Over the past six decades, Bill Hutson has exhibited his multifaceted artwork nationally and internationally, but has never shown it in his hometown. Hutson grew up in the strictly segregated city of San Marcos, Texas in the 1930s and ’40s, where art was one of many things that were off limits to non-White citizens. “I was born and raised in an environment where there were no incentives that would lead me to visual [or] fine arts,” Hutson told Hyperallergic in a recent email. “If there was a gallery, museum or visual art venue,” he explained, “I would not have had access to it as non-white people in that town at that time could not have gone to such places without going there to either clean the bathroom, wash the windows or mop the floor.”
The Art of Bill Hutson in San Marcos is a long overdue, city-wide tribute to the artist’s innovative work, and his will to overcome challenges despite great odds. Curated and organized by Margo Handwerker, the Chief Curator and Director of the Texas State Galleries at Texas State University, and Linda Kelsey-Jones, the university’s Community Arts Coordinator, Hutson’s first exhibition in Texas presents more than 60 works across five venues, including The Calaboose African American History Museum, The Price Center, The San Marcos Art Center, Texas State Galleries, and Walkers’ Gallery at the San Marcos Public Library. The exhibition offers viewers a rare chance to survey Hutson’s prolific and varied output. It’s also a frank and sincere gesture towards reconsidering the city’s relationship to its own history with regards to race.
Hutson was born in San Marcos in 1936. His father died when the artist was only five, so he and his siblings took on agricultural and construction jobs in addition to their school work to help out. The young Hutson found visual inspiration nearby. “I was attracted to cartoons as our house, a shotgun house, had wallpaper that was actually newspaper,” Hutson said by email. “In this way all during my childhood I saw cartoons and sometimes I would draw and copy them.” Hutson saw his first painting on the campus of Texas State University, where he helped his mother at her job as a custodial worker. Still, Huston told Hyperallergic, “I was nearly an adult before I became aware of fine art.”
The turn to artmaking came after Hutson had finished high school and served in the US Air Force. He moved to San Francisco in the early 1960s, where he attended an art school and worked as a studio assistant to the artist Frank N. Ashley. In 1963, Hutson moved to New York City, where he joined the vibrant art scenes of SoHo and Midtown Manhattan. Over the next 40 years, the artist lived and exhibited between the US, Europe, and Africa. Hutson now lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where his art and archives are housed in the permanent collection of the Phillips Museum at Franklin & Marshall College.
The cornerstone piece of the city-wide presentation is “Homestead with signs, symbols and numbers” (1979-1990), a roughly seven- by nine-foot canvas at Texas State Galleries. Crucially, Handwerker has included two preparatory sketches for the work, as well as the artist’s model of his childhood home. Each of these elements helps the viewer to decode Hutson’s complex constellation of signs that stand for the racial topography of the San Marcos of his youth, where African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans were prohibited from visiting downtown, using most public facilities, and frequently threatened with violence. In one drawing, for example, we see Hutson exploring themes of ownership, belonging, and space as he writes the names of local indigenous populations who have inhabited the region for centuries. He later references these groups in an abstracted painted teepee.
The work is also technically layered. Hutson’s thick, swirling passages of acrylic paint are carefully bound by sharp, angular edges. His shapes float over a textured green background treated with the artist’s “bind-stain-release-flatten” technique, in which the canvas is condensed, dyed, and then stretched onto a frame. The method appears in several of Hutson’s other pieces, along with sewing, 3D elements, and other interventions that alter the very fabric and structure of the work itself. Here Hutson seems to be challenging painting as a surface and concept. Other works are made up of moveable, modular components that can be configured freely.
Ultimately, the piece embodies what Hutson calls the “tragic paradox of ‘home,” where a point of origin is also a place of, in the artist’s words, “oppression, bondage and insecurity.” This complicated ambivalence makes this homecoming all the more important.