Arts Writing Artist Features

Interview with Jessica Jackson Hutchins by Amy Bernstein

Jessica Jackson Hutchins in her Studio, Portland, 2010


Interview with Jessica Jackson Hutchins

Amy Bernstein

Originally published by PORT September 24, 2010

Jessica Jackson Hutchins’ work is a mined animal. Its disparate elements are found and forged from the mud of surrounding detritus and soliloquy. Her work culls from a playful existentialism: Kafka telling a rare joke. It is raw and irreverent and does not adhere to trend or pomp but instead concentrates on a vibrant subterranean mythology. Hutchins is the conduit through which these things are born. They are seismic musings of the absurd and profound, informed by both philosophy and what it is to walk down the street. They are totemic fragments of the efforts to describe pain and joy as lived. They are the spiritual mud and love pie made by the freest child, who dips her hair in ink and, with the swank of the mime and the prophet, draws with it. As I walk into her studio, she purposefully presses a turquoise magnetic letter “C” to the surface of one of her piano prints, which will will be shipped to London the following day.

AB:: Could you describe your process?

Couple, 2010, Jessica Jackson Hutchins, image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery

JJH: I usually think about it in the sense that all of my work comes out of previous work. I have such a history of making work that it all refers to itself now and comes out of curiosities left over from the show before or two shows before that I didn’t have time to explore. There are different strains of thought as well, such as the investigation of the figure that is almost always going on, a sort of direct exploration which I am often coming back to. A big part of my process is using whatever is around me. So that is the work itself, but now it’s also my family, or it was beer when I drank a lot of beer. It is the color of that dress lying on the floor, or the way it feels to sit in that chair after a while. Things like that.

AB:: When do these become symbols? In other words, when do the objects around you feel urgent enough that they have to become part of your work?

JJH: I think that the process of making symbols was urgent, really urgent when I first became an artist. I think you need a kind of urgency to actually commit your life to this brutal job. When I was in graduate school, I became really focused about trying to understand why and what I was doing. I feel like I did such a good and thorough job of it then, that I take for granted that I know the why and the what now, and I’ve gradually just gotten freer and more confident. What was seminal was a feeling that I wanted the metaphors to come out of banality; I wanted it to occasionally be a kind of mundane banality and sometimes a more punk urgency. This is what requires me to use the material around me. It is a sort of D.I.Y., a sort of ‘You don’t have to be fancy to see God, Death, and Sex in this chair.’ It’s not that difficult, and it’s funny. The process to me is also funny, and humor is an incredibly important thing for me. I’d go so far as to say that no work can be really moving, really compassionate, really transformative without being funny. But then someone said Rothko, Rothko. Rothko is not very funny. But even someone like Giacometti, those figures slowly disappearing. . . there is humor to be found in that as well.

AB: Do you do a lot of editing?

JJH: Yes, I do, but it is similar to what you saw (referring to the addition of the turquoise C). There is so much that happens in the process. Is that what you mean?

AB: Well, I wonder about your editing process because I feel as if your work has such a raw and direct quality that it doesn’t feel edited, or pared down, yet I know that this quality often comes about from some of the most rigorous editing processes, the miraculous sort of lie of really good editing.

JJH: Yes, I work very hard on these. Like this (gesturing to a piece which consists of two forest green velour armchairs pushed up against one another, facing each other, one of which has a ceramic appendage resting atop its back pillow, faintly reminiscent of a drowsy head), this piece has taken me two years of putting things on, taking things off, cutting into the cushions, flipping them over, a plaster thing, a couple of different ceramics. Sometimes a piece is immediate. Yet the various parts might have been labored over, and then it’s only when they come together that it is a kind of eureka moment. What often happens is that I might make ceramics for a certain piece yet know that they might not end up going on that piece but will become part of a playfulness in the studio.

AB: When do you know when a piece is finished?

JJH: It is often a very different experience from piece to piece. In one instance, I was working on one of my favorite pieces, called Keith and Anita (after Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg), I remember this amazing feeling. I was a pretty young artist then, so it was one of the first times I had experienced this; maybe that is why it sticks out so much in my memory. I couldn’t fucking believe that that thing existed. I loved it so much, I literally had to go run around. That piece was made of six packs, wired together. Sometimes knowing when a piece is finished is that visceral and that knowing, and sometimes I have to ask tons of people and have lots of conversations, worry about it, and take it on and take it off repeatedly, maybe then take a picture of it. When the piece has been pushed as far as it can go, and it doesn’t have any extra fat, I know to stop. I know a piece is finished when something really rings true, and it has everything it needs and nothing more I guess.

AB: Do you feel the need to address history? Attend to it? The artists that have come before you?

