Portland-based artist Jessica Jackson Hutchins works with paint, ceramics, and furniture to create pieces that are personal, conceptual, and formal. In her paintings and sculptures, Hutchins makes dynamic use of objects we all encounter on a daily basis — bottle caps, couches, chairs, plates, coffee cups — as a means of creating elements or hints of humanity, love, and family. Her work is autobiographical and the references to everyday life apparent, but they are also obscured and mysterious. The art comes first; the formal qualities of the work are far-reaching and wild. As apparent as a tattered old sofa is in a blindingly white gallery is, it somehow disappears and is a sculpture first, a sofa second.
Hutchins pushes the work as far as possible in her current show, I Do Choose, at Marianne Boesky Gallery. Here, she has used furniture to make monotypes, sculptures, and paintings. Found ceramics introduce humor, as she fires and fuses coffee cups and objects she finds in thrift stores with her own ceramics, adding an unknown and or chance element to the work. Throughout her career Hutchins has consistently explored the relationships between people and objects and how they both form and inform each other. Her work tackles the big question of what it means to be human; it’s filled with blood, guts, and love.
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Samuel Jablon: Could you talk to me about your new work, and how you’ve brought the canvas back into your practice?
Jessica Jackson Hutchins: I started working on canvas in Berlin. My first week or so there, I didn’t have a studio yet or know my way around or speak any German, but there was an art supply store right behind my flat, which I could see from the balcony. Pacing around in there, I thought I could use pastels on pre-stretched canvas, that would not be too messy for a rental place, and I could work right away. I started with this soft pastel, which I would break up and rub into the canvas. The works were sort of thematically a continuation of the drawings I had been making before in Portland on paper, with paper pulp and paper coffee cups trimmed down into dots or punctuation marks. I wove the torn-up bed sheets found in the apartment through the canvas to make the line of the question mark. So, that was the beginning anyway, and It took some degree of hanging around with them to finally take them off the stretchers and sling them over furniture or combine them with ceramics, etc.
SJ: In your current show, the contrast of the stretched and sculptural works create this tension in the gallery. Is there a relationship between the two? How do you see them working in the space?
JJH: I have always made wall pieces in addition to sculptures, and the process is similar at times, but not just the same. I might start with a dimension — maybe some stretcher bars and maybe a scrap of fabric I’m interested in, or wood stain to stain the bars. I may stretch fabric over all or part of the stretcher bars, or if that dimension is not doing anything for me, I will add another object, like a chair, to enlarge it. My work is not about making images on a surface; it’s more about playing with each material object and exploring its possibilities for meaning. Because work on the wall is always encountered to some degree as a text to be read, there is a greater distance than there is with a sculpture made with furniture.
This is something I love about paintings, but I resist it by making the works meaty with stuff, or by subverting any possibility of a linear sense. The rawness and immediacy is crucial. I like the back and forth. In this show I was interested in how different bits of the same object or fabric could be found in the objects in the room and in the paintings and sculptures, so there is sort of a cacophony of possibility. I feel, then, like each time a piece of an object was used in a different piece, it suggested its use value within a system of meaning. As if that particular blue dress creates its own peculiar context. They start to have an internal signification. What is really important to me is this sort of meta-signification.
SJ: Could you talk about the prints in your work? Do you use the furniture as a form of monotype?
JJH: I make monotypes from furniture sometimes. I start with an object that has crossed my path and manipulate it until I’ve pulled out every possibility. Sometimes the first step is to make a print of it, then I follow where that leads. I like the translation of something so prosaic, practical, and figurative into a sign of itself.
SJ: There is something powerful in the way you let the work be chair, piano, bowl, etc., that I can’t quite pin down. Could you talk about your interests in art that is connected to life, opposed to art connected to art?
JJH: The art that has moved me, that has really been important to me, is not so much art that is about art or the art market directly — [although] of course all art is about art too. But what is moving to me is art where you can feel the work came out of the person’s life. You can see it, and you can feel it.
