actual use.
I find myself walking into the venues that present your work and immediately becoming hyper-aware of my own body, my own erectness or slump. You’ve given me something to be physically and psychically connected to.
JJH I love sculpture for that reason. How much it connects to the body and at least has a chance at a moment without masses of linear thought. I think although they can be about all sorts of things as well, there is the possibility of an experience of a monosyllabic impact. I’ve always used figures of speech to talk about my work. I often think of pedestals as prepositions: and, but, or, for. So even when I’m using a table as a pedestal, it becomes part of a prepositional phrase for positioning something but it also still has its power as a noun. The familiarity of it connects you right away. That’s what sculpture can do. I find that paintings operate more like texts. There’s a way in which they’re explicating; they’re like language on the wall. A sculpture is in the room, and so it always has its factness, even more so with the familiar found objects.
SH This reminds me of Ad Reinhardt’s statement “Sculpture is something that you bump into when you back up to look at a painting.” “Bumping” is a word I like in relationship to what you make. There’s also always something missing when you look at sculpture, when you experience something in the round. When people play the “if you could own any artwork ” game, I always wind up saying a multiple-element, stacked Brancusi.
JJH My God, maybe the same for me. Those pedestals are simultaneously, exactly prepositions and “the stacks of mineral facts.”
SH Mostly because of the primal relationship of the materials. Combinations of roughly hewn and highly polished, the shifts that happen as you consider top-to-bottom and 360 degrees. When it comes to Francis Bacon or Alice Neel or any number of other amazing painters, I feel like I know them in the way I think you mean when you say painting is experienced as text. I feel like I grasp them in a way that I find the Brancusi unknowable.
JJH I talked to Josh Shaddock, a great artist who also shows at Laurel Gitlin, about this the other night: when art really offers me something, the succor in it is its unknowability, a quality that makes it impossible to ever have a total handle on it. Books, like Moby-Dick or Ulysses, that I was really into as a teenager—even records like the Stones’ Exile on Main Street and the Royal Trux’s Twin Infinitives—there’s an unknowability. In some cases it’s from depth, in some from deep chaos that meant there was always something more to live for. But it’s also just a weirdness. I like art that is deeply weird, art which only could have been made by that person who made it. I’ve been aware of this and clear about needing that quality in my work.
SH Your work involves many transformations: papier mâché with its soaking and hardening; the forming, firing, and glazing process for ceramics; making paper pulp. The building or selecting of readymade pedestals/props/platforms or whatever we want to call them. Nothing is neutral and every element has time built into it. So when you nestle or prop ceramic objects on awkward plinths and furniture there are all of these associations built into that. The ritual of sitting in your favorite chair, eating at the table, sitting on the toilet—all of those residues and connections to living, to stains, spills, and repairs are in the work.
JJH It’s all about positioning and specificity, to get down to making a piece that means something but also that evades meaning a little bit too. Transformation, evidence of work, accidents, the time contained in the humanity of the objects—all that stuff is crucial to get at what I’m trying to get at, which is ways of connecting to the world, ways of knowing ourselves through the things we encounter.
SH This goes back to earlier notions of making an offering to the gods or to the beloved. These are acts meant to curry favor or ask forgiveness or consideration. You remind us of this with your propositional objects in or on different delivery platforms.
JJH Sometimes I want those delivery platforms to just suggest that it should be recognized that positioning something as an object of contemplation is a leap of faith, a real event. At the same time, I feel like everything is paradoxical. So while I sometimes want to suggest that it is an extravagant gesture, I also want that gesture to announce some self-awareness and to be underwhelming—I hope there is humor in that.
SH The poet Wayne Koestenbaum suggested that I read George Oppen, and I know he is a favorite of yours.
JJH I’ve used what I think is an Oppen quote so much in talking about Brancusi: “The pure stack of mineral fact.” I think he plays around with the same paradox I do: the simple factnessof things is where their existential importance lies. So the fact of that table, the fact of that couch, how the bowl on the table is just a fact … but it’s a whole transformative experience. I want both of those things.
SH You mention the fact, the mineral, the quotidian. Newspapers, which you often use in your work, are aggregates of these. The newspaper is ideally delivering the most current information about the world, but the minute after you read it and gain that information …
JJH It’s history.
SH Yeah, it’s becoming obsolete as you’re reading it, but then it’s vital again tomorrow morning when it’s waiting on the stoop. Something about all of this brings me back to poetry and essences. The recognition of particular moments: that’s what poetry captures.
JJH Yeah, I love writing that does something with time that’s anti-narrative and thing-like. Objectivist poets such as Oppen or Gertrude Stein come to mind. This is unlike the approach of, say, Ed Kienholz or Robert Gober, where the work is so narrative.
SH Let’s talk about Chinese scholar’s rocks and other things that are about place or presence. Is that the kind of moment you’re talking about?
JJH Absolutely. I was going to bring up scholar’s rocks when we were talking about Brancusi. They really illustrate what I was talking about with the extravagance of claiming a contemplative object. I was bowled over by this great show at the Met where really humble rocks were on these gorgeous, laboriously carved pedestals.
