Hutchins’ Simple Complexity

Couches, paper cups and newspapers are not normally art, but it just those materials that Jessica Jackson Hutchins—the wife of Stephen Malkmus of the band Pavement—transforms in her work. Hutchins’s first solo gallery show in a museum is on display at the Institute of Contemporary Art until March 4 and features some of her work from the past year. The show conveys a feeling of haphazardness, both through Hutchins’s unusual techniques and as a result of their interesting incongruities, and provides the viewer with an engaging variety of textures and tones that defy easy interpretation.

“Symposion,” a sculpture, is literally the focus of the exhibit and sits directly in the middle of a room that holds the other eight pieces. Curator Jenelle Porter’s statement on the wall of the gallery relates “Symposion” to the ancient Greek party—which included food, drink, speeches and, apparently, sex—after which it was named. Indeed there is something about the amorphous grey papier-mâché shapes encircling and resting on the couch that is reminiscent of nudity, but the sculpture has none of the beauty generally associated with figures from antiquity. Instead the whole work is rather grotesque. The papier-mâché pieces, which seem to represent figures, have entirely overwhelmed the sagging, over-saturated turquoise couch; an obese mass of gray protrudes from all sides and precariously drapes over its sides and back. Atop the papier-mâché figures sit three shiny ceramic pots that seem to have melted into the figures just as they have melted into the couch. The piece’s laziness is as engrossing as it is grotesque, as if it were a literal interpretation of a couch potato. With the advertisements on the newspaper in the papier-mâché still discernable, the piece reads as a statement on our own modern culture.

The rest of the show has little in common with the centerpiece. Dispersed around the walls of the gallery are eight of Hutchins’s collaged drawings, also all from this past year. Where “Symposion” projects a grotesque, manipulated slobbishness, these pieces feel more fragile and impulsive and are unified by the recurrence of punctuation marks constructed from papier-mâché, paper cups, and other techniques. The effect is almost humorous. There is something complex or emphatic underlying them, but Hutchins reveals little of what it may be. In one work entitled “Landscape,” located in the left corner on the opposite wall of the gallery entrance, an exclamation mark and quotation marks are torn out of smudged white paper to reveal an abstract blend of earth tones and the blue colors of water. It seems to illustrate the attempt to narrate a beautiful landscape, as opposed to the traditional visual representation of the landscape itself.

In other cases, punctuation marks are used as building blocks of other images. In “Aztec Power Sign,” the first drawing to the right of the entrance, five commas—or apostrophes—are grouped to create what looks like an abstracted take on the cultural emblem after which the piece is titled. Once again, the fact that punctuation from the English language is used in such a representation is at once ironic and puzzling. Another piece directly to the left of the entrance shows what could be a confused smiley face, constructed out of a period—or maybe just a dot—and a semicolon. It is aptly named “And U Being,” as if portraying the amused and confused face of one who has just traversed the entire gallery.

The collages’ material itself is varied and quite striking. Hutchins uses a combination of opaque and more watery, translucent inks, both applied with a great deal of inexactitude, as well as spray paint, which boldly covers vast areas or adds dramatic accents. The punctuation marks are constructed, with the exception of “Landscape,” out of painted-over paper pulp or paper cups. There is something a little repulsive about Hutchins’s usage of paper pulp, but it is texturally quite interesting and creates sickly mountain ranges under the paint. Even the cups add to the overall diversity of texture and juxtaposition of the strong and the fragile.

It’s hard to know what to make of these delicate yet emphatic compositions, yet perhaps the answer lies within one of the works themselves. One piece, simply entitled “Comma,” features a few small torn pieces of newspaper, one of which, though somewhat obscured by a splotch of red paint, clearly reads “Don’t Read too Much.” Likewise, despite the obvious allusions to written work, Hutchins’s pieces are also in themselves structurally complex and intriguing as she boldly experiments with the interplay between a diverse array of textures and media.

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