Friday, March 19, 2010

I Dig: Jessica Jackson Hutchins

It's time you got to know Jessica Jackson Hutchins. The Portland OR-based mixed media artist (doubly cool as she is also the wife of Stephen Malkmus from Pavement) has TWO significant, complementary solo shows on in NYC galleries that, concurrent w/ her role in this year's Whitney Biennial, give a broader picture of where she is now and where she may be taking her art in the near future.
To see a singular Hutchins piece, esp. if the piece is one of her sculptural forms and not a wall-collage, is slightly akin to running into a thrift-store pileup inside a white-box gallery. Not terribly unfamiliar if you're into Mark Manders and his threadbare office furniture and rusted metal bits but nothing at all like, say Rachel Harrison's broadly ostentatious output, or Shinique Smith's somehow neatly composed, haphazard clothing monoliths. No, Hutchins' pairings of papier-mache or ceramic with furniture tend towards a discreet line, a quietly suffocating loneliness that engages the viewer far deeper in that, despite the generally abstract offerings, the fleeting sensation of a human presence is like totally THERE.
OK here we go: Hutchins uses careworn furniture from either her own home or found stuff, combining that somehow w/ roughly composed ceramic vessels (which occasionally go the abstract route a la early Lucio Fontana, but most of it is recognizably mugs, water pitchers, vases and the like) and/or papier-mache forms (which, in some instances, are cast in the SHAPE of the furniture, for an extra layered effect). She also works in collage that, when exhibited with a sculpture, tends to play off the other stuff in the room. And the deal w/ the ceramic vessels, even the more clearly vase-like forms, is additionally multilayered: you start guessing a high-neck vase to be like a human torso, then you see the ceramics plonked on the couch could be like stand-ins for a figure, or two figures. This human essence pervades her work.
I'd seen Hutchins' work in group shows before but I credit two recent occurrences to really getting her to click w/ me:
1. Hutchins' "Couch For a Long Time" at the Whitney Biennial, a stunning piece — newspaper articles of Pres. Obama glued to Hutchins' childhood sofa, w/ several glazed ceramic pieces (both vessels and, uh, limb-like) plonked on the cushions — that should serve as a great primer for her more challengingly nonfigurative works
2. the Montréal-based artist Valérie Blass, who showed at this year's VOLTA NY through the gallery Parisian Laundry. Blass' seemingly abstract sculptural works all reference the human form to varying degrees, from the simple verticality of one to this disarmingly 'real' slanted swagger of another. I think my time w/ her pieces allowed me to readjust my eyes to seeing deeper into Hutchins' works
So besides the Whitney, two galleries are hosting complementary solo shows: Laurel Gitlen (Small A Projects) on the LES and Derek Eller Gallery in W.Chelsea. Both galleries also featured Hutchins at the Armory Show (Gitlen's gallery had her with Will Rogan, but the space felt like a Hutchins solo show, w/ the derelict waiting-room chairs astrewn w/ ceramics and accompanying large collage). Gitlen's space on the LES is the smaller of the two galleries, a not-spacious room and a smaller back room, but the space works w/ contributing a particular atmosphere to the pieces, which in their loose references to fallen athletes seem to shrink away from you, either cringing towards the walls (the literal "Disgraced Skater", a raspberry-glazed lump not entirely unlike an early Ken Price) or slumped in situ, unattended to (the powerful "Sweater Arms", a like caved-in urn planted on a sweater, the lot resting on a wooden chair w/ its back like blasted out by some prior unseen violence force; and the equally stirring "Chairs", I think my favorite collage of Hutchins' and probably the most forlorn congregate of silkscreened easychairs over a mustard backdrop). Nothing is particularly large here in "Over Come Over", and most objects are placed lowish to the ground, inviting you to peer into the vessels, peruse the sculpture not unlike a voyeur. And you should pay careful attention to "Leaning Figure", an arresting mixed-media conglomerate shaped in roughly chairish form, propped against a bench and the wall, w/ a patch of blue-jean precisely wear a human knee would be located, if a human were in place of the papier-mache, the rest of it a map of newsprint and flesh-toned stains — and then the whole thing becomes way more disquieting, more visceral, like it's the limbless body of a burn victim, reminding that just b/c the essence of a figure may emerge, it doesn't necessarily make that a welcome thing.
Derek Eller's "Kitchen Table Allegory" (dope name!) is blessed w/ space, and Hutchins delivers w/ the standout "Couple", a messily figurative couple from the torso up locked in hopefully amorous (though it could run to violent) embrace on a sagging, discolored couch. Think of Brancusi crossed w/ Rene Magritte's "Personal Values" (ginormous comb, soap, shave brush etc in a sky-wallpapered chamber)...I was going to write 'also combine w/ George Segal's plaster-cast characters' but Hutchins has the edge on this sort of highly-abstract-yet-essence-capturing sculpture that I can't quite compare that to anyone else (Blass marginally). That is one thing so fresh, so invigorating about Hutchins' shows. This newness. The titular piece in the exhibition is a gouged out kitchen table, bequeathed from Hutchins' home and bearing a large, open-ended vase (think a massive, picked over hunk of crusty French bread) in the gaping middle, in place of a table-leaf. This piece has a pleasing lived-in vibe emanating from it. W/o too much imagination, you can infer the bread broken, the stories shared (and the collages/monoprints created!)... "Settee", near the entrance to the gallery, is a bit sexy. Trust me on this. Despite the typically 'well-loved' settee itself, which may not look too sexy to you, take the larger form, bisected in one part by ruffled fuchsia satin, and the smaller form, and pretend its two parents and their kid on the settee, and there's a bit of naughtiness here, but it's implied the kid doesn't realize it — or you could take it a step further, that the larger form is a couple embracing and the kid is zoning out off to the side... Take these and add "Frontal" (the overly descriptive title belies the so-considered simplicity of it: a lump of glaze on a chair-caning seat) and "Orange Bowl", which could be called "Frontal" as it looks quite a bit like a kneeling figure from the ass downward, though pair it w/ the seated shape in "Frontal" maybe... Get the picture? The overall vibe @ Derek Eller is a happier place, replete w/ love-making and togetherness (even the recliner-shaped plaster collage "Recliner" doesn't give off a desolate impression, as its blanketed w/ what looks to be vacation photos). This balances the sombre atmosphere of Hutchins' show on the LES, and they work so nicely together. We need to have both. A just-happy show would be fine but perhaps not as memorable w/o its lonely counterpart. And after taking in the emotion hanging in the pottery and under the layers of paper in Laurel Gitlen's gallery, this homey human presence is a comforting relief.