The Old Guitarist, Pablo Picasso, 1903

JJH: No, I don’t feel a need. I feel pretty free. I trust the needs; they’re natural. I got my undergraduate degree in art history, and my mother was an African Art historian. I love art history. It is a very cellular part of me, because I grew up with so much art surrounding me. This show has tons of art historical references. This piece is called Blue Guitar, after the Picasso painting, The Old Guitarist, which was in the Art Institute of Chicago where I grew up. So that one is mine (laughing); that is my Picasso. It has always had a big effect on me. And I refer to that (making a gesture of two fingers almost touching in reference to Michelangelo’s The Creation of Man, a printout of which she has adhered to one of the piano prints), which I’ve used since the nineties. It is so moving. I think it’s funny. It’s sexual. It’s God and Man. It’s creation. It’s succinct. That is another thing I require from my work: to be succinct. That is in part where I believe the humor to come from. To talk about God, man, creation, funny, moving, death in a moment that small is amazing, and what makes it so amazing is that it is so succinct. Those are two big art history moments I reference a lot.


AB: Do you feel like these art historical moments assist you in the making more or do you feel an awareness to take history forward at all?

JJH: Well, I don’t feel compelled to take history forward at all, but I do feel like you should use everything you’ve got. Because it’s hard, what you’re trying to say. I enjoy finding more contemporary relationships in the work; I like having kin in it. I don’t worry as much about my originality as much as I prefer making the piece work in the way it needs to. In regards to the piano piece which I love, that I just finished, a dealer was in my studio and told me about Sherry Levine’s body of work in which she uses pianos as pedestals. I feel as if that relationship to another artist’s work gives that piece an added context.

AB: What does it mean to you to put something on a pedestal, either literally or figuratively?

JJH: The pedestal is a very important and fun tool that I use often and very consciously, just like the white box of the gallery. I love the white box. It is part of the pedestal. I have always thought a lot about writing, and I think about the white box of the gallery as a sort of page. The pedestal simply does more emphatic things within that. Lately, I haven’t been using smaller pedestals, because the pedestal-like nature of parts of the pieces now have a dual function. Within the piece the pedestal directs your gaze and marks something as a contemplative object with the imperative: “Contemplate!”. And the precedence is Brancusi, who I think of as being in my D.N.A. When I first looked at those Brancusi pieces, I felt as if his pedestals looked like stacks of prepositions as in: and, but, or, because–a bird! I think about my pedestals similarly, the relationships of the entire piece and its parts.

AB: Absolutely. I also feel as if your pieces are very literary, almost character like. Often I feel as if each piece seems like a description of an event or personality within a much larger story. They do not seem at all like ends unto themselves, almost as if they’re sort of waiting for us to leave so that they can continue on. Do you consider them in this way?


JJH: You know when you talk about them this way, photographs of Louise Bourgeois’ studio and Brancusi’s studio come to mind.

AB: That is interesting because I feel as if your work and her (Bourgeois) work are linked in a way. As if you are both sort of these terrestrial conduits for these strange and vibrant subterranean myths.

Portrait of Brancusi in his studio, Edward Steichen, circa 1922

JJH: I feel like myth is part of the activity that I am engaged in: the mythologizing of the banal, the mythologizing of Daryl Strawberry. I continue trying to work with allegory. I think it’s a fascinating trope; things are stories and not stories and symbols and not symbols and both. I do think about a sort of broader narrative, although I hesitate on the word narrative. There was a time when I was very anti-narrative. I think there can be a sort of danger in being too narrative, but that the work gains a certain meaning and momentum from the work that has come before it, in thinking of it in the sense of trajectory. But I don’t feel as if the work is narrative in regards to the idea of story.

AB: I can’t really imagine this work coming to an end, per se.

JJH: No, I am against the idea of linearity in the work. I want a sort of monosyllabic experience. Sculpture can do that. Even more so than work on the wall, which I feel always operates in some way like a text; you read it. You interpret it. But when there is a chair in the room, you cannot help but really feel it. In that way, the viewer has an all body, monosyllabic experience.

AB: Do you feel as if the geography or place influences your work at all?

JJH: Yes, it must. There are the basic things, such as space and time and having an easier life, and a greater feeling of freedom. I didn’t know Portland on a map when I came out here. I didn’t know where it was. I had a lot of anxiety about that, about being so far away from New York. But I feel very grateful for the distance too. And I didn’t know anything about this place, so everything here is incredibly fresh. My commutes are six minutes. Of course, you can make your life work wherever you are, but at this point, I can’t see myself moving back to that city any time soon. If anything, I see myself moving deeper into the country.

AB: We spoke earlier about your pieces having the aspect of possible character like qualities, do you ever see them as vessels of the self, existential portraits?