SH Something about the scholar’s rocks that I love is the subtle manipulation of them. They were always assumed to be wholly made by the forces of nature. But they are a beautiful lie. It’s clear that on some level they were “helped ” to more clearly resemble the landscape, or people and animals.
JJH I didn’t actually know that, but it’s just fine with me; I don’t mind a lie. It’s the opposite that I think is boring; art that depends on veracity. Like when it matters if the artist actually carried out the claim that the work makes.
SH But the scholar’s rocks can make you remember the power and singularity of mountains and the physical world. You don’t look at a tree or a rock and say, “That tree should be browner,” or “That rock needs to be more textured.” You say, “It’s a rock, it is that way.” That’s what I love about Brancusi. He formed every inch of his pieces, but they have an air of inevitability. You get this in Isamu Noguchi too, a very refined and dumb primal combo. Your work has so many decisions in it: what materials, what surface, what is going to support what? But I get that same clarity of “no other choice.”
I watched the Olympic women’s downhill skiing the other day and was thinking about you. It’s amazing to watch somebody maneuver with unbelievable acumen, then suddenly catastrophically fall down, only to get up. It reminded me of your interest in Darryl Strawberry and other figures who represent an arc of trying. So much expectation comes with people of great skill. There’s a burden to deliver excellence and to negotiate that in public and private, and we follow them with interest because they are human beings.
JJH Skill really is amazingly beautiful. The way Strawberry would hit he was such an exciting hitter. And it’s even more beautiful in contrast with the failures. People sometimes talk about my work as about failure, but I always feel that it’s more about victory. More vivid because of the looming threat of collapse.
SH The possibilities of what can happen. There are many ways of coming at your work, and I think this is what makes it successful. What conversations can it belong to that don’t feel like bullshit?
JJH I think my work is available to a sports conversation …
SH Sports and also domestic life. And having lived in Portland for a few years, it strikes me that the Pacific Northwest landscape, its microclimates, its food and wine culture all have a potential link to what you do. It’s a very physical place. Nature is palpable.
JJH I’m sure I was quite overwhelmed by it my first years here. I was always comparing the life to a New York life, because my first few years I was back and forth a lot and trying to decide where to live. It started to feel more and more uncivilized every time I went back to New York. I think I needed the newness, the nature, the physical comforts. I feel more free out here.
SH Without making too much of your family life—you’re married to musician Stephen Malkmus, have kids, pets—it strikes me that activity and acceptance is there in the sculptures. Things in your work evolve, lean, crack, collapse, seem like they could collapse but don’t. They are like bruises, shifts of plan, changes, day-to-day things.
JJH Yeah, there is something just so regular about raising kids—lots of people do it. And my work comes right out of my life, is sort of about regular life, and also about how extravagant it is to take that on. Simone Weil wrote something on that and I pondered it for years. But the truth is, it is also just a way of getting at that weirdness, that newness. It’s like the inner retreat is just a mechanism to ensure the work is really different and real. And so more interesting. I think I found permission to get more personal, more obscure from Zukofsky’s book-length poem A. He allows himself to get so personal that it gets super obscure.
SH I’ve always been interested in work that makes use of things of the world—Kurt Schwitters, George Herms, Hannah Höch, collage and assemblage history. There’s something that happens in work that absorbs histories and repurposed energies.
JJH That makes me think of the Susan Howe line, “Abstraction o abstraction, come warm my icy feet.”
SH That’s lovely.
JJH It’s like abstraction has got to reach out of itself into the world, perform something practical, it’s got to warm your icy feet too.
SH Food, theater, music, and art make us aware and connect us. I curated an exhibition calledWalk Ways, and it included a series of sequential photographs by Martin Kersels. Martin is like a 300 pound, 6’ 7” guy, and in these photos he’s repeatedly tripping on the streets of Los Angeles on purpose, falling down. When you look at them you think, What a horrible moment. Then you realize he’s so in control of his body that he can do this time after time and not get hurt.
JJH I really like artists who use their bodies. Like Adam Putnam: he’s incredibly tall and skinny, and some of his work involves how unusual his body is. He’s done some beautiful performances where he is strapped into a harness and his length fills and describes an unlikely space. It’s like his body is the pencil. Same thing with Martin.
SH Martin is also exploiting your expectation of what his body means, the notion of the oafish, clumsy guy. You look at men like Jackie Gleason, W. C. Fields, or John Goodman, who are unbelievably elegant and have an ability to upend your thoughts about what comes with bigness. Elements of your sculpture do that also. They play with how delicate a big object can be, how vulnerable and graceful. How lumpen and elegant. There’s a pathos to it that comes out of the daily stuff you use, like sweaters and old jeans. You understand the little points of contact between forms and really exploit those moments of possessing and holding, stabilizing and teetering.
JJH Inevitability is what it sounds like again to me. Earlier you said acceptance, which is nice—engaging in the commerce of what is already there, the ideas that are already there, the meaning that is there, and then just magnifying and celebrating it. But inevitable has the possibility of being a little funnier.
Stuart Horodner is the artistic director of the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. He has previously been curator of the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art and director of the Bucknell University Art Gallery. His writing has appeared in publications including BOMB, Surface, Dazed & Confused, Art Issues, Sculpture, Art on Paper, and Art Lies.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.