It is much more risky as well than making work with an intellectual reason or a series of definable references. Much of this work leaves me cold. So, my only solution for my own work is to get deeper into the life which makes it. This makes the work weirder and more experimental.
SJ: Are using the ottoman or chair as an almost pedestal for your ceramic pieces? There is a tension “In Fountain” (2014) and “Blue-green Landscape” (2014) between the ceramic and furniture that feels different than your older works. What are some new developments in your practice?
JJH: It may be that those works you mention reference landscape or text a bit more than the body, which was more emphatically mimicked in a lot of my previous work. The biggest difference is that all of those pieces have found ceramics fired into them. That changes a lot — it brings in an additional humor. Ceramics can take itself a little too seriously. This undermines that a bit. It is also tricky structurally, as new clay cannot connect with already fired clay and shrinks and cracks against it. The material requirements end up dictating a lot of formal decisions. Subtle but impactful — I think those interruptions of the thrift store cup or plate also make the work read more sequentially. So, there this a kind of narrative intrusion that’s different.
SJ: It is a nice intrusion. Is there a connection to language or literature in your work or process?
JJH: Yes, I think about my work in terms of language a lot. I feel that the way I relate to materials is more like how some poets use words. I think about the pedestal (if the chair is the pedestal), and the gallery space too, as like a preposition or conjunction — setting up the provisional relationship with the rest of the clause.
SJ: That comes across in the way you speak about your work. When did you start working with found ceramics?
JJH: The found ceramics were a big part of all the ceramic sculpture I did last year. I thought about using them in Berlin but waited until I came back to my studio in Portland, to my own kilns and my own dishes. The first piece I made here was “Every man has his tastes”; it included a cafeteria mug and a bowl from my house. This one went to my show at the Aldrich Museum. The found ceramics were a big part of all the ceramic work I did last year — the two pieces I showed on the High Line and most of the sculptures I showed at Johann König last spring.
SJ: I like how you use the thrift store cups or plates to create a a rift in your more organic-like forms. Could you expand a bit on what changes when you insert these found pieces?
JJH: The found ceramics inject humor and break down the orthodoxy of ceramics a little more. They really create an awkwardness which is challenging aesthetically and technically. I do like to have problems to work against sometimes; it upsets the way I think I know things, and clay is so much about the hand and muscle memory. These outside sources break down habits so that I might see something new. Building the work is more technically challenging because of the way the wet clay shrinks and will not naturally meet the fired objects, so there are more cracks and chaos in the pieces as well. The disruption is really pretty extreme.
And then of course chance is a bigger factor too, since I can’t really know how the found pieces will respond to the heat. Sometimes they don’t respond at all, and sometimes they just totally melt. I just took a sculpture out of the kiln where I melted a thrift store ceramic tchotchke on a ceramic table I made, and it melted almost like a decal. I could tell this one was low fire and would melt, but I couldn’t have imagined that it would melt like that. It’s a little problematic because its a cliched “oriental” figure, which I had assumed would become unrecognizable; now it is front and center on the sculpture.
SJ: You talked about using mugs and ceramics from your daily home life. Could you talk about the relationship between your personal items and your sculptures?
JJH: I’ve always made my work from the stuff in the room. When I drank a lot of beer, I used the cardboard packaging and the bottles; now I drink more coffee and have used the coffee cups, clothes, and furniture. It is just a natural occurrence after spending time with the things around me. It is not about memory or a personal connection as much as a recognition of the inherent signifying and aesthetic use value of all the things around me. It is also a relief from the continuity of my own hand and body. A breath. Not every mark is generated from my hand, but that pink fern, the sweater, the additional texture, the plate — it makes it all less serious, and at the same time is an indication of how all these things tell our story.
Jessica Jackson Hutchins: I Do Choose continues at Marianne Boesky (509 W 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 13.
Correction: This post originally stated that Hutchins is based in Berlin, Portland, and NYC. It has been fixed.