JJH: Not directly. It isn’t something I think about when I’m working on them. For example, this piece here is called SM, which are my husband’s initials, yet the piece isn’t a portrait. This is much more about trying to make language physical. It is an incredibly abstract rendering of an S and an M, and it is the physical humor in that that I want to refer to but also the banality of marriage. I know I’m not answering your question, but maybe it’s because I don’t entirely know the answer. They are very intimate kinds of things, and they are very authentic.

AB: I guess it is these particular ingredients: intimacy coupled with the direct aspects of your personal life as well as their direct, raw sort of vigor that give them this portrait-of-life aspect, so to speak; they speak to the banality of living while maintaining this odd character-like, mythic otherness.

JJH: Well when you say portraits of life, I feel as if that is more accurate, because I don’t really see them as portraits of individuals. I feel like I am always trying to get at bigger things, like something on more of an existential plane, not that you can’t do that in a portrait. It just means that I don’t think of them as characters.

AB: When I was looking over your work earlier, I began to think about the sort of crazy obsession our culture has with the ideas of celebrity and how this obsession mangles and alters our visual language. Celebritydom has become a strange priority, and I wonder how it affects contemporary art often. Yet, it doesn’t seem to touch your work at all. How do you maintain this autonomy from something so pervasive?

JJH: This doesn’t affect me much; it’s not what moves me. It is as simple as that really. I liked punk rock. I liked indie rock. I liked Moby Dick and James Joyce. I know all of the words to Taylor Swift because my daughter’s into it. . .But the celebrity phenomenon itself is not the phenomenon that I am involved in. I am really involved in the things I’m involved in, and I have been for years. It just isn’t that. Yet I have seen artists use the ideas of celebrity beautifully. And not like Warhol, who was really talking about celebrity, but in a different way. There is an artist named Chivas Clem, whose show I saw in the early 2000’s, and I remember seeing something in his work that struck me; it was very clear to me. I felt that the use of celebrity culture in his work was like talking about the pain of existence is for me. He was doing the same thing. He was just using that as a vehicle in the way that I use HydroCal.

AB: I recently read the introduction to Convivium which you collaborated on with Thomas Fisher. I thought it was an amazing introduction to your visual work in regards to the sense of candor and intimacy that pervades it, while coincidentally addressing more existential philosophies. In the introduction, you referenced a time in the nineties during which you felt the need to answer to certain philosophies and reconcile the ideas concerning the ethics of expression in order to keep working. I think these ideas are still very relevant issues to be addressed in art making. Could you elaborate a little on them?

JJH: Yes, that was seminal for me, and all of it is very alive. It is cellular, and I understand it. I know the plank that I walk to keep the work ethical, as I read ethical. In part, there was something about narrative that I found unethical. Unethical is so puritanical sounding, so let’s just say less effective. But in effect, it did feel puritanical; it felt very constraining. You can talk about it as more ethical, or you can talk about it as more fun, or more alive, or more useful. There is a certain type of mystery and openness and oddness that really excites and moves me. And there is also a certain kind of over-referencing and explainability which doesn’t move me. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. The things that are too easy to dissect, as in, ‘I have this image, and it’s a diagram of the stars.’ People love that stuff because maybe it’s easier to write about or something, and of course there is value to this too, yet I thought of this type of work as unethical. It didn’t allow the viewer the huge space of their own otherness. I always want to address the ultimate unknowability of everything, and when my work gets really weird, that is what it touches on: that ultimate unknowability. The really weird equals unknowability. That is how I express it.

AB: Did those philosophers provide you with the concept of ultimate unknowability or did they simply provide the impasse created by having to answer to such questions?

JJH: It was more of the impasse I had to work through that they incited for me. Simone Weil would talk about it in a really beautiful way but was incredibly self-effacing. It is easy to read your way into self destruction through that, and I did for a while. Levinas and Blanchot, those guys were really talking about Post Holocaust existence, as in ‘How can you speak?’ So it was pretty rough, and I was living it. It wasn’t just academics for me. In fact, it wasn’t academics at all; it was this personal thing I was living.


AB: How did you reconcile those ideas within the work?

JJH: It was a long, hard crawl. First I had to pull myself together, because I really got dark. And then it was sheer desperation; it was urgency. Then I was led from the urgency, and then the work took me. It was a guttural urgency, and then the work was providing its own way out. As the work lightened up, it was more beautiful and unreadable but a celebration of the life in that. So, it was really through the work.

AB: So this current work is a direct result of that struggle?

JJH: Yes, and the thing is that it also gave me an appreciation for an absurdity; this is in every piece I think. It is in every piece I make. It is sort of like, okay, we’re going to try to talk about the pain of humanity, and isn’t that ridiculous? Because isn’t that impossible? And so that is where the humor and the ccch (guttural sound) comes in and the jeans hanging down (referring to her piece SM) or something. That is part of what that is.

AB: Do you have any advice for artists undertaking certain philosophical dilemmas?

JJH: Mostly, my advice is don’t listen to them. I guess they helped me, but mostly my advice is just to work. Don’t ever let it paralyze you. And then don’t fucking justify your paralysis. You just need to work. You can recognize it and have compassion for it and all of that. But you need to move your body, or your hands, or however you work.

AB: We’ve spoken a little bit about the literary aspects of your work; you describe a ‘monosyllabic experience’ you are after and the ideas of stacked prepositions, and of course your collaboration with the poet Thomas Fisher. How does poetry influence or play into your work?

JJH: I am playing a lot with language right now. I love this strange process of making letters physical; I always get a kick out of that. I am interested in the ambition of hinting at something that is more than what it is. I don’t read much poetry these days, but if you think about Emily Dickinson or someone like that, you don’t have to read much. You can read one poem and think about it for the rest of your life. There is the way that a certain poem acts. There is a total simplicity, and then there is what the words say and how the phrases fit together. Yet then there is this whole sort of body that comes out of that, the More and Other that is created from the experience. And this is what I get from it.

AB: Do you feel as if there exists today an ideological zeitgeist that you belong to?

JJH: No, but I don’t think I would know, being out here. People say ceramics is making a huge comeback, as a backlash against something or other and thus a resurgence of craft. But I have no idea what these people are really talking about; I feel completely alienated by those ideas. I am influenced by art and other artists, and I love this world. I love having peers. When I find out that Sherry Levine also uses pianos as pedestals, this enriches what I do. But I can’t really speak to a zeitgeist. Maybe I’m too old. I hear young artists complain that this or that is going on. And I think, yes, it is all going on, and it all was going on ten years ago and twenty years ago and will happen again in another ten or twenty years. I kind of feel like the art world is huge and varied.

AB: How has the experience of having children influenced your work?

JJH: In a bare bones way, it has made me more efficient. That whole lying on the couch thing and wondering if it’s all worth it is completely out the window. And that I don’t miss, but I do miss having more gaps. I feel like having children has lightened me up. The value of what I do has only been underscored by having kids. If artists ever wonder whether their work is worthwhile, I’ve never wondered. I’ve never wondered whether or not art saves lives, but now it seems more fundamental. And once again, in the pragmatic sense, I work with assistants now, and I’m always trying to learn how to do that better.

AB: Is the idea of risk altered at all, having kids? Not in the sense of ‘Should I take this risk because I have kids?’ but I imagine it to be a more sort of ‘Everything is Fair Game’ electricity.

JJH: It is more like that, because you can’t take risks out there anymore. Which was really upsetting to me, when I first had the baby, as in oh my god, I can’t do dangerous shit anymore. And it isn’t as if I’m a danger seeker, but I wanted to climb mountains, hard mountains, but now, all of that is more fraught. But everything else, concerning my work, is sort of like anything goes.

AB: Do you see the art market as being an influential entity?

JJH: No, not really. It’s nice to make money. But it hasn’t changed my life that much. But no, how could it really? How can you think about this (the work) and that (the market) at the same time? They are really two separate animals.

AB: How does context affect these pieces, if at all?

JJH: I think it does. I spend a lot of time thinking about context. What I talk about in my work is a certain abstract experience, and I think of the white box of the gallery as a framing device. I do not necessarily rely on this device; I love the way these pieces have looked in people’s homes and love the idea of them being lived with. But a lot of the work really profits from pulling it out of the studio, because it grows out of the studio. A lot of the visual decisions become more prominent and accented by the clarity of the gallery space. These decisions become reframed.

AB: Who are the artists and works you think have had the most profound influence on you?

JJH: Brancusi and African art, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Picasso. Raymond Pettibon comes to mind. These are things that made me sing inside. As in, ‘Oh yeah, somebody understands me.’ I just read this article in the New York Times, and I appreciate good food, but I’m not a foodie so to speak. There was this ice cream thing on the cover, an article about all of these crazy ice cream flavors, and this woman was quoted as saying something like, ‘You know when I first tasted Jesus Juice, which is red wine Coca Cola ice cream, I felt like it was the first time somebody really understood me.’ And that was the first time I ever gave that culture any credit. I felt like, I guess it can be like it is in art. People really feel that way. I’ve never felt that way about food, but I have about art. So Charles Ray, Raymond Pettibon, and the way Ed Ruscha uses language is just mind boggling. Right now I am looking at a lot of women artists. Anne Truitt’s work encompassing both her motherhood as well as her ideas is very interesting to me right now as well.

AB:: What gives you hope?

JJH: Oh, lots of things. My kids. Perspective. Victories of the past.

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Amy Bernstein